Wednesday 25 April 2018

Cash is king in decision to axe town councils

The announcement by Environment Minister Phil Hogan that town councils are to be abolished created consternation last week among shocked councillors who, somewhat predictably, decried the diminution of local democracy and issued dire warnings about how people will be denied a proper say in the running of their communities.

Oddly enough, the voters who will be directly affected by the loss of their democratic rights were notably less perturbed – many even welcomed Ministers Hogan's decision.

There's no doubt but last Tuesday's announcement by Minister Hogan signalled the most fundamental reorganisation – reform even – of local politics since the foundation of the State. It had been expected for the past year that some town councils would be abolished and that councillor numbers would be cut on those that remained. This led to an amount of protest from endangered councils that felt they had served their communities so well they deserved to be spared the axe. However, the announcement that all 80 town councils nationwide are to be abolished when the 2014 local elections fall silenced that debate.

For once town councillors everywhere were in agreement: This was a bad move that would deprive people of their right to engage in the running of their towns. They have a point here. Reducing the number of councillors nationwide from 1,627 to 950 means that people, generally, will have less immediate access to their local representatives. Gone too will be the hyper-local involvement in the administration of the country's bigger towns, which is often thought to be a good thing. On the plus side we will see an end to some of the talking shops that achieved, little, if anything, of value at the cost of a wasteful duplication of administration and services. And could we really say that towns with a local council are better run and better places in which to live than towns run by county councils? In any event the ordinary citizens whose democratic rights are soon to be denied aren't exactly up in arms at the prospect.

There are mixed views – some will miss their town councillors, others can't wait to see the back of them – what's certain though is that we won't see protesting masses carrying 'save our council' placards.

The reason for this is that even those who think town councils are worthwhile don't think they are worth the cost; not in these times when valuable services are being cut wholesale in a desperate effort to balance the books in our bankrupt nation.

That ultimately, is what it comes down to – money. Whatever might be said in favour of town councils, even the councillors themselves didn't try to push the argument that they represent good value for money!

It will cost about €20 million in 'parachute payments' to town councillors when they lose their seats in 2014 – ranging from €2,800 for a councillor with five years service up to a maximum of €64,300 for a councillor who has held a seat for 40 years.

After that, Minister Hogan calculates, the abolition of town councils will save the state €45 million a year. So, yes, maybe we'll lose something when town councils are no more – but €45 million pays for a lot of home help hours and, sadly for our town councillors, people are looking at the practicalities these days.