Local Government (Restoration of Town Councils) Bill 2018: Discussion

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No. 8 on the agenda is detailed scrutiny of the Local Government (Restoration of Town Councils) Bill 2018. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Deputy Brendan Howlin, Dr. Aodh Quinlivan from UCC, Mr. Pio Smith and Ms Marie Maloney. I apologise to the witnesses for delaying them. The previous part of the meeting ran an hour over schedule which is quite normal for this committee.

Before we begin, I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I call on Deputy Howlin to make his opening statement.

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for providing time to discuss what I regard as very important legislation. I have circulated a script, but I do not intend to read it because of the lateness of the hour and the short amount of time available to us. Technically, will the remarks be included in the official record of the committee?

Yes they will.

As long as that is done, I am happy.

In essence I regard this as an important piece of restoration work. Before Deputy Cassells asks the question, I confirm that I was a member of the Government that abolished town councils, which was a mistake. I have been around these Houses for a long time. People make mistakes all the time; political parties make mistakes. As I said in my reasoning, there was an antipathy to politics at the time with people blaming politicians for the economic crisis we were facing. I believe it was a mistake to remove the really important lowest tier of local government, which is town government.

I spent some time in the Custom House as Minister for the Environment and Local Government. There was always a certain antipathy to town government in the Custom House. The officials always felt it should be a county structure. There was probably an agenda item for a willing Minister to push that at any given juncture.

I couch my proposal in the context of what is going on internationally. We must have regard to the very serious erosion in people's confidence in politics and political systems. We certainly need to have a direct connection between politics and the electorate - our citizens. The most immediate and direct connecting point has been town government. I have been privileged to serve on Wexford Borough Council and Wexford County Council. I have been mayor of my own town and I know the direct connection between what used to be Wexford Corporation and the people of the town.

Town government also acts as a driver of economic and social activity in its hinterland. My honest evaluation is that the structure that replaced it, one of municipal districts, just has not worked. Even taking it as an honest effort, it has not worked. In my area, a quarter of the county is now a municipal area. It has diluted the town focus and many people have disconnected themselves from their local representative. They would not know them in the immediate sense that would always have been the case in the past.

We have talked to people across the country and introduced this legislation. It does not replicate exactly what was in place before the abolition of town councils. We have proposed what might be a better model of having a new town council. We would not have the three categories that used to exist: the borough councils which were corporations; the town councils; and the town commissions. We propose one category of town council. It would be available to every municipal area of 1,000 dwellings and 5,000 people with a recognisable municipal heart. That would be determined by the local government commission. It would be available to towns which, for historical reasons, never had town councils in the past even though they had population bases that are much greater than some of the areas that had. It would not restore town councils to some of the very smaller ones that people often pick out when they are arguing against town councils. It has often been said 70 votes would get someone elected to certain town councils. I will not mention which of them, but there are a few that do the rounds periodically.

I believe this is a robust suggestion. The idea would be to restore to town councils all the powers that existed in the old town councils. It would be a rock of sense and would be a good democratic thing to do. It certainly would not be particularly expensive because the administration is happening in any event. The only additionality would be the very modest cost of an additional small number of councillors. We are suggesting nine councillors for towns with populations below 25,000 and 15 where the population is above 25,000.

I have set out the proposal in great detail. I would be very happy to provide the committee with other documentation on European norms. Our level of local democracy is very much out of sync with European norms. More worryingly, we are very much out of sync in the level of money we spend through local authorities. Most of the big financial decisions that impact on local communities are determined centrally. People might think that, as a former Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, I would like to cling onto that, but that is not the case.

It is important that we consider the models of the best performing countries, particularly the Nordic countries, where up to one third of resources are expended at local level. We are at the other end of that extreme and I will be happy to provide the documentation to the committee to show that.

