Tuesday, 27 June 2017
Local Government (Establishment of Town Councils Commission) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. It is a privilege to speak on Second Stage of our town council Bill. On the plinth today, I spoke about the fact that our Constitution had been given quite an airing in the Chamber over the past week, from the misquoting of Article 13 last week to Article 35, pertaining to the Judiciary, and Article 33 on the Comptroller and Auditor General in terms of his role in the investigation into Templemore and our work at the Committee of Public Accounts. However, another article is rarely quoted, namely, Article 28A on local government. It shows the importance of local government in terms of the delivery of services and the essence of what makes our communities, towns and estates the vibrant places to live and rear our families in and where we enjoy the fabric of our unique society. However, this article gets overlooked any time that a Government meddles in the structures of local government under the much abused word "reform".
I am unashamedly an advocate of local government, having first been elected as a 21 year old to Navan Town Council in 1999 and, subsequently, to Meath County Council and having served 17 years in the local government structure before entering Dáil Éireann.
What happened in 2013 through the previous local government Act in the name of "reform" under the now European Commissioner, Mr. Phil Hogan, was butchery, plain and simple. It was butchery of democracy and the worst attack on our systems in 100 years. At a European level, the lack of resources allocated and attention paid to local government that manifested most acutely in Fine Gael's "Putting People First" policy document, which later came into the legislative realm, was heavily criticised in a 2013 report of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe.
The abolition of town councils has masked the fact that there is a much deeper funding crisis in local government, given that no increase in the general purpose grant was subsequently allocated to counties. That was a good sleight of hand. The money was kept back and Members across the way thought that no one would notice if the traditional block grants allocated to county towns were not added to counties' overall figures the following year. The counties were impoverished even further. On top of that, there was the same sleight of hand with the allocation of roads funding. Since the money that traditionally had gone to town councils was not added to the county totals the year after abolition, many counties found themselves down hundreds of thousands of euro. As the Minister of State, Deputy English, knows, our county of Meath was down €1 million in 2015. Some thought that people would not notice, but they did notice because the councils were broke to begin with, and this only reduced their ability to offer services to people further.
Apart from anything else, the wiping away of those 80 town councils, which had served their communities well over the course of 115 years, with the stroke of a pen showed how former Minister Phil Hogan and the Government of the time did not understand how local communities worked and interacted with local councils. There is no need for slagging people off in the Chamber because there is a broad acceptance. In particular, Deputy Howlin noted in 2015 that abolition was the worst mistake of his time in the previous Government and that what had been done was wrong. Through this Bill, we in Fianna Fáil seek to reverse that wrong and re-establish the town council structure as a form of government in Ireland, with the purpose of growing urban centres and giving our large towns, where tens of thousands of people live, a proper mechanism for the delivery of services that they deserve. That is the motivation.
Why should something that was abolished be brought back is a question that is being rightly asked of us. The answer is that there is now a gaping void in how the needs of people in large towns are met. Neither public representatives nor dedicated sets of officials are in place to give vision and purpose to the towns in the years ahead. Engineers are spread over multiple municipal districts the size of Dáil constituencies. People who are calling out for proper services, be those in terms of roads, water or sewerage, cannot get answers because engineers are dealing with a number of electoral areas. There are no dedicated and ring-fenced town council budgets, which would have been in the realm of tens of millions of euro in the case of many large towns and boroughs, and no dedicated statutory town development plans, which can provide people with a vision of how their towns will grow. When it comes to money, there is no ability to retain the local property tax, which is raised in the main from the pockets of people living in large towns and spread over wide areas instead of being retained within the areas from which it is raised. If statutory councils were in place, they would be able to retain such funds on behalf of those who paid the money.
Businesses know only too well the fallout from the abolition of town councils. Walk down any main street and talk to a shopkeeper. The commercial rates of small and large businesses in every town suddenly rose because almost every town commercial rate had been lower than the county rate. We are now in a period of equalisation. Due to the abolition of town councils, town businesses - they are the main employers in counties and keep vibrant town centres alive against tall odds - have suddenly had an additional charge put on them. That will continue over the next decade as part of the equalisation of rates. The business people who are keeping Ireland outside of Dublin city alive know only too well what abolishing town councils meant for them.
I am committed to seeing good local governance in place because I believe that councils deliver on the ground the services that people require. At today's press conference on the plinth, I was asked whether town councils had been anything more than talking shops. In the case of my town council, which I spent many years proudly serving on, if the delivery of a €13 million theatre, new swimming pool, gymnasium, 68-acre park, enterprise zone and enhanced town centre was the result of a talking shop, it was a bloody good one. That multimillion euro investment was achieved in the space of a decade during which I was privileged to serve as mayor of Navan on two occasions-----
-----and at a time when the town council was recording annual surplus returns when, in stark contrast, our county council was mired in debt.
I take immense pride in walking down the streets of my hometown with my three young children, knowing that the town in which they are growing up, and indeed in which the Minister of State, Deputy English's children are growing up, is a much better town in terms of facilities for them than the one in which I grew up. That is, and must be, the litmus test as to whether a form of government is successful - have we improved the lives of the people we serve? If we can say that we have made tangible differences, then it has been a success.
Considering the example which I have given, and which can be replicated in so many towns across Ireland - I have colleagues here from Sligo, Naas, Cavan and Kilkenny - one wonders about the motivation to abolish them in the first instance. Over the next 20 years, our towns will grow larger and the need to have dedicated budgets, development plans and representation for them will be all the more critical so that the facilities which are lacking in so many areas, and which get covered as commuter stories in the newspaper and on television, actually get delivered.
We want to see the town council system back in a strengthened fashion. There is no reason that we cannot have the strong local government seen in places like France, Italy and Scandinavia. People have said to me that we are over represented in this country. They should look at the statistics. We are not. In France, the ratio of public representatives to people is 1:118. In Denmark, which is a similar size to this country, it is 1:1,100. In Ireland, it is 1:2,800. It is the highest ratio in the EU. The UK is just behind us at 1:2,600.
Any public representative worth his or her salt will know from speaking to the people living in the large housing estates of more than 300 houses - both those currently there and those that will be built in the future - that we need to have the proper support and infrastructure for them, from the very basic items to bigger things such as swimming pools and playing pitches. If a large town is part of a much wider and larger municipal district, its ability to acquire that funding is considerably diminished. In some cases there are municipal districts which are the size of Dáil constituencies. The Kells electoral area in Meath is a fine example. It is not feasible for our local public representatives to offer proper representation. We do not want to see the large towns, in which people are living, starved of funding in a system that is already starved of funding and which was under-resourced in the first place.
This Bill is the first step in putting a town council system back in place which will be fit for purpose, so that the people living in the urban centres of this country, whether it be Kilkenny, Drogheda, Athlone or Navan, will get the special focus that can only be delivered through the reintroduction of our town councils. I hope that the Government, and indeed all parties in the House, will support the Bill and seek not to obstruct, but to actually help people in the urban Ireland which the Government is creating through the national planning framework. Let use make sure that these towns we are building have resources and supports that are fit for the purpose of helping our people.
I commend my colleague, Deputy Cassells, on introducing this Bill to the House. He has been leading the charge on this for the past 12 months. As a proud Navan man, former member of Navan Town Council and former mayor of Navan, I know that this gap at the heart of local democracy is very dear to his heart, and indeed to the heart of all of us, on this side of the House at least.
The abolition of 744 councillors and 84 town councils in essence cast aside, at the stroke of a pen, millenia of democracy. It happened without a referendum because of course there is no reference to local government in the Constitution. Perhaps there should be. There was no public consultation of any kind. It was a system which went back to the first city and town charters and, indeed, to Irish Brehon law which had the concept of a taoiseach to represent local districts. It is a precept that has been recognised for millenia.
In European treaties, we hear about subsidiarity, where decisions are made by those closest to those who will be affected. As the great Irish-American politician Tip O'Neill put it, "all politics is local". Unfortunately, the move by the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan, was more Tammany Hall than House of Representatives. It was a populist move by the last Administration that somehow suggested that fewer politicians would mean better government. It fed into a "plague on all your houses" mentality - a form of anti-establishment mood fuelled by the establishment itself. It was a cynical exercise from the same stable that attempted a power grab in the Seanad and is now involved in an assault upon the Judiciary, to which we will return tomorrow.
As a former mayor of Naas, and as a representative of an area that once had a town council, I have seen the effect at first hand. Few will advocate, in the media or elsewhere, for the retention or advancement of politicians. I will cite one notable example, the late Councillor Willie Callaghan, who was also a former mayor of Naas and the president of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland at the time, bravely led the charge but he was ignored. His concerns fell on deaf ears, as did those of everyone else at the time. Politicians made for an easy target. Some were delighted with their abolition, but when the services also disappear, who laments that loss? Residents associations began to notice when the grant is no longer paid out, when the grass is no longer cut and when the Christmas lights fund is no longer in existence. These small local services, which were provided by a small dedicated body, draw focus to the gap that now exists. It was provided at very little cost. The councillors took a very modest stipend and any staff who were redirected were merely moved into the parent bodies.
