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Why is there a row brewing about bringing back town councils?

Here’s why.

Image: Sam Boal

IT’S NOT OFTEN that you find Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil on the same side of a political argument.

But that happened this week when Fianna Fáil’s Shane Cassels suggested bringing back town councils – just three years after they were abolished.

Having made his political bones on Navan Town Council before graduating to county council and then the Dáil, Cassels is adamant that what Ireland’s towns need is further devolution of power.

With new Minister of State with special responsibility for local government, John Paul Phelan, open to reforming the system and to re-introducing some form of local councils, the idea could become reality.

What is a town council?

Town councils were the lower tier of local government and spanned the country from Ardee to Youghal, with 744 members sitting on them.

However, the tiers of government were not necessarily hierarchical. Town councils were able to exercise some functions within their areas parallel to those performed by the county council for the balance of the county.

This, Cassells argues, meant they were able to have a real impact on their towns. Speaking of Navan as he brought forward his bill this week, he said:

“I was asked today at the press conference were the Town Councils nothing more than talking shops – well if in the case of my own town council if the delivery of a €13 million theatre, new swimming pool and gymnasium, 68 acre park, enterprise zone and enhanced town core is the result of talking shops well then it is pretty effective one.”

However in 2014, 80 town and borough councils were abolished as part of local government reform under the Fine Gael/Labour government.

The Local Government Bill, published by the then Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan, reduced the number of councillors by more than 40%.

It saw €4.6 million handed over to town councillors who did not run for election or did not get elected.

Why were they scrapped?

In the Putting People First document, the work of town councils was acknowledged.

“Town authorities are well positioned to build and maintain good connections with local communities, which is particularly relevant in the context of possible concerns regarding lack of connection between citizens and local authorities, particularly in urban areas, with the continuing trend towards urbanisation in the context of increasing population and demographic diversity.

“In principle, sub-county structures should facilitate subsidiarity, accountability and democratic representation but the degree to which these objectives can be optimised through the current arrangements is affected by weaknesses.”

It goes on to say that town councils were an additional overhead on government services, that some of their work was duplicated and they lacked the scale necessary to be fully efficient.

The scrapping was called the “most radical reform of local government in 100 years” but left local politicians fuming. In Letterkenny, one councillor called Hogan an “arrogant man”.

In 2013, then deputy mayor of Letterkenny Tom Crossan told TheJournal.ie that town councils were necessary.

“Letterkenny is the capital of Donegal and towns like it should be supported through town councils — that’s the point we wanted to make to him.

“We have spent the last number of years pumping €300 million of investment into the town — new parks, a leisure centre, a theatre. We’re also the first town in Ireland to appoint a town gardener to decorate the town.”

Why should they be brought back?

Across the spectrum, there appears to be broad support for bringing back town councils, with Sinn Féin’s Imelda Munster calling the abolition an “unmitigated disaster”.

“The abolition of the town councils in 2014 was an unmitigated disaster for Drogheda. For all of the 80 towns that lost their town and borough councils. Drogheda is the largest town in Ireland.

“What was the benefit of the abolition of the councils? It does not appear to have made much of a saving for the exchequer. The Department claimed in a statement prior to the introduction of the Local Government Reform Act 2014 that savings of €15 million to €20 million per year would be achieved through the abolition of town councils.

“I requested information in a parliamentary question on the annual savings achieved each year since the introduction of the Act. The Department refused to provide me with this information.

“I think it is high time that we re-established town councils.”

Cassells agrees.

“Centralising power in Dublin is not the best way to run the country. The Local Government reforms of 2014 left Ireland with the weakest system of local Government in Europe. We need local solutions to local problems. A new town council system, with real powers and resources, will help us achieve that. The Bill is a step forward in realising one of the key commitments in the Fianna Fáil manifesto and the current Programme for Government.”

A report on the effects of the reform is due this summer.

Under Cassells’ plan, the town councils would be reinstated in time for the 2019 local elections.

Read: Fianna Fáil wants to bring back town councils – three years after we scrapped them

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