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Column Council reform will discourage women – and help the old boys

The changes to councils will reinforce the dominance of the three major parties, says Fine Gael councillor Mick Glynn.

TIME HAS FINALLY been called on the local government system and the ‘reform’ agenda has been announced without any real drama. The plans to reduce the number of local authorities by two thirds, remove 500 elected councillors and save up €400million have gone down well with the general public, who are baying for any type of meaningful spending cuts.

So will there be any real losers, or is this too good to be true?

This reform agenda will also see the existing powers enabling councillors to challenge planning decisions removed. City, town and borough councils have been around in some cases for over 600 years, set up through medieval and royal charters. By and large, elected councillors have represented their areas well, with the prime motivation of making the locality more liveable. The much discussed abuse of planning powers will now leave the planning process without any internal checks and balance system and will now be left up to An Bord Pleanála and An Taisce alone.

Real damage

No other sector has attained the same levels of savings as the local government sector. A running total of more than €830 million has been achieved by the reduction of costs and wages since 2008. The number employed in the sector has been reduced by 18.5 per cent – yet there is a belief that more can be done.

No matter how you frame these welcome ‘reforms’, there is one aspect that has not been taken into account: the real damage will be done to local democracy.

In a time when apathy towards politicians and public representatives is at an all-time high and voter turnout in local elections is low, we need to make the local electoral process more inclusive and accessible. Smaller numbers of elected members in smaller councils, or new Municipal Districts suits the bigger parties. Seventy-five per cent of the vote in the 2009 local elections went towards the three biggest parties in the state. Our proportional representation system, coupled with controlled numbers to be elected, will mean that a first time out local candidate does not stand a chance with the numbers. Well-established candidates affiliated to bigger parties will be able to protect their seats.

These reforms also do nothing to help the shortage of women and younger people getting involved in the electoral process. In new electoral reforms a 30 per cent female gender quota will be linked to state funding for political parties. But it stands to reason that they will find it hard to attract new women to run for office when the chances of gaining a seat are non-existent.

Diluted numbers

In the 2009 local election, 20 per cent of the seats on town and borough councils were taken by independent candidates, against only 12 per cent of the seats at county council level. The figures get even worse at national level, with only seven per cent of the seats taken. The local electorate finds it easier to vote for an independent candidate that might have plenty of character or maybe working on a single issue that appeals to many. The number of independent seats suffers as the electorate size increases, because the localised agenda becomes diluted with the numbers and the electorate likes to follow a party path when the stakes of representation are higher.

We have heard so many times in the electoral reform debate that we need national politicians looking after national issues – and equally we need local politicians looking after local issues.

Local democracy has always thrived on real differences of opinion around the chamber and helps the fringes of the public get their voice heard. A reduction in the numbers of seats decreases diversity of the representatives, and fuels the ivory tower attitude which has developed. Locally there are are tough times ahead economically with the property tax and water charges coming down the line. We need to bring forward ideas that will help communities with a wide range of views feel part of the process. In the future, consideration for an elected voluntary grassroots or community council that would feed into the new Municipal Districts might have to fill this vacuum.

Mick Glynn is a Fine Gael councillor and Mayor of Bray Town Council. He is also a member of Wicklow County Council.

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