Thursday, 13 December 2018
Local Government Bill 2018: Report and Final Stages
I am going to take a contrary view to most of my colleagues here. To put this in context, we also have a boundary review report in Athlone. We have a very strong community campaign which is very much opposed to the proposed land grab of part of County Roscommon and its proposed incorporation into the province of Leinster and the county of Westmeath. The community was very motivated on this. The difficulty is that the boundary commission report that was completed set a bomb ticking in respect of the recommendation. While it did not recommend that part of County Roscommon be amalgamated into County Westmeath, it did lay down a condition that, if co-operation across the River Shannon and the county boundary was not instituted within a four-year period, the incorporation of Monksland, County Roscommon, into County Westmeath would happen automatically. I cannot accept that. I need to flag to colleagues that this will come into force within the next 23 months because of the way this report was completed. The amendments brought in by the Minister of State on Committee Stage, which it is now proposed to delete, were brought in as a replacement for that ticking time bomb.
Local authority elections will take place within the next 23 months. It is difficult to see progress being made on this. While there always has been a willingness from the local authority members in the Athlone area to have a co-ordinated approach across the River Shannon, that has not been always the case across both local authorities. A person, who is on, for the sake of argument, the Mayo county boundary, has equal influence regarding the development of Athlone as a person who is on the Cavan county boundary. While the councillors locally were prepared to co-operate and work together, that was not always the case. The objective behind the urban area committee was to ensure a structure underpinned that co-operation and it replaced the recommendation on page 49 of the boundary commission report, which has caused much concern locally in Athlone. If that report remains in place, by the deletion of these particular sections, the co-operation that has been built up will be undermined and we will not see the progress that needs to be made.
Many of us here agree on the objective set out in Project Ireland 2040 that Athlone develop as a new emerging city and in that way to provide a counter balance to some of the other growth areas across the country and to give the heartlands region an opportunity to bring employment into the middle of the country which has not been the case to date. However, Athlone cannot develop without co-operation across the county boundary and the regional structures currently in place. A statutory footing is required to ensure such co-operation happens in reality. People would say that co-operation can happen anyway. We have seen in the past that where such co-operation was on a statutory basis that one of those committees ended up breaking up in disarray. While currently there is co-operation, it is on the basis that this would be put on a statutory footing.
I know I am a lone voice on this issue. Discussions have been ongoing. The key political parties are proposing that this would be put forward in separate legislation, but what happens to the recommendations on page 49 of the Athlone boundary report? I was given assurances that sections 46 and 47 of this legislation superseded the recommendations in that report, but if these sections are being removed from this legislation, what is the status of those recommendations? Are we back to a situation where a gun is being put to the heads of the councillors and officials in Roscommon County Council to co-operate or Monksland will be taken away? That should not be the case.
This legislation provides for equality of treatment regarding co-operation across boundaries. If that issue of equality is recognised in law, much progress can be made regarding engagement, but that equality has never been there to date. It has been always the case of one bigger local authority looking over the ditch at the other local authority. The solution put forward by the Minister of State's officials, the previous Government, and the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, was to move the fence a little out and take in part of County Roscommon into County Westmeath. That has been the simple solution up to now. I am vehemently opposed to that, as are the people I represent in County Roscommon and the tens of thousands of people who signed that petition and got the support of every political party in this House at the time. How stands the position of the people who signed those petitions and were given commitments that they would not be shoehorned into County Westmeath because of a lack of equality of treatment regarding engagement. This legislation, these amendments and these sections were to provide that specific protection. They were to ensure that the town of Athlone develops in a co-ordinated manner both in County Westmeath and in County Roscommon. It was not to benefit either local authority or the local community but to benefit the region as a whole. It was to attract people to the greater heartlands region, to bring investment into that region and to at long last provide a counter-balance to the investment which, historically, has taken place only on the edges of our island. I ask the Minister of State to clarify that for colleagues in the House.