I move "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
In 2013, the House passed the Local Government Reform Bill, which was steered through by Phil Hogan, who was then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. My party was in government at that time. Some 80 town councils were abolished, which was a mistake. I personally regret that the Government of which I was a member made that decision and that we did not stop town councils from being abolished at that time. I spent the past three days at the British Labour Party conference trying to persuade the British people to think again on a matter of some importance to this country. If one recognises that something needs to be done differently, it is important to put forward a solution. Town councils were replaced by 137 municipal district councils which were essentially sub-committees of the county council. Let us not pretend they were anything else. They are sub-committees of the county council and are seen as such. They were also replaced by public participation networks ,which were meant to involve local community groups and other civic society actors in discussing local concerns. That was an extension of a proposal that I made many years ago when I was in the Department of the Environment and published a document called Better Local Government.
It is fair to say that five years later, this policy has not delivered an ideal system of local government. I acknowledge it is not all bad. Some public participation networks have successfully engaged with civic society and with their own communities but they are very much reliant on the presence of active citizens and organisations in particular areas. In other places, public participation networks have not worked so well and that must be acknowledged too. Municipal district councils have not delivered as a replacement for town government. I say this as somebody who has been involved in the local government system since I was a town councillor. I have been mayor of Wexford, a county councillor and Minister for the Environment and I have been involved in looking at the evolution of local government and at people attempting to alter local government. One thing I have been clear on for a very long time is that for decades, the Department of the Environment was anxious to merge town government into a county structure. As I have said, municipal district councils, as were created in 2013, have not delivered.
First and foremost, they operate across urban and rural areas in a way that undermines the concept of the urban centre, the town, the driver, the heartland of a community. A town is a defined urban area, a place with clear boundaries, with deep municipal histories that in many instances, as both Ministers of State here will remember, go back a long time. These are areas with an identity.
A clear focus on building towns lends itself to better planning decisions, more compact coherent settlement patterns, which in turn facilitates the delivery of public services, and which are more likely to deliver a stronger local economy. Strong and vibrant towns drive local communities. They drive not only the urban environment but also rural enterprise and they create jobs. Towns are central to economic development. They are the central focus of commercial activity up and down the country, and all of us who have had the opportunity to travel up and down the country know that.
There are approximately 100 towns in Ireland with a population of more than 5,000 people in what we describe as "defined urban boundaries". Some of them have had town councils for more than a century, and some for many centuries. Others, notably places like Swords and Blanchardstown, never had a town council, despite in some cases having populations in the tens of thousands.
We propose changes to what existed in the past. Our proposals are for a single type of town council which is a uniform system across the country, rather than the system which many of us remember, where there were town commissions, town councils, urban district councils and borough councils - each with not only varying membership but also varying powers. In the past, there were also large towns which had no council at all for anomalous historical reasons.
I ask people to give our proposal a fair hearing because it is one of the most important democratic initiatives that we can take as a House. We propose councils of nine members for every town with a population of 5,000 inhabitants or more, and councils of 15 members where the town population exceeds 25,000. The restoration of town government is to be done on a cost-neutral basis using the existing local government resources, simply moving the personnel that was taken from the town councils back to them.
Town government is not primarily about the economy, however, important and all as that is. It is about local democracy. According to an Edelman global survey of people's trust in institutions, Ireland scores particularly low. In 2018 just over one third of the people, 35%, reported trust in government. A lack of trust in government, the media and so-called "experts" is a recurrent theme not only for Ireland but around the world. It was a theme that helped elect US President Donald Trump, it was a theme that drove Brexit, and it has been a theme in the argument made by populist, nationalist parties across Europe, which continues to be made by them, as Mr. Steve Bannon and some of his cohorts arrive on our shores now to bang a populist drum. The whole theme is best summarised in one of the Brexit slogans, "Take back control", or in President Trump's election slogan, "Make America great again". They have all these empowering-sounding slogans.
What we want to do in the Bill that we are now proposing to this House is to give real power back to local people at local level. One of the core principles of the European Unions is subsidiarity, which is the idea that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the persons or people who will be affected by them. It makes sense for the population of towns, that is, those most affected by the decisions of local government, to be directly involved and consulted.
What does "Take back control" mean? It sounds mundane but it really is relevant. If Deputies talk to people in their communities, they will find that the things most people get animated about are what we would call "the smaller things", namely, the street lights, the footpaths, the vacant buildings, dog-fouling or minor things in the greater scheme of things but important things for people. It is town councillors, who are clearly accountable to the local population, who address those issues most effectively. Many people involved at local level do not know who their town councillors are because, as the Ministers of State know, the councillors in my area, for example, are drawn from a quarter of the entire county of Wexford. It is just not working. It is often the job of councillors to inform citizens about what is going on with planning permission, big development plans and to bring them around to some of the big ideas. Citizens must know and trust the people they have elected to do that. It is that interface or immediacy which is so important.
This proposal is undoing a mistake that was made, and it goes much further than the status quo. I am not asking people to go back to exactly what existed prior to the abolition of town councils, but to put in a uniform system where every urban centre will have the opportunity to elect its own council and restore the immediate connection of the community to the elected council. I ask the Ministers of State present and the Government to give fair consideration to what is a truly important proposal.