I hope I will be able to answer any questions from members. At the committee's request, I have asked others to accompany me to this meeting. Two of them are practitioners who wish to advocate for their areas. Ms Marie Moloney is from Killarney, which had the strongest lobby immediately after the abolition. People felt that Killarney was a place that needed local representation and considered it very important. Mr. Pio Smith is from Drogheda, which is an ancient borough with an extraordinarily long tradition. It was a great mistake to abolish that town council. Dr. Aodh Quinlivan is a lecturer in governance in University College Cork, UCC, and an expert on local government matters.

I invite Dr. Quinlivan to make his presentation.

Dr. Aodh Quinlivan

I thank the committee for the invitation. I will go through my statement quickly. I submitted some other documentation to the committee and it is available to the members.

My position is quite straightforward. I was a strong critic of the decision in 2014 to abolish the town councils so I favour the reintroduction of a sub-county tier of local government. When I worked in Cork County Council and did my postgraduate studies by night I was heavily influenced by the former Limerick county manager, Mr. Dick Haslam, who was my main lecturer and my mentor. At that time 25 years ago I frequently heard people throw out the phrase: "In Ireland we do not have local government, we have local administration". The focus was always on the second word, "administration", versus government. When I teach now I prefer to focus on the neglected first word, "government".

If local government is not local it is nothing. Local government exists for two primary reasons, as a provider of local public services and as an instrument of local democracy to give expression to community self-government. This is based on the principle of subsidiarity which states that as many powers and functions as possible should be devolved to the level closest to the citizen. Ireland has signed up to that principle under the Council of Europe's European Charter of Local Self-Government, the EU's treaty of Amsterdam and under Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, as the Council of Europe pointed out in 2013, we are hypocrites. We use the rhetoric of subsidiarity, power to the people and putting people first, but our public policies go in the opposite direction.

As members know, local government in Ireland is extremely weak. Staggeringly, it lacks constitutional protection and, accordingly, a tier of directly elected institutions, the town councils, was abolished in 2014 without reference to the people by way of a referendum, unlike for Seanad Éireann. In terms of the numbers of local authorities and local councillors, we have the most disconnected model in Europe. This year we celebrate the 120th anniversary of the first local elections, which brought the current system of local government into being. At that time we had over 600 local authorities and we gradually whittled that down to 114. Now we have 31, which is soon to be 30 if Galway City Council and Galway County Council merge. The international local autonomy index places Ireland in 38th place out of 39. Ireland is not only more centralised than developed democracies such as Austria, Finland and Germany, it is also more centralised than Macedonia and Albania. Only Moldova ranks below us.

This is relevant to any discussion on town councils. We have blindly followed an appealing but fundamentally incorrect narrative which is that big is better, cheaper, means improved services and is more efficient. The problem is that the international research evidence refutes that narrative. The evidence informs us that a smaller number of larger local authorities does not yield improvements, savings and efficiencies. To paraphrase Professor Howard Elcock, the amalgamation and abolition of local authorities is an addiction suffered by central governments.

The knock-on effects are serious. The council elected in May 2019 in Cork city will have a ratio of one councillor for 6,800 citizens. This is a massive number in comparison with one to 120 in France, one to 210 in Austria and one to 350 in Germany. It is leading to a political fallout. Almost one third of the current members of Cork City Council are not standing for election in May, three of the young newly elected councillors in 2014 are bowing out and half of the female elected members are leaving. Many of these councillors have cited the fact that their jurisdictions are too large and require them to be full-time councillors, yet they are not being rewarded with a full-time salary and find it next to impossible to balance their council roles with their daily working lives and family commitments. We are moving in the wrong direction but the members here have the opportunity to reverse that trend.

I will turn to a few specific arguments in favour of re-establishing a town council tier. First, town councils were the most efficient element within the local government system in terms of being self-financing and maintaining commercial rates at a lower level than their county council counterparts. Killarney has been mentioned. At the time of its abolition Killarney Town Council had the highest rate take in Kerry with the lowest rate in euro, so there is an efficiency argument to be made.