As towns like Naas, Navan, Sligo and elsewhere now grapple with the multiple challenges of reducing footfall, lack of amenities and challenging retail environments and with the problems of congestion, urban sprawl, dereliction and unco-ordinated planning, who can argue that a town-specific body, with only that mandate, could be anything but positive? Rather than better democracy we have seen a further centralisation. Agencies such at the National Transport Authority now direct county councils on road projects. Ministerial directives have become commonplace in local area plans. In fact, the correction in that regard has been to the extreme on the other side.
In north Kildare, towns like Naas, Leixlip and Newbridge all had town councils, however the towns of Celbridge and Maynooth did not, despite having a population of almost 30,000 between them. There were certainly anomalies in the system, but the large municipal districts which replaced them are certainly also imperfect. Very large administrative areas, which are more than an hour's drive from one end to the other and lack cohesion or internal leaders are illogical units which poorly serve the towns that are represented.
At a time when politicians are rightly often decried for being aloof, cutting them off from the people they represent, and taking an axe to the lowest fundamental layer of local government seems to be nothing less than democratic sabotage. I ask the Government to consider this Bill seriously and earnestly. The Labour Party, which was a substantial part of the last Government, has seen the error of its ways. Indeed, Deputy Howlin has put on the record that it was one of that Administration's regrets. There is an opportunity to restore it and to right that wrong. I ask the Government to take that on board.
I wish to support the Bill and reflect on the decision made by the then Minister, Phil Hogan, which stunned everyone in Kilkenny because he had come from local government. He had been a member of the county council and was aware of the importance of Kilkenny Corporation. That was not just a decision for the Minister at that time, rather it was a path that had been well laid out by others before him and by the bureaucrats within the Department who were attempting to reduce the number of public representatives and the number of councils.
It was also a strike against history. Kilkenny city is steeped in its history. It has a city statute. The legislation was later changed to describe Kilkenny as a city for ceremonial purposes only. That took from people the pride that they had in their history and in their local corporation. It took away a voice on their behalf which dealt directly with their problems. Alongside that, the corporation's replacement halved the city and put extensive parts of rural Kilkenny in with each of those halves. It is now an area which is impossible to administer, which has very little in terms of budget.
It is now time to restore Kilkenny Corporation or Kilkenny Borough Council in whatever guise is necessary, provided that the power goes with it. County councils and their powers have been diluted considerably and the county manager or the CEO is now all-powerful. I suggest that what is needed is a tilt in the balance in favour of the public representatives, who represent the people who elected them, and to take power away from unelected officials. The time has come for this and I believe the public have an appetite for this type of change.
It is no good to change it without giving power with the change - the power to raise money, to strike a rate and to change the direction of a city or a municipal area. Above all they must have the power to elect their mayor. There must be a proper place within that democratic structure for the mayor of a city or council. That is hugely important. What was done in the past simply muddied the waters around who had the power and who spoke to the power. It was just taken away without any consideration. France was mentioned as an example. In France, the power goes with the position.
I commend my colleague, Deputy Cassells, on introducing this legislation. In 2013, difficult as things were throughout the country, the move of the then Minister, Phil Hogan, came as a surprise to me. We can understand why sometimes in politics we might play the ball. We can even understand at times that we might play the man, but why the then Minister had to dig up the pitch as well is beyond me and certainly undermined democracy in our country. We often complain about the ivory tower where up to this Administration these Houses were subservient to the Cabinet of the day. This was only exacerbated by the actions of Phil Hogan in removing the democratic mandate of communities throughout the country.
We did indeed save money - a whole €15 million - but how much did that cost in terms of the value to communities throughout the country? While I know proposals from our party and others have suggested we might have a threshold of urban centres with populations of 7,000 or even 10,000, I would ask that if this commission is set up, it should consider going even lower than that. We can see the value to communities like those in south County Donegal where there were town councils in Ballyshannon and Bundoran. In other counties and other towns throughout the country, there was value for relatively low costs to those communities in ensuring their community had a sense of ownership of the policy platform being pursued by the town council, the county council and passing on to us here as Members of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. It is imperative that the Government embraces this and sets up the commission. Within a year we will have tangible proposals to enhance democracy throughout the country.
This evening, once again, we have allowed an independent commission to decimate counties throughout the country in redrawing constituencies. I was from the almost multinational constituency of Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan and Donegal. While I am pleased we have reunited Cavan, we have decimated Roscommon by putting part of north County Roscommon in with Sligo, Leitrim and south Donegal. While I know it is a matter for another day, we need a constitutional referendum to rebalance our approach to having a representative democracy in this country. It is not just town councils, which this Bill addresses, but if we continue as we are, long after we are all gone there will be 120 Deputies on the eastern seaboard and nobody anywhere else in Ireland. We must come up with a formula that respects county boundaries. I challenge the Minister and the Minister of State to begin that process.
I commend the Bill to the House and hope the Government sees the merit of repairing the pitch that Phil Hogan dug up unnecessarily in 2013.
I hope I did not put him off his stride. It is not a small thing to produce legislation, on which I congratulate the Deputy.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss important issues relating to the local government system, to hear the views of Deputies, and to share with the House some initial thoughts on the future of local government in Ireland.
The Government's Action Programme for Effective Local Government - Putting People First, which was the platform for the wide-ranging reform programme implemented in 2014, set out an ambitious vision for local government to be "the main vehicle of governance and public service at local level - leading economic, social and community development, delivering efficient and good value services, and representing citizens and local communities effectively and accountably".
I intend to further that objective, building on the significant improvements that have been made in recent years. The next stage in that process will be a report to Government and the Oireachtas under the Programme for a Partnership Government on potential measures to boost local government leadership and accountability, and to ensure that local government structures and responsibilities strengthen local democracy. The programme signals this process as the next wave of local government reform and also indicates specific issues to be considered, including reducing the size of local electoral areas and the question of town and borough councils. I will receive this report in July and I will be able to consider it in detail and bring it to the Oireachtas in September.
To achieve the vision set out in the 2012 policy document, the structural framework must be fit for purpose. Accordingly, a core element of the reform programme was structural reorganisation, involving the unification of certain city and county councils, and replacing 80 former town councils by municipal districts integrated with the county councils in a new, innovative system of governance.
Outdated boundaries and other anomalies have been removed. I believe the new system provides more effective and community-focused decision-making and implementation. There is full integration of local authority resources across each county, and elimination of duplication both in administrative and electoral terms.
The new municipal district system is also closer to the European norm, which Deputy Cassells referenced, covering the entire territory of each county, in contrast with the previous unbalanced arrangement of isolated town councils, while rural areas, many town environs and some larger centres lacked municipal status and local governance. A 2013 Council of Europe report, which was referenced by Deputy Cassells in his Second Stage speech, specifically welcomed the decision to replace the town council system by the new municipal district arrangement, particularly because it ended the dual franchise in towns which the Council of Europe report described as unfair.
An important benefit of the new system is a more appropriate assignment of local authority functions. Local matters are dealt with at municipal district level, while those of wider strategic application are decided at county level, without duplication between county and district jurisdictions. In effect, there is now a dual system of governance but an integrated administrative structure in each county which maximises operational efficiency while ensuring devolved decision-making throughout the county.
The Bill has technical flaws, particularly the fact that it is linked to repealed provisions of the Local Government Act 2001. Substantial redrafting would be required if it were to progress. However, there are more fundamental issues in principle with the Bill, as follows. The Bill would pre-empt consideration by Government and the Oireachtas of the report on local government matters to be submitted under the programme for Government. As I mentioned, that report will come to me next month and to the Government and the Oireachtas in the autumn.
In so far as there are shortcomings and scope for improvement in current local government arrangements, these matters can, and will, be addressed without resorting to the re-establishment of a multiplicity of town councils. Unfortunately and ironically, the commission proposed in the Bill would probably impede improvements such as the review of local electoral areas which needs to proceed this year to be ready for the 2019 local elections. I do not want anything to delay this important work.
The most fundamental problem, however, is that the ultimate purpose of re-establishing town councils is basically lacking in justification and, notwithstanding the good intentions of its sponsor, is ill-advised on a number of grounds. First, the arguments that have been made for restoring town councils, such as lack of investment by local authorities in towns, are not generally supported by facts.
Moreover, there is little evidence of general support for reverting to the town council system among councillors. The Association of Irish Local Government, which represents councillors, has expressed the view that a legislative measure would be premature in advance of any review of the efficacy of the 2014 reforms. While proposing that the funding requirements of municipal districts containing towns experiencing growth pressures be examined in the interim, the AILG view is that it would seem sensible that any structural review should await the completion of the current electoral cycle so that the 2014 reforms could be assessed fairly.
