Civil servants were accused of being ‘highly paid, underworked, living in an ivory tower, hatching crazy plans and taking no regard of what people want’ at Monday’s meeting of Galway County Council.
These were the terse words of Councillor Jim Cuddy during a discussion on the possible merger of the two local authorities in Galway. A number of councillors expressed their belief that the plan was a ‘done deal.’ There were mixed views within the chamber about the viability of such a move.
Environment Minister Alan Kelly announced in January that a review of local government in Galway is currently under way. The merger of the city and county councils into a single entity is one possible outcome of the review, while the Minister also alluded to addressing the ‘outdated city boundary’. This could possibly mean bringing areas like Oranmore, Barna, and Moycullen under the scope of the city.
Merging the councils has been mooted on occasion over the years, but never been given any serious consideration given the size of both the county - the second largest in the country - and the city - the third largest in the State.
Speaking at Monday’s meeting, county council CEO Kevin Kelly said the review would be looking at the effect of a merger and if it would make the city stronger and how peripheral areas would fare out. Mr Kelly also said issues such as future population growth and how savings could be gleaned would also be taken into account.
Total opposition to boundary changes
Killimor based councillor Jimmy McClearn said it was very early to be reviewing the local government situation again, so soon after significant changes to local government with the setting up of the municipal districts. Councillor McClearn said nobody could tell, as yet, if the current situation is working or not. However he said he could live with a unified council but was very much against the possible extension of the city boundary. “It would rob us of our rates payers. How far will it go? Where will it end? With every bone in my body, I’d oppose it and as a council we must vigorously oppose it.”
A number of councillors agreed with this view and were extremely concerned about the potential loss of rates income. Athenry’s Peter Feeney was against both a merger and the possible boundary changes. He said a large percentage of rates payers are based in the areas being considered for extension of the city. “There is also the future economic potential of these areas- there are plenty of green field sites in these areas, that will be developed in years to come.”
Connemara representative Séan Ó’Tuairisg said he did not think it would be workable to have such a huge, diverse, area as Connemara within one local authority. He also was not in favour of any boundary change. “Galway city is already benefiting enormously from tourism in Connemara and the islands. A lot of these visitors stay in Galway using hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. Now if we give them the ‘golden egg’, the areas around the city, they would really be laughing.”
A merger a good idea?
Ardrahan councillor Michael Fahy concurred with the view that redrawing of the boundary would be a total disaster. “It is the worst possible scenario. It would lead to poverty for the county.” Councillor Fahy did however think a merger of the two local authorities was a good idea as the two areas could benefit from each other. “People in the rural countryside have come a long way. We would be well able to get our points across.”
Corrundulla based James Charity was also in favour of a merger, he believed an amalgamation would lead to more streamlined services, prevent duplication of services and allow for the re-deployment of staff. “It makes perfect economic sense in my eyes.”
Fellow Independent councillor Sean Canney said he too supported an amalgamation as ‘issues would be dealt with in a more cohesive manner’. He said councillors must be strong enough to stand up for the county.
Many voices against the proposal
Veteran councillor, Carnmore’s Jim Cuddy spoke passionately on the issue calling a merger farcical. “It is the last straw, I have spoken to people in both areas, nobody wants this. If all the representatives on both councils decide they are against the proposal, I think the Department will just go ahead and do what they like anyway. We have enough centralisation as it is, it’s de-centralisation we need. Get people to live and work in their own communities, as opposed to pushing them into cities. Let those in the ivory towers come down and listen to the people on the ground and how they would be affected by these decisions.’’
Moylough’s Michael Connolly, another long standing member of the county council, was also totally against the amalgamation of the two bodies. “How do you reconcile problems in rural areas with those in the city. Nobody seems to want this except the Minister and Department officials. The people of the county will suffer further, our towns are in a bad state as it is. We are not going to be able to argue against the might of a city. We must fight this and keep fighting it.”
Fine Gael councillor Frank Kearney was one of the local representatives who believed the decision on the merger was already made. His biggest fear, if this is the case, is that rural towns and villages across the county will ‘get completely swallowed up’.
Fianna Fáil’s Martina Kinane said a council was not like a corporate body and that larger does not mean better. She outlined her belief in putting people first. “I don’t see how county people will come first here.”
Fellow Fianna Fáil member, Moycullen based Noel Thomas, wondered who it was that actually wanted these changes. “Surely it is the people of Galway who should decide on this and be allowed vote on it.”
A number of councillors spoke about how local authority meetings would become un-workable if there were 57 councillors sitting around a chamber (currently 39 county and 18 city councillors ).
Independent Connemara representative Seosamh Ó Cualáin said it would be impossible to get through the agenda at local authority meetings. “At least we get through our agenda at these meetings, do our city councillors get through their agenda at every meeting? We have a certain level of competency here. We would be drawn down to their level of competency.”
Fine Gael’s Peter Roche said monthly meetings would become ‘a circus’. He believed a merger would water down the work of public representatives.