Second, on democratic grounds and to cite evidence, as opposed to rhetoric or an appealing narrative, the wealth of evidence suggests that there is a negative relationship between the size of a local government unit and the political trust which citizens have in local elected members - in other words, the smaller the unit and the closer it is to us, the more trust we have in it. We are invested in how the town is run and how money is spent. "Putting People First" was a lovely slogan to attach to the policy document of October 2012, which proposed to abolish the town councils. The truth is that we have removed people from the equation. We are asking them to participate through fixyourstreet.ie in the absence of the town council. The citizen was barely mentioned in "Putting People First". She was kidnapped and replaced by the consumer. We opted to champion efficiency over democracy and we have achieved neither.

Third, it is important to point out that more women were elected to town councils than to any other level of government in Ireland. Election to one's town council was in reach for many people because if one was organised and availed of a network of family and friends one could win a seat with a few hundred votes. Town councils were a useful entry point into politics for young people generally, women, people from different ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities and so forth. In removing that political entry point we have narrowed the pool of people who are willing or able to contest elections for city and county councils. The result is councils that are dominated by middle aged and elderly grey haired men who can afford to be full-time local public representatives.

I have deliberately not spoken to the specifics of the Bill. I believe that there must be a tier of sub-county government in Ireland, and it is up to the elected representatives to tie down the specifics. There is no doubt that, as Deputy Howlin indicated, the old town council model was severely flawed. The councils covered only 15% of the population and the population range went from 298 to 30,000. We need a new model, but powers and finance must be devolved downwards to give it meaning.

The municipal districts are now in place and have been reasonably successful, but in a very narrow way. I have spoken to councillors and the effectiveness of the districts varies enormously between and within local authorities. They have played a role, partly because they are comprehensive and more or less cover the entire country. However, let us be honest about the fact that they are glorified area committees of the county councils. Let nobody pretend that they are an elected tier of local government.

At the overall level we must relax the vice-like grip of centralisation which is suffocating local autonomy. Paulo Coelho wrote that "a mistake repeated more than once is a decision". Since 1922 we have been making decisions in favour of centralisation. Now we must start making decisions in favour of local democracy and local self-government. Town or municipal councils should be at the heart of our local government system. The nature of local government is that civic society is up close and personal. Local councils and the services they provide have a far more immediate, continuous and comprehensive impact on our daily lives than many issues which dominate nationally.

Local councils and councillors must deal with a range of issues and factors that are not of their making and for which they may, in some cases, have no formal responsibility. These issues include migration, multiculturalism, homelessness, social exclusion and other social problems such as drug addiction and petty crime. Many of the social problems faced by Irish communities today are most sharply evident in urban settings and towns.

In 1924 the Dáil debated the abolition of rural district councils in the name of efficiency and cost savings. What was really meant was centralisation. During the debate, Deputy John Daly from Cork asked, "what would a man from Bantry Bay know about affairs in Araglen?" The world is a smaller place today and we have a continuous 24-7 new cycle and social media, but John Daly knew what he was talking about. He ended his contribution by saying that local representatives know their area best of all and should be given the power to tackle local problems appropriately. It really is as simple as that. Local government must be local.

Ms Marie Moloney

Thank you for allowing me to come here today to make a case for the reinstatement of town councils and to support Deputy Howlin's town council Bill. I come from Killarney, a major tourism town that is steeped in history. Killarney Town Council was an important link with the local chamber of commerce and with local retail and industries and most important of all, with the people of Killarney town and its hinterland. A major benefit of town councils is to encourage the role of the town as a hub for the local economy.

I must acknowledge that there is now a Killarney municipal district which is a sub-committee of Kerry County Council. However there is a huge demand on the members of the municipal districts to give a service to their constituents as they have a huge rural area to cover in addition to the urban areas. Killarney municipal district has a population of around 38,000 people and it covers a much wider area than the town itself, which has a population of slightly fewer than 15,000 people. The members of the municipal district have to attend to a lot of county-wide policy, activities, and meetings, whereas the town councillors could focus exclusively on the needs of the town as an urban district area.

