Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Adjournment Debate

Local Government Elections.

3:00 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. The need to hold a boundary review of local electoral areas is clear. A review has not been carried out since 1998, which was based on the 1996 census. The boundaries are, therefore, 11 years out of date. Since then two constituency reviews for European elections and two for the Dáil elections have been carried out.

At a recent conference, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government suggested such a review would be carried out and completed by spring 2008, while the Taoiseach suggested it might be completed by next May or June. However, in reply to a number of parliamentary questions I have tabled in this regard, I have not received a clear written commitment from the Government to carry out such a review. A boundary commission has not been appointed and time is running out. Local elections are not far away and parties need to organise and hold conventions. I would like a written commitment that the commission will be appointed in the next few days rather than a vague statement about consideration being given to its establishment.

Section 22 of the Local Government Act 1994 provides for the Minister to vary the number of councillors on local authorities. The population has increased dramatically in a large number of local authority areas. For example, in my area, Fingal County Council, the ratio of councillors to people is 1:10,000, which compares with 1:1,000 in County Leitrim. The population has also increased considerably in County Wexford and additional seats are needed in Gorey, but perhaps they should not be provided at the expense of New Ross. Will the boundary commission or another body be given authority to vary boundaries?

What terms of reference will be laid down for rural areas? Currently a significant anti-democratic bias favours such areas. For example, Carrigaline has double the population of Bantry in County Cork but Bantry has five seats compared with six in Carrigaline because, when the previous boundaries were drafted, rural areas were favoured over urban areas. It is unjustified that people who live in suburban Cork should have less representation on Cork County Council than those living in rural Cork.

The key issue in Dublin West is the Mulhuddart ward, which comprises half my constituency. The ward has a population of 58,000 and has four council seats. However, its population is more than that of the Howth, Malahide, Portmarnock wards combined, yet they have seven seats. This is an example of rotten boroughs, which is why a boundary review is needed as soon as possible. Clarity is also needed on whether the number of councillors will be increased, the terms of reference of the commission and whether urban votes will be worth less than rural votes.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I am replying on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who is away on Government business. I thank Deputy Varadkar for raising this issue and for the opportunity to brief the House on the issue of review of the local electoral area boundaries in advance of the 2009 local elections, which is a matter of interest to many people.

The last review of local electoral areas was carried out in 1998 based on 1996 census data. The recommendations from the two committees that carried out the review were duly implemented and had effect for the local elections held in 1999 and 2004. Prior to that review, local electoral areas were last reviewed in 1985 based on 1981 census data. Unlike for Dáil and European Parliament constituencies, however, there is no statutory or constitutional requirement to review local electoral areas at particular, or any, intervals. The main legal provisions concerning boundary committees are set out in the Local Government Acts 1991 and 1994. Section 24 of the 1994 Act specifies that the Minister may by order, subject to Part V of the 1991 Act, divide a local authority into local electoral areas. Section 32(2) specifies that, before deciding whether to make an order under section 24 of the 1994 Act in relation to a local electoral boundary, the Minister shall request a boundary committee to prepare a report. The committee shall, if so requested, prepare and furnish to the Minister a report in writing which shall include its recommendations and the Minister shall publish the report and shall have regard to it in deciding whether to make the order.

The question of a review of local electoral areas before the next local elections needs to be considered in the context of the recent census results. As the Deputy correctly points out, significant development has occurred in many suburban areas and county towns in recent years. While the population nationally increased by 8.2% from 2002 to 2006, changes in population were much greater in certain areas. For example, in Fingal County Council an increase of 22.2% in population was recorded, while in neighbouring County Meath the increase was 21.5%. It is clear, therefore, that a comprehensive revision of local electoral areas is needed in some parts of the country.

As the House will be aware, a constituency commission to review Dáil and European constituencies was established in April, upon publication of the census results. The commission presented its report to the Ceann Comhairle on 23 October last. It is desirable that the outcome of this review should be available prior to a review of local electoral areas. This is important because boundary committees should take due account of the desirability, where possible, of aligning local electoral area boundaries with Dáil constituency boundaries.

We are all agreed that local electoral areas need to be reviewed. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is putting in place the detailed arrangements for these reviews and will announce details of his intentions in this regard very shortly.

Speaking as a public representative and not on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, there must be a weighting in respect of rural areas in the drawing up of boundaries and the alignment of seats. In my county, which is not the most rural one in the country, it can take an hour to travel by car from one end of an electoral area to another, vast areas of which are not highly populated, and some of the terrain is mountainous and difficult. Perhaps in some of our more urban centres of population, a local councillor could walk around his or her electoral area in a short time. I accept that it is much more difficult to travel around parts of counties Donegal, Mayo, Kerry or Cork than it is to travel around inland Cavan, but nevertheless it could take an hour to travel from one part of an electoral area to another in my county.

The issue is not as simple as considering the population as the sole factor. In fairness to everybody involved, all the issues of the people who deserve representation, the geography of an area and the time factor in the distance to be covered should be taken into consideration in finalising boundaries.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.10 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 27 November 2007.