Like many Deputies, I am a former member of a local authority, having served on Galway County Council for seven years. As a representative of the Connemara local electoral area, I felt the system worked quite well.
Local government is currently overseen by the Local Government Act 2001, which consolidated previous legislation on local government. The Putting People First document, which was published in October 2012, sets out a well-drafted action plan for effective local government. It represents a culmination of time, energy and effort invested in designing a more effective system of local government. It outlines a range of possible reforms in the following four broad strands:
- reforming structures;
- reforming funding, accountability and governance;
- involving local government in economic development and job creation; and
- maximising the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery.
The Local Government Bill 2013 builds on these strands to introduce the necessary changes to enhance functions, performance and structures of local authorities, with the overarching aim of providing the highest level of public service.
The localism of our politics and national Parliament is the subject about much debate. In many ways, this has detracted from our system of local government. The differing experiences of councillors across the country should be added to this. It is fair to say that councillors in urban areas can get more attention than their rural counterparts, particular in respect of media attention.
The recent RTE documentary focusing on the constituency work of Deputies demonstrated the close interaction between local citizens and the national Parliament. It is interesting to note the range of commentary regarding the hands-on approach that Deputies take to politics. Some commentators have decried the system and argued that the role of Deputies’ should be confined to the national stage. The question arises, however, of how we reconcile the apparently low representation per voter in respect of the number of constituents required to elect an individual to a local authority. The ratio is much lower in many other countries than in Ireland. That is not the public perception.
The disparity is compounded by the uneven spread of town councils across the country. These are historical in nature and reflect a long since changed Ireland. The electoral area of Connemara in which I was elected in 2004 has a voting population of approximately 30,000, yet it has no town councils. There was no town council at all in the Galway West constituency, which stretches from Annaghdown to Athenry and Clarinbridge. Galway city has its own city council.
A further 80 locations have town councils of various sizes and with various powers. Some have revenue raising powers, in that they can set local rates, but day-to-day functions are by and large enacted by their county-based authorities.
Of particular note is the new chief executive role in the new municipal district category. The relationship between county managers and elected council members can often provide media outlets with much material. That county and city managers are appointed by central government and are, in effect, responsible to the Minister are undoubtedly factors. This can disempower the elected public representatives to a certain degree and sometimes create an unhelpful tension and adversarial atmosphere. The Bill contains a number of provisions to address these issues, not least by enhancing the policy making role of councillors. It is appropriate to increase the accountability and obligations of the chief executive and the heads of services to elected councillors.
As the Putting People First document states, municipal districts will be the first level of governance and democratic representation. The independent boundary committee has declared that each municipal district will constitute a single electoral area with a membership of six to ten councillors and that each county will have three to four such districts. Section 21 of the Bill inserts a new section in the Local Government Act 2001, outlining the new functions of councillors at municipal district level, including issues pertaining to property, dwellings, monuments, business, trading, the environment, litter, roads, parking, local improvement works and a fund for community works.
I referred to my position as a councillor in the Connemara electoral area. That system worked well and is the model for the roll-out of municipal areas to the rest of the country. A municipal area is a confined area, as we were at the time, with seven councillors – increasing to nine – who elect a chairman and run the affairs of that area as best they can. The councillors with whom I worked and who are still there have been able to perform these functions well. I am sure they will continue to do so. I am delighted that this local area model of governance is being enhanced and extended via municipal districts, as the people are the ultimate beneficiaries of such an approach.
The re-alignment of the community sector has raised some concerns, although those have settled down somewhat. Connemara has bodies such as FORUM in Letterfrack that provide valuable services for their local communities. These communities believe that any re-alignment or provision of power to local authorities will disempower them because they are more than one hour away from County Buildings in Galway city. This is a genuine concern, as those bodies provide a good service and people are able to approach them and their workers on the ground with proposals for job creation and various other initiatives. It is important that this bottom-up approach continue. The Minister has advocated that it will not change.
I wish to address an issue that has arisen and that will be a focus in terms of councillors’ increased powers. Deputy Heydon also mentioned it. It is difficult to believe that there are seven fire stations in east Galway whereas there is only one in Clifden, Connemara. South Connemara’s large population has no fire service. This issue was raised in the council chamber last week, when all councillors were in agreement on the need for such a service. I can see from the Minister’s gestures that he is fully in support of this proposal. Local councillors must debate this issue. Within the constraints on the country and their local electorates, councillors must make difficult decisions on what to do with the property tax so as to ensure that necessary and deserved services like a fire station in south Connemara are provided.
I commend the Minister on this reforming Bill. I am sure the roll-out of the municipal districts will work well.