Is there a point in having councillors anymore?

Mayor of Galway City Hildegard Naughton with elected Councillors and City officials. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Mayor of Galway City Hildegard Naughton with elected Councillors and City officials. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

So Galway is to get 12 new councillors - a new dirty dozen - when the proposals in the Department of the Environment’s new plan, Putting People First, billed as the most significant local authority reform in Ireland since the Victorian era, are passed.

Yet the two major questions that trouble Insider after reading this document are; a ) How is this highly aspirational document to be translated into concrete reality? b ) What role really is there for councillors anymore - why not abolish them along with the 80 town councils throughout the State?

The first question is the somewhat easier one to answer. Putting People First is a plan, it is aspirational, it sets out guidelines, but these will not come into effect until it is turned into legislation and a new Local Government Act.

It is the Government’s intention to make Putting People First concrete in time for the 2014 Local Elections, which gives the coalition slightly more than a year and a half to do this. The main questions then is, can it be done in time? If not, can certain aspects be achieved before the date with others left until later, or must it all be done now so as to present a smooth and complete new Local Government Act?

The plan is certainly dramatic and high in many of its goals. The number of local authorities in the State will be reduced from 114 to 31 and the number of elected councillors is to drop from 1,627 to 950, a reduction of more than 40 per cent.

There is no getting away from the fact that much of this a cost saving measure by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Environment Minister Phil Hogan said the reform programme would yield savings on its full implementation of up to €420 million.

However, there is a case for reform of local government. The Local Government Act of 2001 was a measure driven by the desire to substantially erode councillors powers, by a Fianna Fáil government hell bent on imposing incinerators (remember them? ) across the State. Then, rather quietly, it dawned that there may only be a need for one or two incinerators in Ireland, and the crusading zeal to see one in almost every city vanished. By that stage it was too late, councillors were left impotent and restricted by the now discredited Fianna Fáil administration of Bertie Ahern.

However, from what Insider can see, Putting People First does not so much invest councillors with enhanced or increased powers, as further erode them and place a question over what useful role they can play in local government.

Councillors will no longer be able to overturn the decisions of planning officials (admittedly no bad thing given what has happened in the past in say, Dublin; but what happens if a plan put forward by officials is not in the best interest of the public? This seems to copper-fasten aspects of the 2001 Act ). Furthermore the public will now be able to lobby on issues directly for themselves, such as illegal dumping or drainage problems, on www.fixyourstreet.ie If the new website and Putting People First cuts out the councillors role in raising these issues on behalf on constituents, then is there any need for them? Councillors can argue they are needed to arrange meetings for constituents with city managers and lobby on their behalf, but TDs already do this. So again, is there a need for councillors?

A national Oversight and Audit Commission for Local Government will be established to evaluate the performance and efficiency of councils, but surely this is a key aspect of councillors roles - they are elected by the public to hold officials to account on our behalf. Certainly Catherine Connolly and Pádraig Conneely are effective in this.

Insider must ask who will make up the Oversight and Audit Commission for Local Government? Will there be elected members on it? Will the public have any role in its membership? If they are answerable to Government, does that mean they will also be a tool of Government? How independent will they be? What is their remit?

Where councillors do have a role to create and influence policy and decisions is on the strategic policy committees in council, but with the reform of councils and the creation of the new Municipal Districts, how will these be affected? Will they apply anymore as councillors - in Galway’s case county councillors - will have a dual mandate to sit on the Municipal Districts, which are to look after specific areas, and the local authority?

The creation of the Municipal Districts, to replace the town councils and area reps which Putting People First seeks to abolish, might be the way in which councillors can claw back more power and influence, at least in a modest fashion.

The Municipal Districts will cover an entire county, being based on the main towns and their hinterlands. Although how they operate has yet to be determined, it is likely they will cover the electoral ward areas. As such Galway should have Municipal Districts for Connemara, Loughrea, Tuam, Oranmore, and Ballinasloe. Councillors will be elected simultaneously to the Municipal Districts and the city or county council - a new mini-dual mandate if you will.

Putting People First states that more power will be devolved to local level, with a substantial range of ‘reserved’ functions at Municipal District level. However, as was pointed out in Wednesday’s Irish Times, the plan speaks about the need for “devolution of specific functions from central level” while relaxing “specific central controls on local authorities”.

So the councillors have new roles, which will make them responsible for their local area as well as the entire county - but surely that was their role anyway?

Putting People First also talks about delegating “greater responsibility for certain functions in which local authorities are involved”, such as water services. Yet for months we have been hearing that water services, or at least the collection of water rates, will be carried out by a new State agency, Irish Water.

Insider is not arguing for the abolition of councillors, far from it. They have an important role to play as contacts between the public and officials, and any true reform of local government needs to give them substantial powers. In short, we need a less centralised State.

Insider rather feels that the highly aspirational Putting People First raises as many questions as it answers and much further clarification is needed before we see if it is truly the most significant reform of local government in Ireland since the Victorian era.

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