Reversion to a town council model would not be compatible with the new system of local governance introduced in 2014. As a result, the significant benefits which the new municipal district system has brought about would be reversed and the opportunity for the new system to develop and improve would be lost. An operational review of the new structures was completed in 2016, informed by surveys of both elected members and the local authority executive. This provides a strong evidence base for policy development.
The survey responses indicated a strong consensus that the new municipal district system has resulted in significant improvement on the previous system, with capacity to deliver further benefits as it matures and fully settles over a complete council cycle, and that radical change should not be pursued before the new arrangements have been allowed time to bed down fully.
I do not suggest that the current arrangements are perfect. Some shortcomings, particularly related to the excessive size of many electoral areas, were identified in the recent surveys, and potential improvements suggested. These matters will be addressed in the forthcoming report. Work on the report is well advanced and it is expected to be submitted to me by the end of July, with a view to submission to Government and a full debate in the Oireachtas in the autumn.
The question of town councils and the related issue of local electoral areas have been given particular priority because they are central to the reforms introduced in 2014. The implications of various approaches have been rigorously considered along with potential measures to reinforce the effectiveness of the 2014 reforms in light of the operational review.
The most fundamental question to be considered is what shortcomings exist in the current arrangements and to what extent they are likely to be addressed by re-establishing town councils or by some alternative approach. On the basis of detailed consideration to date, but without pre-empting decisions on the forthcoming report, it is evident that the most appropriate approach would be to retain the current municipal district system but strengthen it with measures to enhance the role and status of the municipal district members, and reconfigure the local electoral areas to reduce excessively large areas and designate more distinct urban electoral areas.
The powers and functions of municipal district members can be enhanced in a number of respects, with particular emphasis on strengthening their financial role and their capacity to promote the economic and social development of towns. Other measures can be implemented to improve the operation of the system generally, including ensuring that the new arrangements are being operated fully in all areas, for example, the range of functions performed at municipal district level.
Important features of the current system which have proved to be clearly beneficial should be retained, notably, a single, integrated county-wide executive, operational structure and resources; a unified representational and electoral system, with all county level members being members also at district level; a single statutory authority for each county, embracing the county and its component districts within one corporate legal entity, with appropriate roles for the elected members at district and county levels, respectively, and sub-county governance arrangements for all areas of the county, rural and urban, unlike the former unbalanced town council system. The retention of integrated governance arrangements, particularly with more distinctly town-based electoral areas, will also support objectives in the context of the national planning framework.
In summary, there were compelling reasons for replacing town councils, which still apply. There is limited demand for reversion to the pre-2014 system. The new arrangements are generally working very well and are expected to produce further benefits, albeit with scope for improvement in some aspects, which will be addressed in the forthcoming report to Government under A Programme for a Partnership Government.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to Deputy Cassells for his commitment to local government and local government reform. I will take note of his input and that of other Deputies as we progress the report under the programme for Government. I look forward to future engagement with the House in that regard. However it would not be appropriate to pre-empt consideration by Government and Oireachtas of all the local government matters which will be dealt with in the forthcoming report. If, following consideration by Government, a commission on local government matters, as proposed in Deputy Cassells' Bill, is warranted, that could, of course, be pursued, but it should not delay changes that are clearly desirable such as the reconfiguration of local electoral areas. Accordingly, in the event of the Bill passing Second Stage I would intend bringing forward appropriate amendments, but I do believe it would be premature at this point to progress the Bill further until such time as we in the House can examine the outcome of the current review, which I hope we can do in September.
There is a growing realisation that the passing of the Local Government Reform Act 2014 was an unmitigated disaster for local government and accountability. The Act wasted a valuable opportunity to effect real change. It did bring about change, but that change was a negative one. Towns have been left behind, abandoned and neglected since their councils, whether they were town or borough councils, were abolished.
My home town of Drogheda is the largest town in Ireland. The Fine Gael and Labour parties stripped Drogheda of its borough council status. They stripped Drogheda of its town clerk. They stripped Drogheda of all local authority departments bar one. They stripped Drogheda of any resemblance of local power that it had. That damage has been replicated in 80 towns across the State.
Municipal districts and their meetings are now a toothless tiger. They do not even have a budget. The Government handed over power to unelected officials, who in some cases have shown no enthusiasm, vision, foresight, forward planning or even interest. They have even told elected representatives that they - the unelected officials - would decide what happens, if it happens, what will be done locally and what will not be done. The Fine Gael and Labour parties presided over that and defended the decimation and abolition of 80 town and borough councils right across the State.
One could ask what it was all for. The Department claimed in a statement prior to the introduction of the Local Government Reform Act 2014 that savings of €15 million to €20 million per year would be achieved through the abolition of town councils. I requested information in a parliamentary question on the annual savings achieved each year since the introduction of the Act in 2014. I sought the relevant, quantified data relating to those savings, in tabular form, but the Department refused to give them. Not only has the Government stripped town and borough councils of any resemblance of power and local democracy they might have had, but it also refuses to publish the savings it claimed would be made. The Fine Gael and Labour parties have made a complete hames of local government structures and they are directly responsible for that.
This Bill could easily allow for a wider range of topics for review by the proposed commission. For example, it could carry out a thorough review of the powers afforded to local authorities and their funding streams, and the obvious need to enhance and increase them both. Rather than merely assessing the need for town councils, it is important that a wider view is taken to ensure that local government structures are fit for purpose across the State. Currently, they are not and both the Fine Gael and Labour parties have brought that about.
It would be worth providing for gender balance in the Bill when choosing members of the commission. It goes without saying that we need to ensure the appointees would be suitably qualified. The thrust of the Bill is correct; we should establish this commission. I hope that when, or if, the Bill reaches Committee Stage we could table amendments such as the ones I have outlined.
The abolition of our town and borough councils in 2014, following the enactment of the Local Government Reform Act, was a sad day for democracy in Ireland. A total of 80 town and borough councils were abolished and 95 municipal districts were established. In my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, we lost eight town councils. When one considers that each of those had nine elected members, that amounted to a loss of 72 very committed public representatives of all parties and none. There were three such councils in County Cavan, namely, Cavan town, Belturbet and Cootehill and five councils in County Monaghan, namely, Monaghan town, Clones, Castleblaney, Carrickmacross and Ballybay.
The impact of abolition has been unprecedented. I do not believe there is another such example in the history of local government that has had a parallel impact. A partial vacuum has been created and our local communities have suffered. That is at the kernel of the consideration we have given to the proposition here before us this evening. It is a fact that local communities have suffered as a consequence. In my own personal capacity as an elected public representative, I have noticed a huge difference in the range of issues being referred to me due to the decrease in local representation. While my primary function as a Teachta Dála, and that of each of us here in this Chamber, is to legislate, I have noticed – it is apparent to every one of us - that since the abolition of local town councils more and more cases are being referred to us that would otherwise have been effectively dealt with by our town council colleagues. I acknowledge that we all do our level best to represent our constituents on whatever issue they raise, but our constituents and communities deserve more. They deserve access to locally domiciled voices who can, in turn, access local authority officials and services, and on every day of the week. Our communities deserve strong local government. As the saying goes, all politics is local, and for that reason we will support the Bill, which seeks to create a local government commission to carry out a review and make recommendations relating to the establishment and boundaries of a town council system and to provide for related matters.
Sinn Féin would have liked this proposition to go further because we recognise local government as we have known it is in need of real reform. That is accepted. We have always been vocal in that regard. We support strong city, county and local district councils with devolved powers that are democratic, accountable and deliver local services in an efficient, cost effective way. I recommend the Bill to the House and I hope it will not divide on it.
I want to make a brief comment on the publication this evening of the Constituency Commission report on Dáil constituency boundaries. As a Cavan-Monaghan elected representative in the constituency, and having coined the phrase "Reunite Cavan" after a significant part of west Cavan was taken from us and adjoined to Sligo-Leitrim, I welcome the reunification of Cavan and the restoration of Cavan-Monaghan as a five seat constituency. With regard to the argument I made in my own presentation, and the petition that I and other colleagues of all political hues across Cavan-Monaghan were instrumental in gathering in association with The Anglo-Celt newspaper in Cavan, the kernel of the argument has been lost because a section of north-east Meath is being adjoined to Cavan-Monaghan. In compensation to Sligo-Leitrim and the big toe of Donegal there is now a section of north Roscommon being appended to Sligo-Leitrim. The integrity of county boundaries should have been respected in relation to this with a greater flexibility allowed around population difference. It is regrettable that the problem continues. Having said that, I welcome the reunification of County Cavan and the restoration of Cavan-Monaghan to a five seat constituency. I hope that the commission to be established will come up with recommendations and proposals that we will all look forward to supporting.
