Thursday, 6 April 2017
Local Government (Amendment) Bill 2017: First Stage
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Local Government Act 1991 to ensure that the county status of a community shall not be altered without the explicit consent of the majority of its electorate.
Local democracy is at the heart of this Local Government (Amendment) Bill 2017. I am seeking cross-party support for what I believe is important legislation. The aim of this legislation is to ensure local communities have the final say in any proposals for a county boundary change that affects them. The Bill places a requirement on the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to hold a plebiscite on any proposal for the redrawing of a county boundary. The change to the local authority boundary can only take place where it is approved by a majority in the affected area.
Many communities across the country have been affected by arbitrary changes to county boundaries. With the stroke of a pen, bureaucrats are changing the identity of a community without its agreement. This is an issue in Monksland in County Roscommon. The Athlone boundary report could lead to an annexation of the Monksland area in the next four years despite promises to the contrary. Over 27,000 people made submissions to the Athlone boundary report. The people of Roscommon shouted "stop". They were, and are, vehemently opposed to losing part of their county to neighbouring Westmeath in terms of cultural identity and sporting ties and for economic reasons, etc.. A number of members of the Save Roscommon group are present in the Visitors Gallery today, including the chairman, Mr. Tony Ward. I acknowledge the tremendous work they have done to date on this campaign and I thank them for being here today.
Unless a number of the stipulations of the boundary report are adhered to, the controversial boundary changes could still go ahead in four years' time. Let nobody be fooled: this matter has been framed in a way that could lead to the annexation of the Monksland area in four years' time. This legislation will copperfasten the position once and for all and only allow county boundary changes to be made through a vote of the people. The deeply held sense of attachment and belonging to a county, be it Roscommon, south Kilkenny, Louth and so on, is threatened by a decision in the Customs House. This Bill is about local democracy. It will ensure that local people have the ultimate say on whether their county status is changed. These decisions directly impact on people's sense of place, which has been shaped for centuries. Forcing communities into something they do not want will only deepen their cynical view of politics and alienate citizens from the decision-making process which affects them. This Bill will empower local communities to make the choice themselves by weighing up local identity and economic needs. Local authority boundary changes cannot be about bureaucratic map making or land grabs by adjacent counties. Communities must be fully engaged in the process and have the final say on matters that impact on them. This Fianna Fáil Bill will help to achieve that and I urge my colleagues throughout the House to support it. I call on those who want to support new politics and to be democratic to support this Bill and allow communities to be involved in the decision making process in situations where this issue arises.