Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Local Authority Boundaries Review
I am proposing the establishment of a boundary commission to review local government constituencies. After the 2011 census, the then Minister, Phil Hogan, established a boundary commission in 2013 to consider introducing local government municipal districts. The subsequent proposals must be reviewed. The figure of 1,653 representatives - 883 councillors and 773 town councillors - has been reduced to approximately 950. The main issue with municipal districts is that there is none in any of the three major cities of Cork, Galway and Dublin. That makes no sense.
There are other flaws, one of the greatest of which was that we used electoral districts as a means of sorting out constituency divisions. That made no sense either. For example, the town of Carrigaline which has a population of 20,000 people has been split in two because of an electoral district divide. Half of the town is in the Carrigaline-Ballincollig electoral district, a ten-seat constituency, while the other half is in the Bandon-Kinsale electoral district, a six-seater. That is illogical. The town was divided because the Department used the electoral districts which were formed in 1850 at the time of the Famine as guidelines.
We must re-examine the system for devising all boundaries, be they for Dáil, European Parliament or local government elections. The world has moved on. In using electoral districts we are going nowhere. We must move forward. The Department needs to consider using an up-to-date system to divide constituencies. Illogically, we have created ten-seat constituencies. Adopting the criteria used in the previous review, most are six to ten-seat constituencies. Ludicrously, Ireland now has six ten-seat, 13 nine-seat and 23 eight-seat constituencies. One of the ten-seat constituencies in Cork covers more than 70,000 people in Carrigaline, Ballincollig and the southern half of Cork city. That is the size of a Dáil constituency. There is no representation on the ground because these areas are too vast. The old constituencies had three to seven seats. We need to return to them in order that there can be actual local government. The current system needs to change because it is not working.
We must consider other issues. Previously, there was one councillor per 4,800 people outside the two major cities of Cork and Dublin. We limited the number of councillors in Cork to 55 and to 63 in Dublin, which made no sense in the context of the principle of one person, one vote. On the other side, as the Acting Chairman knows better than me, is the county council constituency of west Cork which stretches for 110 miles. It starts at Courtmacsherry and ends beyond Glengarriff near Kenmare.
The entire system needs to be reviewed. We have seen what happens when we stick to electoral districts. They do not work. The census has been carried out and the elections will be held in 2019. The preparatory work must start now. If we go into it in the way we did previously just nine months before the local elections, we will not achieve the desired result.We need to examine the geographical areas in order to ensure constituencies are not too big and do not consist of eight, nine or ten seats, yet still provide good representation.
I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government who cannot attend today.
The reviews and revisions of local electoral areas have been carried out over the years in response to changing needs, including population changes. The most recent review was carried out in advance of the 2014 local elections. Before that, reviews were carried out in 2008, 1998 and 1985. Unlike the position for Dáil constituencies, there is no constitutional or legislative requirement to review local electoral area boundaries. Having said that, the Minister for Housing. Planning, Community and Local Government is empowered by section 23 of the Local Government Act 2001 to divide each county, city or city and county into local electoral areas and to amend those areas. Each of them must have a council. This can be done following a review by a boundary committee established under the Local Government Act 1991. The terms of reference for a local electoral area boundary committee are set by the Minister of the day.
The terms of reference for the last review included a requirement to have regard to the new arrangements for local government set out in the government's Action Programme for Effective Local Government. The review had the specific goal of achieving a better balance and consistency in representational ratios than were in place before that time. The committee was asked to design local electoral areas on the basis of there being one member for every 4,830 population in each council area. This was subject to a minimum of 18 and a maximum of 40 members in every authority with exceptions for Cork County with 55 members and Dublin City with 63 members. Local electoral areas were to be represented by between no fewer than six and no more than ten members.
The Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee was established in November 2012 and reported to the Minister at the end of May 2013. The Minister accepted the recommendations of the committee in full. The new local electoral areas were specified in 30 statutory instruments made in January 2014. At the 2014 local elections, 949 councillors were elected in 137 local electoral areas to 31 local authorities. These local electoral areas provided the basis for the configuration of the new municipal districts that came into operation following the 2014 local elections. These structures are the framework for the new model of municipal governance that was introduced in the Local Government Reform Act 2014. This new model was designed primarily to strengthen local government within counties and to address the widely acknowledged and long-standing weaknesses and anomalies in the previous system.
In 2015, the first full year of the revised local government structures, a broadly based advisory group was convened to carry out a review of their operation. This was done in conjunction with the local government forum for the engagement with the Association of Irish Local Government. Feedback from these deliberations, as well as the results of surveys of local authority members and chief executives, indicate that the revised structures are generally operating well but need more time to bed down fully.
I welcome the Minister's response. I recognise that my Commencement matter does not come within his brief and belongs to another Minister.
Councillors face an election in 2019, which is just two years away. Two of the key issues for them are certainty and what will happen in the future. I hope we will debate this issue in the House. It is important to invite the Minister to the House for a debate because we need to know whether there will be a boundary review and, if not, how he will work with the satellite towns that are divided in two. I have mentioned Carrigaline because it does not make sense to have 8,500 on one side and 12,000 on another side. Major anomalies exist locally and in other counties.
The structure for municipal districts has worked. Local authorities need to have an idea where structures will be placed. The knock-on effect of imposing different constituencies eight or 12 months before a local election is due to take place will mean different structures. In other words, districts will change as will the management, population and everything else. Clarity is required. If we have clarity, the management and public representatives can make plans. It is the people who need representation but large ten-seaters do not represent people properly. In terms of geographical areas that are 100 miles long, as most of us know, whether one is from Cork or Kerry, they make no sense whatsoever.
The Senator is right about the municipal districts and I have seen it happen in my constituency of Roscommon. The Athlone Municipal District of Monksland runs from Shannonbridge in County Offaly to halfway down the country. There is no connection between the areas. The communities do not even know how to get from one end of the district to the other. The districts are all six-seaters in Roscommon due to the population. Sometimes these districts do not work that well when the population is dispersed.
The Senator is right that we must examine anomalies and challenges, particularly on a geographical basis. The idea behind local government is to have local councillors and that connection has been broken in many parts of the country.
The Senator raised the interesting issue of a review of district electoral divisions that dates back to 1851. If a review were to take place, it would not be done for the next local elections. A review of the district electoral divisions would be complex, slow and expensive. The Senator made a valid point for a review by pointing out that many towns are divided by district divisions. My own constituency is divided by a district division. The town of Dunmore is in two Dáil constituencies. Part of the town is in the constituency of east Galway and the remaining part is in the constituency of Roscommon-Galway. Most towns and rivers have a drain or a river running through them, which causes problems in terms of district divisions. The same applies to disadvantaged areas. Electoral division is a very complex area and is a matter that one must think long and carefully about.