Since the town councils were abolished, morale has been very low. I have spoken to many ex-councillors and I keep in touch with my own municipal district office and so on. Since the abolition of town councils the democratic right of the people has been taken away at a very core level, which is local politics. I do not often use the word "oligarchy", but it has replaced democracy. We are being governed by the few. As many Deputies have pointed out here tonight, the municipal district does not have bidding power and, as Deputy Munster said, they are feeling pretty toothless. If that is putting people first then we have much to learn about it.
Deputy Ó Caoláin referred to issues locally and these include cuts to Leader programme funding. The then Minister, Phil Hogan, spoke about the great property tax that would be spent on local services. We have not seen it going into local services. Rural towns and villages in Ireland are absolutely falling apart. We have area engineers and municipal district officers who must wait two years to draw down funding for low-cost safety measures while people are being knocked down in housing estates. Is this local government? Is this local democracy? Is this representing the people? It is absolutely ludicrous. Two children were knocked down in Fermoy within a number of months in a housing estate and we still cannot get road safety measures. Where is the local representation? We have been banging our heads against the wall on this matter. Workers in Cork County Council have gone out on strike over staffing agreements. The best way to replace local council workers was the Gateway programme, but it does not work. Some years ago we had flooding in Midleton and out of a possible 22 staff, six were on the books. That is who looked after the town. That is not local representation.
I welcome the Bill and hope it will be extremely progressive. Obviously, it can be broadened out and it is vital that we get information back from our own local councillors and from our municipal district officers. They are feeling the pain. The area engineers would have a better chance of emptying the Red Sea with a bucket with no ass in it than what they have to do with the pennies and pittance they get at local government. I could speak on the Bill for hours but it must be remembered that democracy starts at home. The local lad has the local knowledge. The local councils were perfect; I sat on them, they had the power and they represented the people locally. It was a bottom up approach, not the top down. This is what is ruining the country.
I welcome this debate and I applaud Deputy Cassells for bringing forward the Local Government (Establishment of Town Councils Commission) Bill 2017. It is a start. It is not earth shattering but it is a very important start. The Bill proposes to establish a town council commission. It will not lead to a return of town councils any time soon. In fact, it is more likely to delay the restoration of town councils. We need to know what functions or powers they might have and the commission would be established to do that. We already know, however, what powers town councils and borough councils should have. The legislation that abolished them can be reversed. I know it would not be simple as there are about 80 or 90 different inputs into the Local Government Reform Act but the significant changes that were made in Act and the Putting People First policy have been nothing short of a disaster. I wish to be clear about this and we should face up to that reality. It is not just that a Bill or an Act is passed. I do not know who informed him but I am surprised the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, thought those reforms were successful.
They are anything but successful. The former Minister, Phil Hogan's reform of local government has not worked out. It is one of my and the Labour Party's great regrets. We should have been more resilient, obstructive and obstinate in making sure that the reforms did not see the light of day. It has led to wholesale destruction. What passed for local government reform was not reform at all, it was abolition. Improvements had to be made because there were some town councils or town commissions that could be elected with 100 or 120 votes. We all know there were small town councils and they had to be reformed because they were unsustainable in the long term but this was not the case for towns such as Mullingar with 20,000 or 25,000 people, or for Athlone, Longford or larger towns of that nature. I was surprised at the Minister, Deputy Murphy, saying what he said. I am big and bold enough to admit that it was a disaster. If we cannot admit that in here then we are deceiving people.
When then Minister, Phil Hogan, brought through his reforms I believe he had a vision of how municipal districts would work but the reality has not delivered. Many towns have been left with little or no representation and decisions that impact them are being made by councillors from the hinterland and surrounding countryside. I live ten or 12 miles outside Mullingar and I was never under the Mullingar municipal district, nor should I be. This is not a good way to plan, develop and run a town. The problems of a major town are very different from those of a rural village or a parish. There are multiple examples across Ireland where towns are split across districts or where multiple small towns are in one district. Many of our borough councils had a centuries-long history and tradition of municipal government. Since the abolition of the councils these towns have suffered as a result of key planning and resource decisions being made elsewhere.
The Labour Party election manifesto in 2016 committed to restoring town councils. My colleague, Senator Denis Landy, who has a very keen interest in local government, has been a passionate advocate for the restoration of town councils. Our party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin, has admitted upfront that it was a mistake to abolish them and he has seen at first hand the impact it has had on his own town in Wexford. I have seen the same in my own constituency. Athlone, Mullingar and Longford towns all need their own local democratic structures. Our recent party conference in Wexford passed a motion to re-establish borough and town councils. We are committed to doing so and have commenced drafting comprehensive legislation.
The Minister of State, Deputy English, will be aware that with 90 sections or so, there will be a lot of reversing to be done. The tentacles of the expansive 2014 reforms have stretched out and have significant ramifications. We believe all urban settlements with a population of 5,000 or more should be considered eligible to have a town or borough council. I think that is the best cut-off point. We cannot reduce it to 800 or 1,000. The larger the town council, the more powers it should have. There should be a minimum of six councillors on each town council. That can be scaled up to a maximum of 15 or 20.
Critically, I believe a boundary commission should be established to consider how to define the urban area for each town council. The Central Statistics Office and Ordnance Survey Ireland can provide key information in this respect. This should be one of the key functions when local election boundaries are considered. When town councils are being re-established, it will be essential to give them planning functions and a rateable base. Money is where the real power lies. A formula will need to be agreed to apportion property tax revenues within each county to ensure each area gets its appropriate share.
A great deal of institutional knowledge was lost when town councils were abolished. Many small towns had developed special skills or offices. Each council from Carrick-on-Suir to Westport had its own way of doing things. Some councils specialised in tourism. Others ensured they had town gardeners and specialist planners. Many councils are now incapable of building social housing. Locally delivered services like fire and rescue operations, road maintenance, street lights, arts and culture amenities and parks are key parts of our towns. The restoration of town councils would ensure they are subject to local democratic accountability.
The abolition of town councils saw a concomitant reduction in the power to strike a rate. Nobody has a better understanding of the infrastructure, housing and tourism needs of a town than the local council members. It is clear that the remuneration available to councillors has not kept pace with the responsibilities and demands that are thrust upon them. Some of them attend 75 to 80 meetings a year. In 1983, council members attended approximately 20 meetings a year.
I believe Better Local Government was another disaster. In the early 1980s, the county manager, the county secretary and the county engineer attended every meeting. This meant there was a far greater degree of interaction and much speedier resolution of issues. The presence at the top table of the top three executives led to a greater level of accountability. I remember dealing with Jack Taaffe, Jim Hearn and Ciarán McGrath at the top table. We addressed them and fought for the issues of the day pertaining to the delivery of essential services for the people of our local areas. Now there is a multiplicity of layers of officialdom. As I look back, it seems to me that the old system worked best.
I would like to refer to the findings of a survey conducted by Senator Landy. They give the lie to some of the stuff we heard from the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. Of the 280 councillors who responded to the survey, 85% felt that the 2014 reforms had not strengthened local government. The same percentage of respondents felt that the abolition of town councils had weakened local democracy. This key finding highlights the need for further changes like those set out in the Bill proposed by Deputy Cassells. We are focused on this issue now. The major initiative before the House would accelerate the changes that are needed. I congratulate the Deputy on his Bill.
The view of the councillors is that there is a need to embed real local democracy and decision-making power in locally-elected representatives. They believe the current arrangements have to be revisited because the loss of a lower tier of local government has not resulted in more representative and powerful municipalities. It is worrying that so few councillors think the role of local government has been strengthened. Many of them believe the removal of town councils has weakened our democracy. The figures set out in Senator Landy's survey show that the ability to hold officials to account and represent local communities has not been improved following the 2014 changes.
It is important to take account of the failure of Putting People First to deliver new devolved powers to democratically-elected councillors, especially in the context of the perceived strengthening of administrators and central government. Three out of four councillors feel the 2014 reforms have had a negative impact on local people and community groups. Over 90% of them believe further reforms are now needed. This is the point. People want more democracy through sub-county structures. Such structures are where it is at. Underpaid councillors have to attend multiple big meetings. People give out when it is proposed to increase their salaries. Councillors have to go from Billy to Jack, from one meeting to another. If this keeps going, we will get to the point where we will need to have full-time councillors. People who are in part-time or full-time jobs will not be able to take up the mantle of elected representatives.
Reforms were needed, but we threw the baby out with the bathwater. We got rid of some of the best aspects of the system. We need to admit that we made a mess of it. If we were starting now, we would not start from here, but we have to start from this point. I do not think we should divide on this issue. I believe this House should be united in ensuring there is a return to local democracy. I suggest that a population base of 5,000 in a town would be a good starting point. It is not sacrosanct, but I think it is a reasonable starting point. Sometimes people say we are looking after ourselves, but that is not the case. We are trying to look after them in a reasonable and democratic way.