Killarney is really the tourism capital of Ireland that constantly wins prizes in the tourism industry and from all guides and tourism reviewers. The brand name, "Killarney", is huge abroad. Tourism is a major part of the economy in Killarney and there are a number of ways in which a town council and a dedicated town mayor would benefit tourism. For example, Killarney is noted for its festivals and events in the town, where a town mayor plays an important ceremonial role. There are also meetings with delegations, including tour operators. The role of mayor of a town the size of Killarney is certainly demanding and is practically full time. The chairpersons of the municipal districts have a range of other important duties and many rural events and festivals to attend where they represent the district and Kerry County Council.

Killarney town is twinned with five towns in Europe and has a sister city agreement with four cities in the USA. These are vital links for Killarney as they promote the town abroad and are responsible for a huge influx of tourists to Killarney and subsequently to County Kerry as a whole. It is imperative that when officials from our twin towns in Europe and sister cities in the US visit Killarney that they are greeted by a town mayor along with our twinning committee, a mayor who can dedicate his or her time to assisting and accompanying these officials during their visit. It is also imperative that Killarney reciprocate the visits by travelling to these twinned towns and cities, to promote Killarney and Kerry abroad, but to be able to do this a mayor must have a dedicated allowance as they cannot be expected to finance the visits themselves.

As Killarney is heavily reliant on the tourism sector for employment, with few or no new industrial jobs or manufacturing companies coming to this area, it is imperative that we nurture and enhance our tourism industry. The more tourists that visit Killarney and Kerry as a whole, the better the knock-on effect for the accommodation sector, the small and medium retail outlets, restaurants and bars along with the entertainment sector, all of which provide employment in the area. A Killarney tourism economic impact report revealed that tourism in the town generates €410 million annually. Killarney welcomes 1.1 million visitors annually, which support over 3,000 local jobs.

As I am a candidate to contest the county council elections, I have been spending a lot of time knocking on doors in the Killarney area and time and time again the people have asked me about reinstating the town council. Many of them feel a little disconnected from the members of the municipal district, feeling they have too big an area to cover to give dedicated time to the town. They felt when the town councillors were in place they could solely apply their time to servicing the town and ensuring that things like footpaths, roads and housing estates were up to scratch and this was not their only function, as they assisted people with their personal needs such as housing, planning, and the upkeep of local authority houses among other things. It was a major mistake to dissolve the town councils and if we recognise that a mistake has been made we must be prepared to admit it and do something to rectify the mistake and that is what Deputy Howlin is doing by introducing this important Bill. We must reinstate town councils as statutory bodies with full autonomy. Town councils were an integral part of local democracy which has now been diminished. How can we in Ireland be such defenders of local governance and differ in this aspect from every town in Europe? Yesterday, trade unions representing more than 30,000 local council workers launched a campaign for substantially increased revenue and funding powers for local authorities and published research that showed Irish councils have less autonomy than their counterparts in 39 European countries. Their More Power to You campaign also calls for legislative changes to facilitate directly-elected mayors and restore and expand town councils. While I have spoken predominantly about Killarney town, what I have outlined can apply to many towns around the country, therefore I trust that Deputy Howlin will get support from all parties and none for this Bill, because town councils have been an important part of Irish democracy for hundreds of years.

Mr. Pio Smith

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.

Deputy Cassells is substituting for Deputy Casey.

It is always good to attend this committee to discuss local government. The point was well made by Deputy Howlin in respect of the serious issue of housing being relegated in the discussion. I welcome all of the delegates to the debate. I am well used to listening to Councillor Pio Smith on my local radio station, LMFM, with Deputy O'Dowd. I am familiar with many of the issues about which he spoke such as councillors being outvoted on the issue of parking charges or the status of the relationship with Drogheda Port Company.

