Renewed calls for return of standalone local council

Local councillors have collectively voiced their support for the return of a standalone Athlone council, a little more than three years after town councils were abolished.

Mayor Aengus O’Rourke (FF ) raised a motion at Monday’s meeting of the Municipal District calling for a deputation to meet with Minster for Local Government, Eoghan Murphy, to put in place a plan for Athlone to have its autonomy restored as a standalone, local authority.

The issue of local autonomy is becoming a hot topic of late. The mayor’s motion comes hot on the heels of a statement from Minister for the Environment, Denis Naughten, who last week said legislation is forthcoming which could see “a new legally established joint structure, composed of equal membership from both Roscommon and Westmeath County Councils, to deal with the development and other interests of both sides of the town of Athlone.”

Minister Naughten said such a structure would allow Athlone to develop as outlined in the National Planning Framework, without the need to shift the Roscommon border westward to bring areas like Monksland into County Westmeath.

At Monday’s meeting, Mayor O’Rourke said Athlone was the biggest loser when the town councils were abolished back in 2014. He said it is “ridiculous” to think that money paid towards parking in Athlone “goes into the melting pot in Mullingar”. He added that in order to make the most of Athlone’s new regional centre of growth status local councillors must be able to plan for the future of the locality themselves.

“Capital projects are not possible without autonomy,” he commented.

Independent councillor Michael O’Brien said it was “a travesty” to lose the town council. He said there are no opportunities for large scale “visionary projects” due to the fact that funding is simply not there for them.

“It is my understanding that when we had town the council in place there was hundreds and thousands available from block grants,” he said. Cllr O’Brien added that Athlone’s new status should lead to a revisiting of the issue of local governance.

Cllr Paul Hogan (SF ) said the current situation is very difficult, due to the fact that seven councillors from Athlone head to Mullingar to “fight for a share of a budget” against 13 councillors from another locality.

He added that his time on the town council was “the best education” he could have hoped for, during a time when local councillors could make decisions on ambitious projects knowing that the funding was available to back them up.

The issue of a return to more localised governance is expected to gather pace at national level in the coming months, with proposals to introduce both borough and town district councils in the pipeline.

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