I support this Bill. When the previous Government decided to abolish town councils, people on this side of the House who opposed the legislation providing for their abolition made the point that it was a regressive step. It is good to hear that the Labour Party has realised the error of its ways. Deputy Howlin has outlined that his party now recognises that it was a mistake to support the 2014 reforms. It should not have happened. It seems from much of what the Labour Party is now saying that it regrets many of the things it did when it was in government. It is now proposing measures that it opposed when it was in power. Certain things that were deemed to be unnecessary then seem to be necessary now. The removal of the town councils was certainly a regressive step. Anything that strengthens democracy and brings it down to a more local level has to be welcomed. I commend Deputy Cassells on the introduction of this Bill because it will bring us in the direction we should be going.
It is more than likely that Ireland has the most undeveloped form of local government of any progressive or modern democracy anywhere in the world. France has a unit of local government for every 1,500 people. The reforms introduced by the last Government were supposed to bring more democracy to local people. We did away with units of elected responsibility and brought such powers up to council level to the extent that Donegal County Council now has 37 members but does not have a chamber capable of facilitating all of them. If this continues, the council will have to spend money on renovating the county house to accommodate its members.
I do not think the 2014 reforms, which involved growing the county level and getting rid of the lower levels, have been to the advantage of local democracy or local delivery. I suggest we should be looking at going an awful lot further than merely restoring town councils. I believe we should consider having elected councillors at parish level in every parish in the country. It is only by taking such steps that we will be able to start delivering real local democracy. I think it should be possible to achieve such units of local government in a modern developed democracy.
The underlying point in all the contributions we have heard here tonight is that our local authorities are not properly resourced. They have very few ways of raising funds locally. This was particularly true during the recession. When the property tax was given to local authorities, it was supposed to provide funding at a local level. It is probable that for every €1 of fund-raising power that was given to local authorities, €10 was taken back into central government under the auspices of austerity to ensure budgets could be reduced at a national level. I do not think that did anything to further the delivery of local democracy and local government.
I have travelled through towns around the country that used to have urban district councils. I accept that town commissioners were probably a waste of time. Councillors in vibrant towns like Westport that were in control of their own development were able to work together to develop those towns. Such towns seem to be doing much better than towns that were outside the urban district structure and were relying solely on funding at county council level. It is probable that there are examples around the country of towns that did not develop even though they had urban district councils. This is something that could be looked at as well.
We need to get back to this level of local democracy. It has been suggested here that towns with a population of 5,000 or more should have their own local authority. We should be going an awful lot deeper and lower than that. We should go down to parish level, depending on the size of the parish. Smaller parishes could have an elected mayor who makes an input into local administration. There should be different levels and tiers of local government depending on the size and population of each area.
That could be really progressive. It could change democracy and how things are delivered on the ground but for that to happen there has to be a recognition at national level that something has to be given up and that the strings have to be loosened. Control has to be given to those democratically elected bodies because there is no point in setting up urban councils, or setting up town councils again, without them having real control, revenue raising powers and the ability to decide on where funding is spent. The central Government will have to give up some control. There has to be a broad look at the issue, not just of establishing the councils but of the funding mechanisms as well. Overall, I support the Bill, which is worthwhile.
I will share time with Deputies Danny Healy-Rae, Michael Healy-Rae and Michael Collins. I support this Bill and compliment the Deputy from Meath on bringing it forward. Town councils were abolished by big Phil the enforcer, the Minister at the time, Phil Hogan, and Fianna Fáil did not oppose it then. I tried to call a vote and I got FLAME, the former local authority members in Ireland, to organise a press conference in 2015 on the urgent need for a judicial review of the legality of the Act, which led to the eradication of 80 town and borough councils throughout the country. Recent statements from Government sources that the merger of Cork County Council would not go ahead are solo runs. We went to the High Court and I compliment the former councillor, Niall Dennehy, who was the leader of that group. I served a summons on the then Minister, Phil Hogan, in the restaurant here when he was having beverages.
It was nothing short of an attack on local democracy. They called it better local government but it was bitter local government. Deputy Penrose is right to say the town councils played a huge role in holding county managers and their secretaries to account. Now there are county managers, six or seven directors of services and a plethora of engineers. One would not know who was in charge of anything. It is worse. The document was called Putting People First but it put people last and had no respect for ordinary members, town council members or councils. The council areas, so-called municipal districts, are very big and I heard a Fine Gael councillor lamenting the state of affairs after three years. It takes away democracy from local people. Many of those on town councils worked on a voluntary basis, for free or for a pittance. They are not half well enough paid but they were at the beck and call of everybody, day and night. They gave huge service and knew what was needed in their areas, such as when things were going wrong.
We had a serious debate on this in the talks on a programme for Government but the Government paid lip-service to us. We need local democracy to be restored. The Government got a wallop and the former Taoiseach got his kick from the electorate but it is not listening to the electorate and denying it what it deserves. I ask the Government to pay heed to this Bill and for all Members to work together to bring back some degree of local democracy.
I welcome the opportunity to talk about the return of town councils, which did great work on behalf of the people, residents and businesses in many towns around the country. I thank the former members and management in the town councils of Killarney, Tralee and Listowel, who did great work in building up their towns to the great places they are today, providing the basic infrastructure such as water, roads, sewerage, footpaths, housing and amenities, all with very limited funds. Town councillors did not receive big money but gave great service to the people in areas they represented. The former Minister, Phil Hogan, thought that when he struck out town councils he was saving a lot of money but no money has been saved and it is good that we retained management, staff and work crews who are still working on behalf of our towns and the people in them. That is what the people got when they elected the last Government with one of the largest majorities in the history of the State. Fine Gael and the Labour Party did this to the people who elected them. They kicked them in the teeth and they kicked them in the backside because they have practically got rid of local development companies which delivered the Leader programmes and gave a bottom-up service to people in rural areas. I call on the Government to reinstate town councils and give the people the service on the ground which they require.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this very important Bill and I commend Deputy Shane Cassells on bringing this forward. As Minister, Phil Hogan introduced the Local Government Reform Act 2014. This Act did not offer any reform to the local government system in Ireland. Instead it abolished 80 town and borough councils, transferring their functions to the city and county councils, putting further stress on an already cramped system.
This Bill to allow the local government commission to carry out a review of the establishment and boundaries of a town council system is certainly most welcome. In 2014, the then Minister, Phil Hogan, attacked Irish democracy and got full support from his own political party and coalition partners to destroy communities or, as some people said, to destroy the bottom-up approach. Community voluntary forums were disbanded. Why? The reason was they were community driven, helping the local communities they represented. The Irish success story across Europe, the Leader groups, were dismantled. Why? The reason was they were community driven, delivering to their communities and now the Leader programme is nothing short of a shambles. Two town councils were eradicated. Why? The reason was local democracy and the then Minister, Phil Hogan, and his coalition Government felt they had to be got rid of. Cork community councils, which do such great work in local communities, are lucky to have their independence because without it Phil Hogan would have got his claws into them too.
On June 15 I left the Dáil to attend the election of the mayor in Clonakilty. John Loughnane was elected to succeed Anthony McDermott, who had attended over 200 events in the past 12 months on behalf of the people of Clonakilty. Along with Colette Toomey, Gretta O'Donovan and Cionnaith Ó Súilleabháin, they have defied Phil Hogan's orders and have continued Clonakilty's community mayor. They meet monthly on a voluntary basis for the good of their community and surroundings. Such communities, including communities in Skibbereen, Bantry and Bandon, need to have their town councils reinstated immediately to give their communities a chance to get their feet back on the ground and undo the destruction caused in 2014.
I compliment Deputy Cassells and Fianna Fáil for bringing forward this Private Members' Bill. It is one of the most important Private Members' Bills to have been brought before the House. The last decision was based on blind arrogance on the part of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, which brought this before the House knowing that they had a massive majority and could do whatever they liked. They totally disregarded the great town councillors, many of whom have now gone to their eternal reward but who gave selflessly of their time to work for their communities. They were excellent people who were committed to their communities but they were disregarded by an arrogant Government which thought it could do whatever it liked.
Mr. Hogan did not save €1 by ripping the hearts out of communities. In Killarney, Listowel and Tralee, I admired and liked the town councillors, whether they were of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin or independents. I liked the way they operated, the effort they put into their work and how deeply committed they were to their communities but the disgraceful Fine Gael-Labour Party Government of arrogance did away with them.
I want to remind Members of something that is on the record on the Dáil and I believe I can repeat something a person said inside the House. They are the words of Phil Hogan as Minister. I was talking about great Fine Gael town councillors I had known. I said they were excellent, genuine people who worked very hard in their communities. I said they, their families and their supporters were extremely upset by what he was doing but the Minister, now Commissioner, said I could go back and tell them all that he was quaking in his boots. It was one of the worst attempts of arrogance I had seen in this House, as well as in the years before I came into the House. I was really shocked that night as he disregarded his own people.