Like Deputy Howlin, I am proud to have been mayor of my town. It is almost 20 years since I was first elected to Navan Town Council in the 1999 local elections. I believe passionately in the process and the proposals made. I have also formally made proposals. In 2017 Fianna Fáil introduced a Bill to seek to have town councils restored. The progress of the Bill was frustratingly slow after Second Stage and the Bill was eventually killed by the Cabinet last week. It will be interesting to see the reaction to the proposals we heard this morning. I believe in the rebalancing of democracy, as outlined by Dr. Quinlivan. I was troubled by the manner in which the Government had killed the Bill and especially the attempts of the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, to frame the debate. He believes giving a citizen two votes, one in electing a town council and one in electing a county council, would in some way be undemocratic. I do not believe it would be. Nothing is more undemocratic than what happened in the abolition of the councils in the first place. It is wrong to frame my proposals and those of Deputy Howlin as undemocratic. It is flawed and misses the point that, as Councillor Smith outlined, large towns are unique spaces which require special management, budgets and development plans. As Dr. Quinlivan said, the over-centralisation is inexcusable. In effect, we are bottom of the table across Europe. I agree with Deputy Howlin's assertion that we have diluted the focus on towns by virtue of what has happened. They have been left the poorer as a result of the shift from their statutory basis to the flawed municipal district model.

Ms Moloney referred to the launch by the three unions, namely, Fórsa, SIPTU and Connect, wh6ich I attended. A welcome debate has been instigated. The campaign is entitled, More Power to You, and there is a five point plan, the first of which is democracy and the call for the reinstatement of the town council system. When Councillor Dermot Lacey was present, we discussed funding powers. Ms Moloney's contribution was focused on Killarney and the rates base in the town. I have a very good friend on Killarney Municipal District Council, Councillor Niall Kelleher, who is also vice president of the chamber of commerce. It is interesting that Dr. Quinlivan mentioned the rates take in Killarney and efficiency. Councillor Kelleher explained to me the current situation in the town. The income from rates in the Killarney municipal district is approximately €10.9 million, of which €7.3 million comes from the very small centre of the town.

Since the abolition of Killarney Town Council the money raised in the town has to be redistributed. That is infuriating the business community because it is raising the lion's share of the rates base and it is not being reinvested, as had been the case, in the town core. That is a fundamental issue on which Deputy Howlin and I agree. What is Deputy Howlin's view of the retention of the rates base and the examination of the boundary which has been a key bugbear for decades for directors of finance and county managers? We went through a boundary extension in Navan when John Gormley was Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and in the proposals, a loop was drawn around Tara Mines, which would have a huge rates base, to make sure it was kept outside the potential town boundary. Deputy Howlin said this would be a different model, that the town boundaries from an administrative and financial point of view would reflect the true town and boundaries would not be divvied up to ensure the lucrative rates were retained by the county and not the town.

I presume the Deputy would seek to reinstate the development plan process on a statutory basis within the town council system. Councillor Smith mentioned the role of the mayor in respect of the Drogheda Port Company. If the Government will give us any information, there may be a pilot plebiscite for Cork, Limerick and Waterford for the city bases. Has the Deputy thought about the impact of that on large town council bases such as Drogheda, Navan or Wexford and their role? That is an important point for the rebalancing of powers.

Will Dr. Quinlivan talk about the role of the directly-elected mayor in a town council system? I know from engagements with town twinning processes in Europe that the role and power of the mayor there is quite distinctive. There is a mini-cabinet as well in the town authorities.

My proposals set a threshold slightly higher than the 5,000 Deputy Howlin proposes. It is an issue of debate in all parties because Deputies will want the threshold set for their towns. I believe we should go first for the larger towns such as Drogheda, Navan, Wexford and Killarney to give them the sense of autonomy in respect of budgetary and planning powers to achieve substantial things. Does Deputy Howlin believe that if Drogheda gets it Ardee should get it. Similarly, if Navan and Wexford get it, then should Kells and New Ross also get it? The figure of 5,000 is arbitrary but could the Deputy explain the beliefs behind that figure?

