Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 7 November 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Reform of Local Government: Discussion
Association of County and City Councils
Councillor Michael O'Brien:
The questions raised by Deputies Landy and Cowen are well thought out. Over a long period of time we have seen an incremental erosion of the role and status of the local elected member. To a large extent this was brought about by the European Union from the period when we were net beneficiaries and a variety of groups were established to operate in parallel with the local government system. It will not be easy to change a mindset and, as Deputy Cowen pointed out, there are implications for staff and career expectations in the reform of any aspect of the delivery of public services, particularly in regard to the development companies. There are currently 51 of these companies but there will be 31 local authorities. It does not necessarily make sense. Heretofore we had 88 planning authorities in a small country and it is sensible that the number is being reduced to 31. We will have 31 local government units in a country with a population of 4.5 million, which brings us roughly into line with other countries. Northern Ireland has a population of 1.8 million and it has 11 councils. Scotland, with a population of 5.2 million, has 32 local governments. What is happening in Ireland reflects a policy we developed several years ago and is bringing us in line with practices of local government that are comparable to neighbouring jurisdictions.
Senator Landy asked how we envisaged the devolution of resources and money to municipal district level. In every county council, the system proposed in the Bill is already there in practice. The local area committees provide the platform from which the central authority - that is, the county council - will distribute funds.
We are not trying to reinvent anything here. It is a simple process, but we tend to make simple processes very complicated in this country. There are two aspects to local government, the first being to provide the basis for democratic participation at local level and thereby feed into our national Parliament. The second element is to assist - that is all we are doing, assisting - in the fair and equal distribution of whatever resources are available. It is a two-pronged process which has been complicated by the inheritance of a British system in which rank and status predominated. We must change the system, and can cite, if we want to, local government in China or Scandinavia or wherever as a model. The bottom line, however, is that we are trying to assist the Government of the day to bring in a system that is beneficial to the people and is transparent and representative. It is incredible that we waited until 2013 to provide a scientific method of aligning the population to seat ratio. The current system was developed 114 years ago on the basis of the number of ratepayers. Now, at last, there will be a scientific way of dealing with it.
I am not sure whether I answered all of the questions.