THE Local Government Bill 2013, which is currently before the Dáil, implements the reforms in the Action Programme for Effective Local Government, Putting People First, which outlined the rationale for reform and a vision for local government to be utilised as effectively as possible as the primary vehicle for governance and public service locally. (www.environ.ie/en/Publications/LocalGovernment/Administration).
The Bill addresses fundamental weaknesses and brings renewal across the entire local government system; structures, functions, funding, governance and operational arrangements. This short piece concentrates on structural reform, which has gained much media attention due partly to a campaign by some local politicians to save their seats in the guise of defending local democracy and services.
The hollowness of the 'democracy' slogan is exposed by the fact that the 744 town councillors, who make up 46% of all councillors, represent only 14% of the population, an imbalance that is aggravated by the fact that 'the 14%' have double votes and two sets of councillors.
As regards local services, the 80 town councils, which make up over 70% of local authorities, account for less than 7% of local authority activity measured by expenditure. No wonder the 'save our seats' campaign garnered little, if any, support during its passage at Dáil Second Stage.
We tend to be change averse in relation to public institutions, but in considering the status quo in local government we need to reflect on questions such as -
* Does it serve the people well that we have a town council for 15 towns with less than 2,000 population while a number over 10,000 do not?
* Why do residents living inside a boundary line have a town council while those in the suburbs of the same town, but outside an outdated boundary, must deal with the county council?
* Does it make sense that town councils operate like 'islands', separate from their wider hinterlands?
* Does it serve a useful purpose that some town councils, which owe their existence to 160 year-old legislation, have virtually no functions?
Would it make sense to try to rectify anomalies by transferring territory and resources from the county councils to the towns, thereby weakening the former; or by creating new town councils and extra councillors?
The current multiplicity of authorities involves massive duplication which must be eradicated not expanded. More significant than the reduction of nearly 700 council seats, is the fact that the Bill will result in 83 fewer local authority structures, 83 fewer annual budgets, annual reports, annual audits, corporate plans, development plans, elections, and various other processes.
The 83 figure only counts local authorities and does not capture the full extent of administrative and political streamlining.
More than 190 separate organisations are being dissolved, including 34 City and County Development Boards, 35 County Enterprise Boards, 8 regional authorities and over 30 other local bodies dealing with matters such as burials, drainage, libraries and harbours.
This excludes some other subsidiary local bodies, committees and sub-committees. It is an unprecedented elimination of unnecessary duplication, unproductive bureaucratic structures and processes and administrative overheads.
The administrative staff released will be put to more productive use in advancing sustainable social, economic and environmental development, ensuring the best possible local services, working to enhance the quality of life of local communities.
The reform programme is not primarily about dissolutions, however.
The merging of 6 city/county councils into unified authorities in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford is well advanced and bearing fruit.
The 80 town councils will be replaced by a more coherent and comprehensive system of municipal districts, integrated with the county structure, unlike the duplicative, stand-alone town councils. Whether you live in Ashbourne or Trim, Claremorris or Castlebar, in the town centre, the suburbs, or the rural hinterland, you will be represented by municipal district members who will decide, and be accountable for, a range of important matters in the local area.
With nearly 70 statutory functions listed in the Bill for municipal district level, county council decisions on local matters will be brought closer to local communities, freeing plenary meetings of local issues and enhancing subsidiarity.
This is recognised in a recent Council of Europe report which, contrary to some misleading comments, specifically endorsed the changes at sub-county level and far from criticising the Bill as some have tried to imply, welcomed the overall Action Programme.
As well as modernising structures, the Bill will strengthen local government functions, especially in economic and community development, reversing a decades-long trend of marginalisation, and repositioning local government away from some traditional functions which require greater scale, resources or expertise.
Local government will be more financially stable, self-reliant and responsible with the restoration of independent revenue-raising powers.
There will be more robust governance including a National Oversight and Audit Commission, working within existing resources to oversee performance, value for money and best practice, stronger local audit provisions, and stronger council oversight of the executive which will be headed by a 'chief executive' having additional obligations with respect to the elected council.
Outdated structures and practices have not served local government well.
The Reform Bill opens a new future for local government, increasing its capacity to play a wider role, with public confidence in its ability to be the primary vehicle of public service at local level and a major force in enhancing the quality of life of all our communities.