I ask that the Government take on board this very sincere Private Members' Bill. I again thank Deputy Cassells and Fianna Fáil for bringing forward one of the finest Bills ever put before the House. They are marking the Government's card. If the Government will not deal with this issue, Fianna Fáil will. By God, I hope I will be here to support it in so doing. Neither I nor Fianna Fáil are saying that every town council should be reinstated but rather that town councils must earn the right to be brought back. In County Kerry, our town councils would be well able to display that they deserve to be reinstated because they made our towns what they are. The towns are vibrant. The councils brought them from the ground and built them up through hard work and co-operation across all parties. I again thank Deputy Cassells for bringing forward this very important Bill.
I agree that this is a very important Bill and I commend Deputy Cassells and his colleagues for putting it forward. I agree with previous speakers that we have to undo a lot of the damage done at every tier by Phil Hogan through political measures he introduced in 2014. Those measures were inspired by the fairly simplistic analysis that getting rid of political institutions was, per se, a good thing in order to assuage the anger of the public at how the political system had led the country into a crisis. However, the measures actually undermined our political system, weakened our democratic institutions and need to be reversed.
The action taken needs to be reversed at city level. I do not know why the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy John Paul Phelan, is not here. I thought it would be central to his brief to be here to listen to the arguments and make his own case. That said, I wish him well in his new position. However, I cannot believe that the Government, having killed the idea of a directly-elected Mayor of Dublin in 2013 or 2014 by setting up a mechanism that was designed to fail, the Minister of State thinks that Dublin now needs four different mayors. New York has five boroughs but is run by one Mayor. London has 32 boroughs but is run by one Mayor. Dublin is a capital city that has to compete on the world stage. It will not be able to do so if the four boroughs or council areas of Dublin are to compete with each other. That has damaged this city for the past 20 or 30 years. It is utter insanity.
Similarly, at a regional level, the division of the country outside Dublin by Phil Hogan in 2014 into two massive regions, one running from Dundalk to Louisburgh and the other from Bray to Ballybunion, was utterly insane. There was no coherence or strategic logic to it. The country needs at least five regions. A place such as Waterford should be the centre of a new region in the south east and there should be a region for south-west Munster. It can be divided in different ways but we do not need the current configuration.
The issue then comes down to town council level, which is the key issue here. Again, the town councils should have been reformed rather than gotten rid of. The boundaries should have been changed so that the likes of Killarney Town Council, for example, would not have ended as a kind of 19th century phenomenon where the boundary ended somewhere out the Muckross Road when, in the reality of the 21st century, people who should be covered by the council area live far beyond that point. Council areas should have included the surrounding districts rather than solely the town itself.
I support the points made by Deputy Michael Collins. God help us, but Clonakilty is the best example of how this should be done. Its independent action in setting up voluntary town councils which meet, as the Deputy said, on a monthly basis and the mayor of which attended 200 functions within the past year, has strengthened the area. It is no wonder that Clonakilty is such a successful, vibrant and attractive town if such spirit is present within it. Such a voluntary approach is one of the mechanisms that could be considered in terms of bringing back town councils. It does not have to be a big institutional arrangement with a big budget but it needs statutory recognition and the voluntary next tier down of democratic systems needs to be established. The model provided by Clonakilty should be replicated everywhere.
I regret that I do not have the Minister's speech because I wanted to inspect the detail of what he was suggesting as I could not catch it at the time. I will read it tomorrow. As I understand it, he is proposing a municipal district system, which is a continuation of local area committees, on one of which I used to serve and know that they work and are not bad structures. However, there is a need for a tier beneath that and something more than that. There is a need for an institution that allows people to be drawn into politics. A voluntary district council system would do so.
I commend the intent behind the Fianna Fáil Bill. The Minister said he might have to amend the legislation and it may not be a bad thing to get into the process of thinking through this legislation in a flexible way. That is the type of really important and useful work that should be done in this House.
I support the Bill and commend Deputy Cassells for bringing it forward. There is no doubt that the abolition of borough and town councils in 2014 by the then Minister, Phil Hogan, and the Labour Party was a black day for democracy. Eighty borough and town councils were abolished in that year. In my own county of Tipperary, seven councils were abolished at the stroke of a pen with the support of the Labour Party, namely, those of Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir, Cashel, Tipperary Town, Thurles, Templemore and Nenagh. These councils should be re-established and other towns in the county such as Roscrea, Cahir and Fethard should also have their own town councils.
In the case of Clonmel, the abolition of its council struck out 400 years of mayors and democratic governance of the town. I served on Clonmel Corporation and Clonmel Borough Council for 17 years and was very proud to be Mayor of the town. I know the need for various structures to ensure that the issues that arise in a town such as Clonmel are dealt with properly, locally and as close to service users as possible. To use Clonmel as a very brief example of the type of town that had its councils and mayors struck out, it was first mentioned in the Annals of Ulster in 916. It was established as a free borough in 1608 by royal charter granted by King James I. In 1650, the people of the town, led by its Mayor, Mayor White, and Hugh Dubh O'Neill and his Ulstermen, defeated Oliver Cromwell. It has had great mayors such as Charles Bianconi, an immigrant from Italy who established a public transport service not just in Tipperary but throughout the country from 1815 on and served as Mayor in 1845 and 1846. The foundation of the Labour Party took place in Clonmel Town Hall in 1912 and it is ironic that the Labour Party put its name to the abolition of Clonmel Borough Council in 2014.
There is no doubt that local democracy is absolutely necessary in this country and that we need the re-establishment of town and borough councils. We must ensure that services are provided for and as close as possible to local people. I absolutely support the proposal for a commission to review the establishment of councils and to determine boundaries, propose functions, and deal with the rating powers, composition and size of new councils. I hope that commission can be established, produce a report and that the resulting implementation of the re-establishment of town and borough councils would be in place for the 2019 local elections.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Cassells, for bringing forward this Bill this evening. From listening to the commentary so far I believe it has been a very welcome and positive move. The Bill aims to bring decision making back to local communities. The fundamental purpose of the Bill is to empower local communities by enabling the towns across Ireland to have an opportunity to fight for their own areas. Abolishing town councils has left many urban areas without a voice. It resulted in paltry savings and robbed people of local representations. It deprived towns of councils dedicated solely to fighting their corner. In my own county of Galway we lost Ballinasloe, Loughrea and Tuam. The work that was put in through the years is very evident. In Loughrea, when it got its new motorway, everyone said that it was going to bypass them and they would be left out. In fact, the town council there had a direct inroad with the county council and worked really well with them. It managed to get two exits, and even though it is 10 km from where the motorway is Loughrea is a good, vibrant town because of it. Ballinasloe and Tuam lost their town councils and have lost a voice. Those towns are not getting the representation they need. They do not have the nine local representatives from their own town representing them on issues such as rates and car parking. When Ballinasloe was disbanded some €20 million was given over to Galway County Council that never came back, and then a process of equalisation had to be carried out with their funding. These towns are struggling and need the support of a local voice. The moneys they had amounted to very little. They were used for the tidy towns or the local voluntary groups. In fact, the major loss was the opportunity to get to the round table and talk with executives. There are now 39 councillors on the county council. Some €500,000 was spent extending the chamber to facilitate all of the new members.
While I believe that the municipal areas are working really well - I was part of it - there should be another layer where the voices of the larger towns can be heard.
The Local Government (Establishment Of Town Councils Commission) Bill is being introduced to help strengthen local democracy across the country. The Bill aims to legislate for a key part of the Fianna Fáil general election manifesto commitment to re-establish town councils across Ireland on a fair and equitable basis. The Bill establishes a commission under the Local Government Act to review the geographical distribution of proposed town councils, and most importantly their powers and finances.
Back in 2014, the last Fine Gael and Labour government made the short-sighted and destructive decision to abolish all 80 town councils in the country. I accept that the Minister of State was not in place at the time, but I still believe that it was a very destructive move. In my own constituency it included town councils based in County Waterford, namely Dungarvan, Tramore and Lismore.
The purpose of this Bill is to provide a sound, fair basis to further legislate for the re-establishment of town councils. The main strength of town councils was in the personal touch. One of the town council’s most vital roles was regular liaison with the local area office of the county council on issues such as grass cutting, road and footpath maintenance, signage, area enhancement, weed control. These are the simple things that go unnoticed unless they are not done. The town council has an overall vision for the town. Take Lismore, for example. It is a stunning heritage town that was dependent on its town council for many roles to promote tourism, interact with the Tidy Towns groups and liaise with the local authority. The loss of the town council was widely felt by that local community.