I apologise for being late. I did not hear Deputy Howlin's comments but I did listen with great interest to the other commentaries. Somewhat like Deputy Howlin I have been involved in local government for a long time. I served on the local council for 26 years, including as mayor. I fully support the comments made by Councillor Smith. He is absolutely right that an appalling vista has been visited on the town of Drogheda because it is not in control of its own destiny. It does not have local accountability. It does not have a town manager and has absolutely no relevance when the debate moves from the municipal to the county level. I fully support the implicit changes.

I have argued for, and fully support, the city status of a town such as Drogheda to give it control of its destiny. It is time for the county manager, the Minister and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to appoint a manager to the town with the status at least of deputy city manager, to plan and negotiate with Louth County Council and Meath County Council the proper, fair and appropriate development of the town and the adjoining portions of County Meath without infringing on the Meath jersey, as Deputy Cassells knows. For that to happen would need somebody with a lot of skill. That is what we need to manage the growth of Drogheda, which is a city. It will reach the population benchmark of 50,000 citizens, which the Central Statistics Office uses to define an urban conurbation by 2023 or 2024. That is what the CSO tells me. To prepare for that change we need it to be led professionally by a full-time executive who has the power to make all those decisions, together with the local council. That is what I am pushing for. I have met the Taoiseach and the Chamber of Commerce and we are all ad idem on this. It must happen.

One of the issues in County Louth is a dysfunction between the members of the local authority and the administration. Without wishing to personalise this, it is unacceptable that meetings of the municipal council or functions in the town of Drogheda are not attended at the very highest level by the chief executive of the council. There is an obligation on them to attend those meetings. That has not happened for some years. When I was on the council, and I am sure when Deputy Howlin was on the council in Wexford, the manager had a mandatory attendance at least twice a month with his full management team in the town, in public, to be accountable, to answer questions, not just about fixing the streets but to plan the future development. That is missing and I fully support Deputy Howlin in that. The door is wide open for change.

Urban regeneration in Drogheda has not been met by funding from the Department as yet. It is under appeal and due process has to take place but to be denied the urban development that it needs and the money to plan and restore the town centre is also unacceptable. As regards Drogheda Port, I am not on the county council, I do not know what happened but I presume if it is accountable to the county council it has to produce an annual report and it can be required to attend at the council meeting to discuss that report and any other issues that arise from it. If there are issues of concern that is the way to manage them.

The big question, which Dr. Quinlivan mentioned, is the lack of interest in local government. I do not know how many people in Drogheda could name even five or six of the local councillors. I am not sure I could name them all. I know the ones I talk to regularly. Years ago, there was fire and brimstone at every council meeting and I could not walk down town without having an argument with somebody or other. The vibrancy, the liveliness and the dynamic has gone from local government. There is absolutely no doubt about that. Its restoration may not happen right now. I have a feeling that the coming local government elections will have a low poll. I do not want that. Accountability has moved to Facebook and other media from the local press. The presence of local government on social media needs to be improved. I would like to fix my street, provided it is fixed, but it often is not.

Many changes are taking place and the witnesses' positions are in the vanguard of that change.

My last point is one I make as somebody who has grey hair. I cannot change my age, but I can change my grey hair. However, I choose to leave my hair as it is and I am very proud of it. Many more people would have grey hair if they did not use the bottles. Incidentally, I am talking about men. With age comes wisdom, knowledge, experience and, thankfully, a good sense of humour. I appreciate the witnesses' points.

Deputy O'Dowd is unquestionably the biggest supporter of Drogheda. He fights for his county at every meeting. Some of the questions were not relevant to Deputy Howlin's Bill but gave the context for it. Does Deputy Howlin wish to answer particular questions?

I thank both Deputies for their supportive comments. Anybody who has had experience of local government at that level appreciates its value. We should strive to restore it. If, as Deputy Cassells says, there is pushback in this Dáil for whatever number of months and if we advance this Bill, whoever forms a future Government would put this back on the agenda and it is important for that reason.

