The fact that the single-member system of proportional representation, while quite unsuitable for the Legislature, is almost ideal for electing a local authority, arises from the fundamental and essential difference between the National Assembly and a local authority. The former is a sovereign Parliament whose competency to make laws is only circumscribed by the wide ambit of the Constitution. A local authority is an entirely subordinate body and can only exercise such powers and perform such duties as may be delegated to it by the Oireachtas. The function of a local authority is to administer the law as given to it by Parliament, and in accordance with the delegation of Parliament, but it cannot change that law. It cannot legislate. Even in the matter of by-laws, the terms of a by-law must be intra vires the legislative provisions enabling the by-law to be made.
The primary purpose of a local authority is in fact administrative, to carry on the local affairs on behalf of every section of the local community. In order that this may be done effectively, it is highly desirable, if not indeed essential, that the local authority shall be equally as representative of all parts of the area which it administers, as it is of the area as a whole.
Equal distribution of representation, however, can only be attained when each individual member is specifically elected to represent a particular area in a way that admits of no overlapping, confusion, or, on his part, evasion. But experience has shown that in the large electoral areas called county electoral areas, which have been brought into being by multimember constituencies, the representation instead of being widely distributed over the whole area, as sound local government would require, has tended to be concentrated upon the more densely populated districts of those areas. In this way the rural parts of the county have tended in general to be under-represented on the county council, while the urban areas on the other hand have been very much over-represented.
The concentration of representation in county affairs upon the urban areas not only tends to impair the representative character of the local authority; it is also highly inequitable. The main revenues of the county council are derived from or in respect of the rural areas. By comparison with the amounts thus raised the contributions of individual boroughs or urban districts to the common county treasury are not very significant. Yet under the present system of election those areas which are the main source of the council's revenues are greatly under-represented on the spending authority. But the anomaly goes further, for, while the urban residents on the county council may discuss and by their votes determine every question affecting the rural area which arises, whether it be in relation to housing, sanitary services, roads other than main roads, street-lighting, or such like, the rural residents on the county council are debarred from any voice or vote whatsoever in settling these matters should they relate to a borough or urban district. Quite clearly this position is contrary to natural justice.
To correct this anomalous position this Bill proposes, under Section 2, to rearrange representation so that the present disequilibrium between representation and financial responsibility will be adjusted. In this way we shall not only remove the discrepancy between the representation of town and country on the local authority, but, by increasing the special personal responsibilities of the individual members to the districts for which they are elected, we shall greatly improve the standard of representation for the country as a whole.
The expedient of increasing the personal responsibility of the local representative by reducing the size of his constituency is to be applied also, though in a lesser degree, to urban authorities. Henceforward, instead of whole cities and towns being taken for the electoral area as is, with the exception of the County Borough of Dublin, the case at present, the administrative area of the county borough, borough, urban district or town, as the case may be, will be divided into a number of electoral areas, each returning three members. As in the case of the county electoral areas, this will be done under Section 2, particularly by sub-sections (2) and (6). I should mention, at this stage, that it is not intended to change the size of the several local authorities as at present fixed.
The principles to be followed in framing the Orders dividing a county into local electoral areas are set out in sub-section (3) of Section 2. Briefly, they provide that in the case of the purely rural areas due regard is to be had when framing the Orders to: (a) the number of local government electors registered in the areas; (b) the rateable valuations of the areas; (c) the density of population; (d) the general character of such areas.
So far as county electoral areas, which comprise boroughs or urban districts, or which are constituted within boroughs or urban districts, are concerned, paragraph (2) of the sub-section provides that where the average amount of the county charges charged upon the urban area, in respect of the three years which preceded the year in which the Order is made, justifies it, the urban area shall be constituted as one, or if the financial position justifies it, more than one electoral area. As things now are, this rule will apply only to the largest boroughs and urban districts.
If, however, the average amounts thus charged upon the urban district would not justify the creation of a special urban electoral area or areas, but is at least one-half of the amount which would justify it, the urban area may be divided into two or more parts, and each such part shall be amalgamated with a contiguous non-urban area to form an electoral area, the county charges upon which would have approximated to the average of the county charges upon the purely rural electoral areas. This rule (which is set out in paragraph (b) of sub-section (3)) represents a mitigation of the first rule. It will apply to many of the urban districts and it is believed will afford a larger representation to these areas than would be given by the strict application of the first rule.
Where the average of the amounts charged upon an urban district is less than half the average charges in the same period upon the average rural electoral area, the urban district will not be divided but will be merged with the surrounding rural area to constitute an electoral district, the average county charge upon which would have approximated to that upon a rural electoral area. In framing the Orders relating to county boroughs, urban areas and towns the number of local government electors in and the rateable valuations of the areas are to be taken into account.
The creation of the new electoral areas in the manner I have described may require new polling districts and provision is made for this in Section 3. Heretofore the normal period of office of members of local authorities has been three years. Local elections, however, as the House is aware, have been postponed very frequently so that the three-year election rule has not been regularly followed.
Arising out of this, representations have been made by bodies representative of local authorities that the normal term of office should be fixed at five years. The conclusion is inescapable that the five-year term, which has become almost normal in practice, should be the statutory term, and it is proposed, under Section 4, to make it so accordingly.
Under the existing law the next election for local authorities should take place next year but we are also to have a general election next year. Here again it has been the universally demanded practice to postpone the local elections when they are due to take place in the year in which a general election is being held or in which it is intended to hold such an election. I propose to conform with that precedent and accordingly Section 4 also provides that the next local elections will be held in 1950 — the last elections were held in 1945 — and that subsequent elections will be held in every fifth year thereafter.