A few weeks ago, a referendum was held on whether to keep the Seanad and whatever one thinks of the outcome, it is fair to state the various issues which surrounded Seanad abolition and Seanad reform got a fair airing.
However, while that debate was under way, I could not help but think it was a shame no such debate had been held on the complete and utter undermining of local government over recent years. I also regret that so many of the political figures and opinion formers who spoke at such length about the need for a Seanad have not now or any time recently seen fit to speak on the urgent need for reform of local government and its protection. While it seems as though it is not the most fashionable of causes, it still is no less worthy for all that. No area of Irish democracy has taken such a hammering as has local government over the past ten to 15 years. Our system of local democracy is hopelessly underdeveloped and weak. The present Minister had a tremendous opportunity to do something about that, to give local authorities a proper role and to bring power back down to the local level. However, that opportunity has been well and truly squandered. More than that, the Minister has gone further and has taken the axe to local government in this State.
The Government appears to have a warped sense of what political reform means. Political reform is necessary and important. The people wanted political reform because after the economic collapse in 2010 and 2011, there was a sense that the entire system had failed. The political process was at once seen to be asleep at the wheel and too close to the interests of big business and the banks, which have caused so much difficulty and brought ruin to the economy. As a result, there was of course a demand for change in order that the people would feel the political system was better fit for purpose and more accountable to them. However, the Minister’s changes do not make the system more accountable and nor do they make it more fit for purpose. If anything, they bring the system further away from the people. It follows in the same vein as most of the rest of the Government’s supposed commitment to political reform such as the reduction in the number of Deputies or the cosmetic moving around of Standing Orders, which in effect are window-dressing. For the Government, political reform is not about better politics but is just about less politics and fewer politicians. Such a cynical approach is reprehensible and is not what the people want.
Certainly, they did not vote for an entire tier of local government to be wiped away, as will happen next summer. I spent several years on local authorities, namely, on Youghal Town Council since 2004 and on Cork County Council from 2009. I was very proud to have served as Mayor of Youghal from 2009 to 2010, which was a great honour and privilege for me. I always have thought the role carried out by town councils is worthwhile even in spite of their reduced responsibilities in recent times. People feel a great sense of ownership of the town councils. They are represented by people they know personally, to whom they have access and who, regardless of whether they agree with them personally, they believe can be trusted because they have the best interests of the town at heart. This is what local democracy is about, namely, local people doing their best to represent their local community.
The Minister produced his Putting People First document on local government, in which one of the local electoral areas in County Cork has a population of 71,000 people. There is nothing even remotely local about an electoral area that size and in Britain, there are areas with that population that form parliamentary constituencies. It is absurd and clearly the reduction in representation will have repercussions for people’s sense of ownership of, and access to, the system. My constituency of Cork East will take a huge hit in respect of local representation and will lose five town councils from the larger towns in east Cork, that is, Fermoy, Youghal, Mallow, Cobh and Midleton. This will amount to 45 fewer local representatives in my constituency. As people have become used to dealing with their town councillors and town councils, the change will be serious and frankly, the burden will fall on too few local representatives. Large parts of the county probably will not have anyone they truly can call local and there may be no elected person from their community representing them.
Town councils were not perfect, far from it, as I knew well from my own service as a councillor. While there are many things I would like to have seen done differently, abolition certainly is not the answer. The Government insists on saying that Ireland has too many councillors and is greatly out of kilter with European norms. However, this clearly is not the case as aside from Britain, there are very few places in Europe where there is a higher proportion of electors to councillors or local representatives. Ratios in other countries vary from 1:120 in France to 1:1,200 in Denmark. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, wishes to introduce a ratio of councillors to people of 1:4,830. This is not truly local and I believe that people, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalised in communities, will suffer from such lack of access to their local representatives. The ratio is far out of kilter and Sinn Féin has proposed the ratio should be set at 1:3,936. This would both allow for better representation and would fit in with an all-Ireland approach, as this is the ratio that has been adopted for the review of public administration in the North. Clearly, in this time of cross-Border co-operation and alignment, there is a need for this to be taken in to account.
This Bill is a missed opportunity as there was potential for real reform in this regard. I take this opportunity to make the point that a significant job performed by local representatives relates to joint policing committees. The joint policing committees often are closely aligned with town council areas, as is the case in my constituency.
This is a way in which local representatives can have a real input into how gardaí respond to the needs of their local communities. However, there is no basis in primary legislation for the committees. Has the Minister ever considered putting in place such a legislative basis? I ask him to ensure that all committees are properly answerable to the public.
In addition, there are numerous ways in which the system of local government needs to be improved. In the first instance, far too many powers have gradually been taken from councils and transferred to central government, in particular, those related to functions planning, housing, transport, roads, waste management and now water services. The Minister’s Bill, for all his talk, does not even remotely reverse that agenda. His Putting People First document was a masterclass in bluff and bluster. It is elegantly worded and well presented but totally lacking in any substance, and I believe this was noted by the Council of Europe which recognised the lack of substance.
Real reform would mean more powers being decentralised from national Government to local level. Real reform would mean that local communities would be properly represented. Real reform would mean that the powers which reside with the councils are in the hands of the elected representatives, rather than the officials. This is an important point with which anyone who has served on local authorities would be familiar.
We have seen a significant deal of centralising of power in the hands of the county manager and his or her officials. Our councillors are under-resourced and face a tough battle in taking on county and city managers with the resources and staff that a manager has at his or her disposal. This point is not considered often enough. The county manager very often gets his or her way because information can often be power. That needs to be tackled.
The Minister has failed entirely to tackle that and instead of doing so and giving local government a meaningful role in our political system, he has decided to simply go for the short-sighted approach of cutting numbers. The Government has recently recognised that this approach does not work in the public sector, as it has belatedly decided to take on new teachers, nurses and gardaí which were badly needed. It will soon learn that it will not work with local government either.