There were a number of specific questions. The structure of the Bill is simple. It repeals the abolition and restores the powers that used to exist in the old town councils. The council would be a rating authority, a planning authority and so forth. It is not necessary to specify that because it simply does away with the abolition. That is what the Bill does.

In terms of who sets the boundaries, I am conscious of how fraught such an issue can be, and not only in Drogheda between Louth and Meath. There have been significant court cases between members of the same party in respect of Waterford and Kilkenny, for example. Perhaps it is to do with the hurling tradition, but there are fierce protectors of Rosbercon, which is genuinely part of New Ross but is on the other side of the River Barrow. The closer one gets to a county boundary, the more definitive the protection will be. I was going to tell a joke about the boundary of Wexford and Kilkenny, but I had better not. They are real issues and I suggest that we give that role to the local government commission. We all have seen situations where odd decisions were made for particular reasons that were pushed by an executive. Deputy Cassells talked about Tara Mines. I recall that when Wexford borough was extended, the main industrial base on the south side of it was excluded, in an irrational way, because it was said that it would impoverish the county council to lose the industrial estate. We need to remove that and make rational developmental decisions for the natural hinterland of a town to grow.

Regarding whether 5,000 should be the threshold, that is entirely a matter of debate and I am open to suggestions. The Deputy referred to New Ross. New Ross is one of the oldest existing urban towns in Ireland. It was established by the Normans when they arrived and first settled in this country 800 years ago. The Ros Tapestry depicts the establishment of the municipal boundary.

That is my point. Some towns historically have had town councils. Kells in Meath would be the same, but Ashbourne, which is one of the fastest growing towns, is now the second biggest town in Meath but had no town council previously. That is the reason I was asking for the Deputy's rationale.

That is why I suggest 5,000. It would capture most of the historical ones. I intended to avoid mentioning others but I do not believe one could justify it for places such as Lismore, which traditionally had a town council. There must be a critical mass. Whether 5,000 is a high enough threshold is a matter of debate. My position on it is not fixed in stone but it is what I advocate in the Bill.

I was asking the Deputy for his reason for arriving at that figure. Was it a case of trying to capture as many as had previously been-----

We circulated as an attachment the populations of all the towns that would be captured by a population base of 5,000. It is a two-page list of towns starting with Arklow and ending with Youghal that would meet the threshold. One would not exclude any town in it. That is the reasoning behind it.

On the other questions, the directly elected mayor is not encompassed in my proposal. I do not have a fixed view on it and I would be interested to hear other people's views. If a town such as Wexford, Drogheda or Navan has a directly elected mayor, how does that impact on the other councillors in the area? If there is a five-year term and there is a powerful single individual, it diminishes the others. I do not have a fixed view on whether that is necessarily a good or bad thing. That is why it is not part of this, although I tabled a parliamentary question this week to the Minister to ask if that is intended. These plebiscites will take place in the major cities and I have received a great deal of correspondence asking if they will be rolled out to the larger towns. I do not know whether that is a good or a bad thing.

Deputy O'Dowd is always a great advocate for Drogheda, and rightly so, and I do not disagree with anything he said. A big issue that we must get our heads around is the power between the executive and the elected members. That is very difficult when there is such a disparity of capacity in terms of people who are part-time, not full-time-----

The Deputy is right about resources.

-----and who are not resourced. I examined this many years ago and I produced a document entitled Better Local Government. My suggestion at that stage, which I believe is the genesis of a good idea but it has never been implemented in the way I envisaged, was that the strategic policy committee, SPC, be chaired by an elected councillor. For example, in housing, the SPC would be chaired by a councillor who would be the effective minister for housing for the locality. It would not be the housing officer making the presentation at the monthly meeting but the chair of the SPC. The housing officer would be-----

He would administer the policy.

