I thank the Chairman and committee for the invitation to come here today and give this presentation. I am glad to see Deputy O'Dowd here, a colleague from Drogheda. He works hard for the town. One interesting aspect of the 2011 general election campaign was the extent to which questions of political reform came to the fore as in no previous general election.
All the political parties advocated the view in their manifestos that political reform was central to the economic recovery of the State. All three of Ireland's main political parties at that time did point to local government as needing significant reform.
The subsequent reform that took place resulted in a reduction of local authority members from 1,627 to 950 and a significant reduction in local authorities from 114 to 31. The new arrangements and structures were supposed to improve democratic responsibility and accountability, community identity, responsiveness to local issues, subsidiarity, coherence and efficiency. They were meant to yield cost savings and better value for money and generally strengthen local government. At the time, the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan, argued the "whole tenet of my policy is to make sure there is a rebalancing of power to the democratically elected local councillor and away from the management system".
The result of the local government reform of 2014 is that the county has become the dominant political entity in regard to decision making at local level. As a consequence, the stated aims of Phil Hogan and the principles contained within the Putting People First document have not been fulfilled. The outcome could have been different if the reform had not eliminated the powers of the town and borough councils.
I speak today about my home town of Drogheda and how the changes resulting from the 2014 local government reform have impacted on the local citizenry. Drogheda is the largest town in the country with a population of approximately 42,000 people living within the urban network. When the rural areas of Tullyallen, Monasterboice, Termonfeckin etc. are taken in to account, the population rises to approximately 56,000. There are ten councillors, two Labour, two Fine Gael, one Fianna Fáil, two Independent and three Sinn Féin on Drogheda borough municipal district and they represent very well the views of Drogheda people on Louth County Council.
In terms of accountability and responsibility, the old Drogheda Borough Council was a local authority in its own right, with all the statutory powers that go with it, for example, planning, roads, environmental etc. Democratic responsibility was evident and meaningful because the decisions that were taken at local level by councillors could be traceable to factors within their control. In contrast, under the current local government set-up, decisions can be made by Louth County Council that can have a negative impact on Drogheda, and the councillors who vote in favour of these decisions will not be accountable to Drogheda citizens. For example, it is within the remit of Drogheda borough municipal district to set parking rates for the town and seek to ring-fence a portion of this revenue for spending exclusively within the borough district boundary.
At that meeting the chief executive of Louth County Council said that if Drogheda councillors agreed to the proposal, she would bring a new parking by-law proposal to the county council meeting to overturn the one set by the municipal district. What happened is that at one of the municipal district meetings councillors reduced the parking rate to €1 but then at the annual county council budget meeting a parking charge by-law was introduced to bring it back up to €1.20, thereby overturning the decision at municipal district level. That is evidence of how a decision taken at municipal district level can be overturned at county council level against the wishes of Drogheda councillors, if a majority of county councillors vote to do so. In other words, the citizens of the town might wish their councillors to increase taxation in order that money could be spent, for example, in the improvement of heritage structures, but that might not happen because councillors in Ardee and Dundalk object to the proposal and outvote Drogheda councillors at the county council meeting. The example also highlights how responsiveness to local issues can be lost at county council level.
It could be argued that community identity has been diluted in that the role of mayor of Drogheda is now a secondary function to that of chair of Louth County Council. The 2014 local government reform document stated the chair of the county council was the first citizen of a county. This has caused much angst among people in Drogheda and their politicians. Furthermore, while many people can have a negative view of politicians, the role of mayor was "owned" by the people of the town. Because of the reforms a perception was created that the political status of the town was being further downgraded.
Since the reform of local government the number of local authority staff allocated to Drogheda and their role have changed considerably. The post of town clerk is gone and we have a town engineer who cannot make decisions without referring to a higher authority at county council level. That can result in bad decision making. For example, in 2018 there was a significant demand in Drogheda from social housing tenants for maintenance works to be carried out in their homes. A large portion of the housing stock is more than 30 years old. Housing staff from the borough council days had built an extensive knowledge base of council tenants and could, therefore, make accurate decisions on the prioritisation of maintenance work requests. However, in 2018 decisions on such issues in Drogheda were made in Dundalk. The lack of local knowledge resulted in some minor maintenance work requests being sanctioned, while requests for more serious works to be carried out were left waiting. This caused considerable annoyance to tenants, some of whom had to wait until after Christmas for works to be carried out, which further strengthened the perception in the minds of citizens in Drogheda that they were being governed from Dundalk. In essence, the town is being managed remotely. There is no meaningful council presence in Drogheda. Furthermore, there is no specific Drogheda town development plan. The old plan was devised by the then Drogheda Borough Council for the period 2011 to 2017. It covered conservation, heritage, infrastructure, tourism, the environment, recreation and amenities, housing and communities and much more, all of which were specific and meaningful to the people of the town. There was no review of whether the aims and objectives of the plan were achieved. That, in itself, is a staggering indictment of the failure of the 2014 reforms and highlighted the need to reintroduce town councils. It is further evidence that the reforms led to a dilution of community identity and distrust of the political system.
A stated aim of the 2014 reforms was to develop and expand the concept of subsidiarity. The general aim of the principle of subsidiarity is to guarantee a degree of independence for a lower authority relative to a higher body or for a local authority relative to central government. It, therefore, involves the sharing of power between several levels of authority, a principle which forms the institutional basis of federal states. I suggest the local government reforms of 2014 went against the principle of subsidiarity in Drogheda. Power and resources, for example, decisions on roads and planning applications, among other matters, were taken from local governmente and devolved to central government. Local democratic structures, consumers and communities were politically disenfranchised. Political representatives at local level, that is, Drogheda, had their power to make decisions diluted and, in some cases, eliminated. Furthermore, civic groups such as the Drogheda City Status Group and business groups such as Drogheda Chamber of Commerce advocate for a return of the town council to Drogheda. The reforms failed to bring local government and decision makers closer to the citizen and to enable citizens to participate more effectively in shaping the public policy decisions and service outcomes that impact on their lives.
On rebalancing powers, the power of the chief executive greatly exceeds that of elected representatives. For example, Louth County Council is the leading shareholder in Drogheda Port Company. However, councillors in Louth County Council, across parties, had a preference for Louth County Council to take control of Drogheda Port Company as an administrative unit, rather than as a shareholder. Councillors voted unanimously in favour of the administrative option. However, the chief executive decided on the shareholder option and negotiated accordingly, which was within her rights. The recommendation of 29 councillors had no impact on the final decision taken. There is no meaningful rebalancing of powers in the chief executive and councillors relationship.
While the Local Government Reform Act 2014 was well intentioned, it failed in its primary purpose to bring meaningful local government closer to the citizen. In contrast, focusing on political and local government reforms that can plan and account for urban-led growth of towns and their environs holds greater promise for a positive, closer citizen and local government relationship.