In Ireland towns were used to electing representatives to represent them at local level. These elected people worked for the betterment of their own town and local area. I looked at the county town of Dungarvan, with a population of 10,000 people, and noted that in 1898 local government in Ireland was reorganised and Dungarvan became an urban district. Local elections were held and new urban district councillors were elected. On 23 January 1899 the first meeting of the Dungarvan urban district council was held, and then in 2014 it was all wiped out. This system worked well, and contrary to what was peddled at the time, that we had too many elected representatives, we actually had the lowest number of councillors relative to population in the EU.
Another example is the seaside town of Tramore, with a population of 12,000 residents. It lost their town council and the right to make local decisions. We need local solutions to local problems.
Waterford was really hard hit by this Bill. It is the oldest city in Ireland, but we lost our city status. We had 800 mayors for 800 years. We always had our mayors and a fantastic status. Now we have two mayors. We have a plenary mayor and a metropolitan mayor. Confusion reigns supreme. Which mayor attends which event? It is unbelievable. One could not make it up.
Fine Gael took a slash and burn approach to local democracy. Abolishing town councils has left many urban areas without a voice. It resulted in paltry savings and instead robbed people of local representation and deprived towns of having a council dedicated solely to fighting their corner. Its replacement, the Municipal District system, has clearly left some towns at a disadvantage. Some of the bigger towns may have thrived. However, medium and smaller towns are still feeling the effects of the loss of local representatives.
This Bill sets out a strict timeframe that will have the new structures up and running by the next local elections which are due to be held in May 2019. I am calling on the Government and all other parties to support this important piece of legislation so that local communities can be empowered in the decision making process once again.
It is extraordinary to think that we are having this discussion this evening as the constituency review has came out, which I can only describe in terms of my own constituency of Roscommon-Galway as brutal butchery. I really feel sorry for the people of the Boyle area tonight, that famous village of Keadue and right up to the area of Carrick-on-Shannon, who are now going to be thrust into Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal. We were all in agreement with Cavan being taken out of that arrangement because it did not suit, but now they have put Roscommon into that area. What is happening is simply outrageous in terms of local democracy. There is no local democracy in this scenario. I welcome the fact that we have places like Aughrim, Kilconnell and Ballmacward coming into the constituency from east Galway. Deputy Rabbitte would know that many of the people there would have been quite unhappy with how they were left, and hopefully this will be better for them.
We have to practice what we preach in terms of local democracy. That is why it is great to see Deputy Cassells bring this Bill forward. A commitment was given by Fianna Fáil that this would be revisited. What was done to local democracy by former Minister Hogan was simply outrageous. At the time there was much smirking and sneering at the town councils. Some of those town councils had given a profile to their areas that nobody else could give, and Ballinasloe is a case in point. It has a population of close to 7,500 people. Those people feel completely lost since their town council was taken away, simply because Galway County Council, based in Galway city, is not giving those people a good enough service. It is a great community with huge ideas and has fantastic plans for going forward, but it has no support.
The reality here is that town council, for places with populations of around 5,000, 6,000 or 7,000 people, had a very important role to play. They gave a national profile to their locality. In this country we decided that town councils were only talking shops that do not achieve anything. The reality is that those larger town councils created quite a lot for their towns, such as Ballinasloe.
The pride they had in their locality was second to none.
I am very delighted with what Deputy Cassells has done and with the almost unanimous support across the House for this Bill because it is necessary to ensure that they come back. We have the town councils in the bigger towns. We are going to have to revisit the review of the constituencies in this Chamber if we are true democrats.
I am glad to have the opportunity to participate in this debate on an important aspect of local government. I commend and thank Deputy Cassells for bringing forward the Bill. It takes a lot of time to get a Bill together and get one's colleagues and the rest of us to support it. This is a worthwhile discussion. It is one I have had around the country with councillors over the past year in my job in this Department. I have had interesting conversations with many councillors who work almost full time in their role and have been doing that for many years. Their views are mixed. Many would say they are happy that the municipal areas are beginning to work. There were teething problems at the start but they believe they can work. In many areas they are too large. We made a commitment a long time ago to consider reducing those areas. What Deputy Cassells is saying tonight is not very different from what some councillors say. Most agree that some change is required. I look forward to having that discussion with the Members opposite over the months ahead as we bring forward the report summarising the thoughts and views of councillors. We will make the changes.
We differ on tonight's Bill not just on principle but also timing, which I think Deputy Cassells understands. The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, said earlier that it could delay our work as well. We will have some common sense when it comes to working on the issue.
Some people mentioned people coming together in a voluntary capacity on Clonakilty Town Council and other areas, where there are business fora and other fora. Most people in this House started their political careers as councillors when the work was voluntary. That proves they were dedicated to public service. When Deputy Cassells and I were elected on the same day it was not a paid job. Today there are expenses which cover some costs but it is not a fully paid job. Very often the discussion of councillors' pay is driven by the media and is not fair because it does not reflect the cost of doing the job. That is something we should stand up to but it is being addressed in changes we will make to councillors' expenses and pay, hopefully in July of this year, to recognise the greater workload they have. We should all get behind that.
When introducing the Bill, Deputy Cassells indicated that the main reason for proposing the legislation for the restoration of town councils was to address perceived neglect and lack of focus on town centres since their dissolution. He also raised issues such as the fact that towns are now part of much larger local electoral areas and have lost power to develop facilities such as arts centres, parks and enhanced urban spaces. He referred to some areas in Navan that we worked on together over the years where some great projects were brought forward by a combination in some cases of town and county councils. I accept, however, they were led by the town councils.
I fully appreciate Deputy Cassells's intentions in raising these issues and would go further by accepting that his point about the size of the local electoral areas seems to have much validity. The Programme for a Partnership Government requires to be addressed. It is fundamentally important for its effect on local government and democratic representation. We did agree, and it was part of the talks this time last year, from May or June 2016, around the formation of Government. Deputy Mattie McGrath touched on that earlier but then he decided not to be part of that Government. He remembers all the discussions he had about issues he wanted raised but he was not prepared to back them up and come into government to make them happen. Most people around that table are concerned and did have issues related to changes in local government, the need for reform and so on. This Department recognises that and is willing to make changes when the need is proven and factually driven. That is the discussion we can have on foot of tonight's debate because we will not have time in these two hours to put all those facts on the table. We can certainly have that conversation as we tease this out and see how best to make the changes and the reforms as well.
I do not necessarily agree that bringing back town councils is the best way to do that but I am certainly willing to have that discussion, to analyse the facts and the evidence gathered, along with all the different surveys of councillors who have given their views as well. A report was cited earlier which represented a couple of hundred councillors and which would be little different from ours and the feedback we are getting more formally. We can put that information together and analyse it to see how best to deal with it.
Concerns raised by Deputy Cassells and others who advocated the return of town councils are not supported by available evidence. For example, the overall development capacity of local government across each county has been much strengthened by the integration of local structures and resources. We have evidence to prove that. There is peer evidence that many towns have benefited from direct access to the overall resources of the county councils. Various programmes of investment in the development and enhancement of towns have been implemented since the 2014 re-organisation. We want to be clear that when the former Minister, Phil Hogan, made those changes and the Cabinet backed and agreed with him - it was a coalition Government - it was in part to save money and reduce the cost of local government but it was also a genuine attempt to bring more efficiency to local government. I served on area councils at one time. I was not on a town council. Deputy Cassells was on both at different stages as well. There was often duplication and delays in decision making. I would go so far as to say that sometimes officials played us off against one another. It suited them to delay decisions. There was a genuine attempt to fast-track decision making in some areas on behalf of towns but not in every area. Some worked quite well but there was duplication, delays and inefficiency that had to be addressed.
Clear evidence of the progress made by local authorities has been compiled by the Local Government Management Agency. An outstanding example is in our own town, Navan, which Deputy Cassells mentioned. Meath County Council, in conjunction with the National Transport Authority, NTA, has launched the Navan town scheme, Navan 2030. This follows extensive consultation with local stakeholders. This scheme involving investment in the order of €12 million, will revitalise and rejuvenate Navan town centre making Navan a better place to live, work and visit, along with many other schemes.
It started there but the wider county council is making it happen. That is my point. I have no difficulty saying town councils have many good ideas and some great projects, some are finished, others have been talked about for many years but there were no resources to back them up. It involves bringing everyone together.
That supports the argument on both sides here. A reduction in some municipal areas might be a better way to do it. That is worth thrashing out.
The scheme involving investment in the order of €12 million will strengthen Navan's case. It will also strengthen economic growth in the town, supporting business, retail and tourism to meet the needs of Navan for present and future generations. I have seen many similar schemes proposed for other towns in my travels over the past year or two.
