Town council abolition a mistake which should be reversed, says Brendan Howlin

‘The one thing I regret most about the last four years was that decision,’ says Howlin

Brendan Howlin, Aodháin Ó Ríordáin, Alex White, Kathleen Lynch, Jed Nash and Jan O’Sullivan at the Labour party conference in Killarney at the weekend. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Brendan Howlin, Aodháin Ó Ríordáin, Alex White, Kathleen Lynch, Jed Nash and Jan O’Sullivan at the Labour party conference in Killarney at the weekend. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

FIACH KELLY

Political Correspondent

The abolition of town councils – a key plank of the Coalition’s political reform programme – was wrong and should be reversed, according to Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin.

Speaking at an event on the fringes of the Labour Party conference in Killarney, Mr Howlin said the decision, which accounted for a huge decrease in the number of councillors, is one of his biggest regrets of the Coalition’s term of office.

While maintaining some reform was needed of the old system, he said Labour should include the restoration of local democracy and town councils in its election manifesto.

The plans, which came into effect following last year’s local elections, were spearheaded by former minister for the environment Phil Hogan, who championed them as the biggest shake-up of local government in the history of the State.

The changes were opposed by councillors themselves, as well as many chamber of commerce groups and others who said it led to a weakening of local democracy.

Mr Hogan’s successor in the Department of the Environment, Labour’s Alan Kelly, also indicated at the party’s weekend conference that he is unhappy with the changes.

Mr Kelly told a policy seminar he is working on measures to rectify the situation but told delegates he could not promise “the world”.

Mr Howlin was challenged on the abolition of town councils at an event on the fringes of the conference, and said he would answer in “a way that will surprise you”.

“If you ask me what is the one thing I regret most about the last four years it was that decision and I personally say I took my eye off the ball. I think it was the wrong thing to do. I think reform was needed. You had a situation where you had somebody getting elected to a democratic position with 80 votes in some instances which is just ludicrous.

“It needed rebalancing but I think fundamentally – for the Labour Party certainly, but for democracy generally – the affinity of the people of my hometown of Wexford has been, is and always will be an urban view and the mayor of Wexford, in the minds of the Wexford people, will always have precedence over the chairman of a county council.

“And I think that’s true in Kilkenny, I think that’s true in Tralee, I think it is true for most urban centres and I think we should set about in our manifesto to undo that.”

The abolition of all 80 town councils, which had been in existence for 115 years, accounted for the massive reduction in councillors after last year’s local elections, down from 1,627 to 949.

They were replaced by new entities, municipal district councils, which are much larger entities, encompassing both urban and rural areas.

There are 137 municipal districts, with the membership and configuration determined at council level. The independent financial revenue-raising powers of town councils were lost and district councils are instead handed down annual financial allocations, irrespective of the amounts of money raised in each district.