Fionnan Sheahan: Council reform will put spotlight on local politicians
THE introduction of the household charge has focused the attention of local residents on how their council manages their budget.
Businesses have traditionally demanded more from local councils because they are paying commercial rates.
Suddenly householders began drawing a link between the services provided and the cash in their back-pockets because the household charge was going directly into funding their council, rather than simply coming from central funds.
This pattern will only increase when the property tax comes into effect.
And wait until the day when councils are setting their own rates of property tax -- if that ever does come about -- as it will certainly make voters sit up and take notice.
Environment Minister Phil Hogan's keenly awaited reform of local government is a positive step towards making councils and elected councillors more accountable and, therefore, more efficient.
The spotlight will fall on the changes to the structures, with the abolition of the 80 town councils across the country and the merging of their functions with the county councils.
The reforms will result in a long overdue redraw of the local electoral map in each county and the rebalancing of the number of councillors.
Going beyond just a raw cut in the numbers of councillors, it will bridge the gap in representation in different parts of the country by taking account of population changes.
The level of representation at the moment 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.
Dragging local government into the 21st century, the reform will also do away with the duplication currently in the system of having town and county councils covering the same area.
Whether a town had its own designated council was based on outdated criteria, dating back to before independence and the foundation of the State.
In the modern era, with better communications and transport in place, it's not necessary for a town to have both.
Of greater importance, though, is the policy changes in the fine print of the plan relating to the role and function of the council.
In order to ensure a clear delineation between local and national politics, it is necessary for councils to be given more decision-making powers -- and a warning from the Government and voters alike of what will happen if they don't use these added responsibilities properly.