I could cite other projects that have been brought forward since the 2014 re-organisation on lines similar to the Navan programme, such as the €3.2 million Tralee urban development project which Kerry County Council is developing with the close involvement of the Tralee municipal district members to revitalise, regenerate and improve the urban environment of the town of Tralee. In many areas projects of this scale and ambition would not have been feasible through the former town council system. I am not saying all areas but many areas, especially with constrained resources in the wake of the economic crisis which really affected many provincial towns in recent years. We may all accept that fact: it is not because of the changes made to town councils that some towns have suffered but because of the times we were in, and if we are to have a discussion or an argument and make decisions we should probably base them on factual evidence as we go along.
The current strong and integrated system means local authorities are much better positioned to address these problems than the former system with 114 separate local authorities could possibly be. Further examples of continued and enhanced focus on towns by local authorities include: town management and development initiatives; creation of town teams to support the municipal districts; establishment of town forums; enabling the private voluntary and community sectors to work with the local authority to promote and market a town and support the municipal districts; the environmental community and economic activity; rates relief and waiver schemes; and use of former town council premises as enterprise centres in some cases. In our case the local sports partnership will come into that building which puts sports at the centre of a town and sends a message to young people. Some interesting programmes have happened because of this, as well as the provision of facilities such as public parks, playgrounds and closed circuit television, CCTV. Not all town councils really represented their towns when it came to meeting their different needs. In some town councils there were reports over the years of differences in relationships with local businesses. Some of these town fora which I have watched develop over the past three or four years have worked quite well. There are some things we can learn from as we make the changes.
A range of initiatives, plans and programmes is being implemented, not only to revitalise towns but to maximise their capacity to act as key economic and social drivers for the wider hinterlands. As one of the Ministers of State in charge of urban renewal and regeneration, that is something I take a very active interest in. We are making several proposals in that area which will help revitalise and rejuvenate towns, regardless of the changes that will be made to the situation. Previous ones include the regional action plan for jobs, the local economic and community plans and schemes and programmes under which significant funding schemes are available for town development and improvement such as the town and village renewal scheme and the designated urban centres grant scheme.
Many local authorities have put in place arrangements to maximise the opportunities under these programmes and funding lines, ensure a strong focus on the management and development of towns and a provide for a co-ordinated approach to the economic, social and cultural regeneration of towns and their environs. In addition to securing and co-ordinating investment under national and EU programmes, local authorities are making significant investments in town development and enhancement from their own resources, for example, through property tax revenue and savings from local authority reorganisation, or by providing matching funding under various programmes or on a stand-alone basis. For towns and rural areas which did not previously have local government arrangements, the benefits of local government reorganisation have been particularly important. Members spoke today about four or five areas which had town councils, but there were many towns which did not. In most counties, fewer towns had them than did not. That is not good enough. How could one make a decision at that time on reform? It was not possible to have the resources to widen the net to give all towns councils, but that is the reform being suggested. There are many good examples of towns which have benefitted through these changes.
I refer to the review of constituencies published tonight. Thankfully, Lower Ormond has been put back into Tipperary, with which the people of Lower Ormond will be extremely happy. The report stated that it was due to a lot of lobbying and recommendations which were made to the Commission. Inexplicably, however, it has taken another 4,500 out of Tipperary and put them into Limerick City. Already tonight, I have received four or five calls from people in Newport who feel extremely aggrieved. While lobbying thankfully brought back Lower Ormond, the Commission has failed to respect Tipperary's county boundary and gerrymandered it once again. This is not acceptable to us. We have had people feeling extremely disenfranchised over the last five years. While they have brought back Lower Ormond, they have taken out Newport town. I will be making my views known strongly to represent the people of Newport who cannot understand how this decision was arrived at.
I commend Deputy Cassells for bringing forward the Bill. It was part of our election manifesto. As a party, we are trying consistently to get our manifesto into legislation. The only people the abolition of town councils suited were council officials. Once a month, they had to come into seven local urban or borough councils in Tipperary, depending on the size of the town, and answer for the way money was being spent and the jobs which had been done in the previous month. They had to say what jobs were up for completion in the next number of weeks. They knew they would have to come back within four weeks to give an account on the progress made on different projects. We had seven councils in Tipperary at Nenagh, Thurles, Carrick-on-Suir, Clonmel, Templemore and Cashel. These were towns of varying size, but each one feels aggrieved at the loss of democracy they experienced. The former Minister, Commissioner Phil Hogan took away this democracy from us with the stroke of a pen but what was saved was minuscule. All that was achieved was to take power away from local people. Whether it was TidyTowns or some other programme, people had nine people on a council to whom they could go. There was always a representative on the next street or down the road to whom they could make a point. To remove that democracy for no gain is hard to understand.
I look forward to the commission. In our manifesto, we mentioned a figure of 7,000 and we need to revisit that. It would not satisfy a lot of towns in Tipperary which had urban local councils. We can do that when the commission has been established and we can get our urban councils back in place. It is essential for local democracy. I commend Deputy Cassells on the Bill which is good for local democracy and the people of our rural countryside.
On behalf of the people of Kildare, I convey their happiness that the county has been unified for the next general election. However, I feel for the people in Laois, Portarlington, Ballybrittas and Killenard who have been disenfranchised from their own county and placed in with south Kildare. While I look forward to working with them in the future, a county boundary should always be preserved.
I commend Deputy Cassells on the Bill which marks a decisive shift towards the empowerment of local communities and giving towns across Ireland a strong voice to fight their corner. The whole point of the Maastricht treaty was to ensure that decisions would be made as close as possible to the citizen on the ground, but that certainly is not what happened with Phil Hogan's decision. We now have the lowest number of councillors relative to population in the EU. The abolition of town councils increased the average of councillors to citizens to by far the highest proportion in the western world, which is appalling. A lot of the time neither national nor local government is popular. Local level can become the catch-all for a lot of problems. While it is easy to criticise, however, we have to work within an improved system to effect real change. Effective and autonomous local government with sustainable funding and better resources must be the catalyst for a better future.
As a town councillor for many years, I saw at first hand the incredible and unpaid efforts of communities and community groups to ensure we all got through the recession and worked to help one another. I was privileged during that time to see so many dedicated people carrying out work, delivering new, exciting and innovative projects, activities and initiatives throughout my town. When I look back, my mind is full of images which tell powerful stories of activities and people coming together to achieve and accomplish. I returned last night with a 90-strong delegation from the 20th anniversary of the twinning of my own town of Newbridge and Bad Lipspringe in Germany. Thousands of people have travelled over the last 20 years which I have no doubt would never have happened without the support of an existing town council at that point in time. It is therefore hugely important to restore town councils. I would not stop there. We need strong community councils and we cannot talk about local government without talking about the need to reform rates. I commend the Bill and look forward to the cross-party support.
I thank and welcome the great spread of speakers tonight from all of the political and geographical backgrounds in the country. I also welcome their support. The understanding, breadth of knowledge and thought put into the debate by speakers was fantastic but not surprising given that we are public representatives who are passionate about our counties and towns. Those who spoke know the local councillors gave good service and a sense of purpose to residents in their areas. I listened to Deputy Munster speak passionately about her town of Drogheda which I know well and worked in with the Drogheda Independent. I have seen the impact in that large old borough town. The Government's Deputy Fergus O'Dowd spoke only in the last couple of weeks under a Topical Issue matter to call for its status to be returned. He spoke passionately about his town that night. In the context of the Government being in synch with its own Members, that Deputy spoke passionately about retaining the status of Drogheda, for which I commend him.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Damian English, for his measured comments this evening. The take of the Minister, Deputy Murphy, on proceedings was disappointing and, more than that, surprising. To say there was no justification was an amazing statement. The justification comes down to the provision of services and the fact that one would have finances and a statutory budget. The most important thing is the difference between a statutory budget for one's town council area and what is in place now where local authorities throw a couple of hundred thousand into a discretionary fund which has no impact whatsoever in a meaningful sense. It is about the ability to be able to draw down one's own finances.
On the retention of the local property tax, which was not in existence at the time of the abolition, that will be an interesting dynamic in terms of the 10,000 homes that are in my town and what it would mean if we had a statutory town council and the money was retained within the area. There would be a dedicated spend in that particular area. I mentioned the commercial rates earlier and how equalisation is hitting every business in an old town council area. That is the justification. If it cannot be understood by the Minister, there is something wrong at his end.
In terms of the county councils, there is a huge urbanisation drive in the country. This is driven by a planning philosophy in the Department that is concerned with creating critical masses of population under the national planning framework to progress major capital infrastructure. I do not disagree with the principle; I totally agree with it in terms of having dedicated services supporting dedicated centres of population. However, if we are to have that, we need an equitable system of government to support it and to ensure the huge towns we are creating have proper representation and that they can react to the issues and, more importantly, set out a vision for those towns so that we can help families. The Minister of State and I saw a massive explosion of population in our town over a ten-year period and we saw people trying to react to it rather than lead from the front, which is what these councils would do.