-----reporting to the chair of the SPC. The corporate policy group would be, in effect, the Cabinet. That was my idea but it did not work out. It has not been driven. Part of it is due to resources because one cannot expect part-time people to be on top of a matter in the way that full-time administrators are. There is a job of work to be done and Deputy O'Dowd is correct in that regard.

My final point is in my full contribution but I did not mention it in my opening statement. There is an argument for participation in democracy at town council level. There are people who have been traditionally members of town councils who would never stand for election for even the county council. They are just part of their town and community. For the reason that Dr. Quinlivan suggested, there were far more women, ethnically different people and people with disabilities involved. It is very good to get those people involved. One of the reasons for that is that when I was a member of Wexford Borough Council, virtually all the meetings were in the evenings. People could do their job and attend the meetings. They were always at 7.30 p.m. People cannot hold down a full-time job and go to monthly or fortnightly meetings during the day.

Dr. Aodh Quinlivan

On the directly elected mayor issue, there would be no necessity for a directly elected mayor in towns. It comes back to the overall idea behind local government that I mentioned with regard to delivering services and the more democratic benefit. The model that is always trotted out is France with its 36,000 communes. When I was an undergraduate 35 years ago, people were talking about France having 36,000 communes, and it still has them. In most countries the pressure has been to merge and abolish local authorities. If one tried to abolish the local town council in France, there would be war. The French are very happy to work together to deliver services but they need their own council and mayor.

I was in a place two summers ago with 27 inhabitants that had a mayor, a town hall and a guide with a sash. They were very proud-----

(Interruptions).

You have to be old and grey.

Dr. Aodh Quinlivan

It was very important to them symbolically. It was based on the idea of democracy, that one devolves to the bottom. It involves a bottom-up approach whereby as many powers and functions as possible are left at the lowest level, what cannot be done at this level is passed up to a higher tier, and what that tier cannot do is passed up to the state. National government should do a few things well, not a lot of things badly. It has too much going on.

We possibly look at things in a piecemeal fashion. We need to look at local government reform as a total piece in terms of devolving powers and functions. We are looking at town councils here. Plebiscites to introduce directly elected mayors will take place. We have seen no proposals for local government reform generally. As has been acknowledged, perhaps housing has dominated the Department's agenda. Regarding town councils, a very simple point is that the towns with town councils were better in my opinion when it came to libraries, swimming pools and the sense of civic community. Mr. Smith spoke about the support of the chambers of commerce because, unfortunately, that certainly was not the case in 2014. They generally bought into the idea of efficiency and abolishing town councils, so it is good that they might be turning around and appreciating things.

Nationally, chambers of commerce are still maintaining the status quo. At a meeting of Chambers Ireland last month in Navan with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the managing directors who were there said it was a great thing.

Dr. Aodh Quinlivan

That is an ongoing battle even though many businesses in towns saw their rates go up after the abolition of town councils. I accept completely the point about age and wisdom. The point also concerns town councils being an avenue for younger people and different generations to come through. Ideally, perhaps the town council should be as apolitical as possible. We could have a long argument about the balance of powers between chief executives and councillors. We probably need a rebalancing. It is probably also fair to say that some elected members abdicate their powers. While many of them would say that they should have more powers vis-à-vis the chief executive, some of them would run a mile if they got those powers, but that is a slightly separate issue.

The last one is a key point. This relates to directly elected mayors. I appreciate the question arises as to whether it should be a town over a certain size. It is not just the major cities that would take that responsibility and insist on that change. That is at the heart of what is happening in Drogheda. We do not have somebody who is accountable because he or she does not live in the town or come to it in terms of the meetings, yet he or she makes all the decisions whereas a directly elected mayor is on the spot and would be fired if he or she did not do his or her job.

We will leave it on that point. I thank all our witnesses for attending and apologise for delaying them because we went an hour over schedule. I thank Ms Maloney, Deputy Howlin, Mr. Smith and Dr. Quinlivan for appearing before us this morning. I am sure we will have an ongoing conversation about this. We will decide next week how we will proceed with this Bill.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.55 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 3 April 2019.