Deputy Damien English was in possession. There are 16 minutes remaining in the slot, but as the debate will conclude at 7.30 p.m. in accordance with Standing Orders, the Deputy has six minutes.
Local Government Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)
I ran the clock down on the last occasion also. In my last contribution, I complimented the work done by all the former staff of the Meath town councils at Kells, Navan and Trim. They did great work and our towns and county are certainly a lot better for their existence. They had a great influence on development in our towns and county. However, no one can argue that the present system of town councils is fair or proportionate. Why does Kells have a town council while its neighbour Oldcastle, a town which is a little smaller but is an industrial centre, does not? The population of Ashbourne has increased through the housing and commuter boom to one that rivals that of Navan. Rapid growth and poor planning have brought challenges that must be tackled, so why does Ashbourne have no town council? Other south Meath towns such as Dunboyne, Ratoath and Dunshaughlin have also experienced rapid population growth over the past 15 to 20 years, to the point at which they rival Kells or even Trim in size, yet they have no town councils. The same can also be said for the necklace of communities on the short coastline of east Meath, whose geography is nearer Drogheda and whose presence in the Louth Dáil constituency presents their citizens with complicated representational and administrative issues.
The many examples I have listed prove a point. To give all of these communities new town councils would totally distort our political system. It would make a nonsense of the county council and its related bodies, such as the education and training boards. It would lead to hundreds of town councillors in a county such as Meath alone, coupled with a county council and six Deputies in two Dáil constituencies, as well as the Louth Deputies from that area.
During this debate, and in other debates, many have cited the French system and referred to the powerful mayors in each town, village or rural district in France in support of our own town councils and, indeed, in support of an even greater network of town councils. However, in France, as in many other mainland European countries, it is just a mayor who is elected for a set term and who can be kicked out if he or she does a bad job. There are not nine town councillors electing a chairperson each May or June, backed up by a town clerk and other administration staff. The system is completely different in that there is a spokesperson for a town, not a whole costly system of administration that gets complicated and duplicates a lot of the work done by the area council. Town councils are nice to have but they do not always lead to value for money or speedy decisions. While I acknowledge the great work that has been done by town councils, given that I served as an area councillor, there are complications and delays in decision making which do not benefit the overall areas or towns.
As I have already stated, no one could argue that the present system of town councils is fair or proportionate unless that person already lives in a town council area. If there is a town council, naturally, people want to keep it. I welcome the consolidation of city and county councils in Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary. This will allow for a stronger regional voice in these proud and historic cities and counties, while also saving money and avoiding duplication. Nationally, we will move from having 1,400 local public representatives to having just over 900 following the local elections next year. We are fulfilling a key part of Fine Gael's five-point plan and of the Fine Gael-Labour Party programme for Government. The mantra of broken promises holds no water here, yet again.
The breaking down of county council work into municipal authorities will also be a new departure for some counties which discharge most of their business at plenary meetings of the county council. In larger counties and cities, most of the real nitty-gritty local work was done through an area committee structure. To me, there are great similarities between the area committee and the municipal authority. While I realise the municipal authorities are intended to be seen as an extension of the town councils formerly contained within them, in practice, most councillors will choose to see them, as I do, as enhanced area committees corresponding with their new local electoral area boundaries.
With this in mind, I want to express a very clear view that the main civic and ceremonial role in each county should remain with the chairman or cathaoirleach of the county council. There can only be one first citizen. Municipal authorities will obviously have to elect a chair to order and discharge their business, but they should not have a civic function. There may be a case to be made in this regard by the more historic cities and boroughs, with their own charters which predate the Local Government Act 1898, and I am open to hearing that. However, as a rule, in each county there should only be one boss who is the elected public face of that county. To have multiple chain-holders running around the by-roads of Meath or the streets of Navan, Kells, Trim and many other towns would confuse the public, as well as visitors and potential investors, and would ultimately make the property taxpayer and ratepayer cynical about these worthwhile reforms.
I commend the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on his and his Department's work on this reforming Local Government Bill. It is not easy or nice to abolish town councils, given their history and so on, but it is practical and common sense. I served as a county councillor and, therefore, for five years I was an area councillor, where I saw great work done. That is the way municipal authorities will work. The area council system works very well and that is the way to do it. I look forward to seeing it in operation. I know not everyone will like it but, in time, it will be proved that it was the right thing to do.
We will adjourn the debate, leaving ten minutes remaining for Deputies Joe Carey and Eoghan Murphy.