A welcome rethink on town councils

Local government structure is vital

 

When Fine Gael and Labour negotiated a programme for government in 2011, they agreed to a “fundamental reorganisation of local governance structures”. One such reform was the abolition of all of the country’s 80 town councils. This has meant a huge reduction in the number of councillors – down from 1627 before last year’s local election to 949 – a one third decline in representation. Labour Minister for Public Expenditure, Brendan Howlin has admitted, with hindsight, that the policy change was a mistake, and one that he now regrets and wishes to reverse. His is an honest public acknowledgement of a political misjudgement, and of a readiness to change his mind. Mr Howlin now accepts the need for reform in this area, short of abolition of the town councils. Few politicians ever admit to errors of judgement, great or small - at least while in office.

The municipal district councils that have replaced town councils are larger in size, and they cover both urban and rural areas. As Mr Howlin readily accepted, it was ridiculous that in some instances somebody could be “elected to a democratic position with 80 votes”. A more realistic rebalancing of local representation, which he favours, is certainly better than no local representation, which has followed from the abolition of town councils.

The small financial savings that may have been secured by this local government reform is more than offset by the social losses that have resulted. Small communities are less well represented and local democracy is weakened rather than strengthened by the change. For the abolition of town councils has also meant a loss of their independent revenue-raising powers, and local identity. Ireland is already a highly centralised state, and the further elimination of local representation reinforces that position. “All politics is local” was a maxim much favoured by a former US Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill. It is also a truism. One that on this issue, the Government ignored, but now some within the coalition recognise that was a mistake.