Wednesday 22 November 2017

New rift opens up in Coalition on changes to councils

Fionnan Sheahan Political Editor

ENVIRONMENT Minister Phil Hogan's reform of local government is the latest fault line to emerge between Fine Gael and Labour.

Mr Hogan is finalising his proposals for a reduction in the number of city and county councillors and scrapping most town councils.

In plans due before Cabinet next week, he is also looking to expand the powers of councils to make decisions on taxes and services.

But the Labour Party wants the reforms to go beyond just a raw cut in the numbers of councillors by bridging the gap in representation in different parts of the country.

The spat is the latest in a series of disagreements between the coalition partners on issues as varied as alcohol sponsorship, sick-leave payments and changes in the HSE.

The level of representation ranges from Leitrim, where there is one councillor for every 1,500 people, to Fingal in Dublin, where there is one councillor for every 10,000 people.

Argument

Labour wants to take account of the changes in population across the country and rebalance the figures.

Going down this route would benefit the number of councillors in the east of the country, around the capital and the commuter belt, where the population has grown -- and Labour is strongest.

Fine Gael's argument appears to be that councillors cover a geographic area, as well as the local population.

The party will be reluctant to alienate rural voters by making changes that favour the cities more.

Labour doesn't believe a flat reduction in numbers is the same as reform and wants to see councillor representation looked at on a wider level.

The minister has also spoken about looking at the devolution of functions, giving the councils more powers from central government, giving councillors more responsibilities versus the county manager and giving councils a strong economic role on a local level.

Two years out from the next local elections, all the parties want to see the plans finalised so they know how many seats are in each area to allow candidate selection to begin.

Coalition insiders say there are differences but they will probably be ironed out.

The plan is due to be discussed at Cabinet next week but may be kicked to touch until the autumn if there is no firm agreement.

Irish Independent

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