Local Government (Restoration of Town Councils) Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]

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.

I thank the Ministers of State for coming in today. The Labour Party proposes this Bill because we believe it is necessary. My party colleagues around the country felt that getting rid of town councils was a mistake and that reforming and regenerating how they worked was the right thing to do, but we went a step too far. I am thinking of people like Mr. Sean Counihan in Killarney, who has been chasing us on this issue for years. It was a mistake, and it was one made by Fine Gael and the Labour Party. We need to deal with it now. I thank in advance Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and others who have said they would support such a change.

This is a practical Bill to bring back town councils for towns that have 5,000 people or more, and it is necessary. In my county, Nenagh, Thurles and other towns need town councils, because town councils are on the money when it comes to issues relating to real things that affect people in towns. One can see how the municipal districts and the areas covered by the council at county council level do not get down into the detail as quickly as possible.

Our proposal is cost neutral, which means it should be embraced even more. It also gives the opportunity to right the wrongs of situations, such as Ballincollig and other towns, that did not have town councils when they should have had then, while other areas had town councils historically which maybe should not have. The Government has an opportunity to right a wrong as well as dealing with something that is needed.

It is also apparent that it is needed when at various announcements and when dignitaries come to an area the representative is not from the area. He or she could be from the other side of the county, doing his or her best, and be a good person across a whole range of different political views, but not actually from the area. In a situation where there are town councils, they would obviously elect one of their own in order that if there were a major tourism initiative, a major announcement or a dignitary coming to the town, he or she would be able to deal with it and do so with local knowledge. There would be no need to ask for directions or where the event was on.

We recommend that a local government commission should have between nine and 15 members.

We are open to compromise in how that works but that is our proposal. In fairness to the Minister, he has acknowledged that there is a need for a change. I refer to the changes made to the local government boundaries. I looked at my own local district municipal unit of Nenagh. The councillors from all parties were expected to cover an area that extended from the Limerick border to the Clare border and all the way to the Galway border. It was incredible, crazy and impossible for many councillors, paid €17,000 or €18,000 a year, to cover that area. That has been acknowledged, as the councillors are in the same municipal area now. The local electoral area has been changed and made more realistic for their area of coverage. That was a step in a positive direction. Now we need to go further when it comes to dealing with the return of town councils and add to the progress made in recent times. When it comes to town councils, there may be some push back against this within the local government administration. I know what I am talking about in this regard from previous jobs I held.

Ultimately, Deputy Eoghan Murphy is the Minister and we are the people's forum. Town councils may have been a nuisance for some in local authority administrations. I do not accept that. I believe the decision was wrong and it is up to us, the Minister and the Government to be strong and to support this Bill because we know it is the right thing to do. Walking around the corridors of Leinster House, the majority of Members in the Minister's party, my party and in Fianna Fáil - no other party is represented in the House at the moment - know that we have to do this. If the current Government will not do it, it will have to be done by a future Government. I ask the Government to take the opportunity we have now to deal with this issue and show a bit of progressiveness and embrace what we are doing. The Government can change it if it wants. We are not stuck in the mud on every single detail. We will embrace any changes that the Government wants to bring forward but I believe that the Dáil is going to vote to back this Bill. I hope the Government will accept it in that spirit.

I stand before the House as somebody who was formerly a representative on Mallow Town Council and I was proud to be a member. I cut my back teeth on that very council.

When I was a Minister of State and somebody asked me before an Irish Presidency Competitiveness Council meeting whether I was nervous going into such a big room with all those European Union Ministers from the 27 members states, I had to say that if a person had ever chaired a meeting of Mallow Town Council then he or she could chair a meeting of any forum anywhere in the world. I am proud of the fact that I started there, as did my late father in 1967. In government, we become part of a collective agreement and I was part of the decision that collectively agreed to abolish town councils. I am glad that we as a party have taken a decision to seek to rescind that decision. It was a grievous error and I acknowledge fully that I was part of that decision. I support the legislation that we have put forward so that we can create again the front-line for representative democracy, that is, through our municipal or district councils. People will argue that local authorities such as Cork County Council have the municipal districts.

In my experience, since their creation, people have been a little removed from the decision-making mechanisms. The resources of the local authorities have become more stretched in the allocation of engineers, housing staff and outdoor staff and they are covering a larger geographic area. If we decide to implement this legislation as a Legislature and reinstate town councils, what we will put back into them is the core competency of staff who always looked after these towns. Since the abolition of town councils, I have noticed a diminution of services in towns. I am sure many Members find themselves doing council-related work more often. We are all happy to do that because all politics is local and we will help everybody at every turn of the road, no matter how high up the food chain we go politically. I believe though that having a coterie of town councillors again representing districts and towns would be another service. It would mean a return to basics and to core principles in representative democracy and the people would welcome that.

No matter what town a person comes from, when he or she walks down the main street as a public representative - whether as a councillor, a Deputy or a Minister - there will always be somebody on a Friday or Saturday afternoon that will ask why we abolished the town councils. I am hard-pressed to give an answer. This legislation seeks to address that. People liked the idea that they had a local person they could go to who would represent their interests and advocate for the bread and butter issues that affect them. I refer to getting the bread and butter issues or the simple things right because sometimes it is the simple things that exercise people. The town council gave everybody access on those bread and butter issues. There is now a sense of remoteness. Citizens in towns do not feel that connectedness through the relationships in the municipal districts. That is something that this legislation would address.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:

"Dáil Éireann declines to give the Local Government (Restoration of Town Councils) Bill 2018 a Second Reading in order that the issue of town councils can be considered in the context of the report ‘Municipal Governance – Districts, Towns and Local Electoral Areas’ on potential measures to boost local government leadership and accountability, and to ensure that local government funding, structures and responsibilities strengthen local democracy, including the issues of town or borough council status and reduction in the size of local electoral areas, which is currently under consideration by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government."

I will go back to my council days as well to get the amendment procedures corrected. I welcome this opportunity to discuss important issues relating to the local government system, to hear the views of Deputies, and to share with the House the Government’s proposals for the future of local government in Ireland. One thing that most of us value is the work of local government, be that in the former town councils or the existing local authority areas and local councils. Most of us present served that apprenticeship and it is without doubt a major benefit coming into this House as a Deputy and going on to be committee chairmen or Ministers or Ministers of State. The opportunity that one gets at local government level is second to none. It gets a person ready for a proper career in politics and political representation. We cannot value that enough. Many of us have developed good working relationships at that level as well and that has benefits in this House because we carry that with us right the way through. Local government has achieved much when it comes to politics and we all value that. We might differ over the different versions of it and disagree with certain parts of it but we all recognise the importance of local government one way or the other. It is important that we remind ourselves of that as well.

The Bill proposes the re-establishment of town councils, as recommended by a Local Government Commission based on the census report on population distribution and movements published by the Central Statistics Office. We are opposing the Bill, mainly for reasons of timing, as the matters raised are part of the report on local government matters and have been submitted to the Government and the Oireachtas under the Programme for a Partnership Government. There are also parts with which we might agree with but for now we think the timing of it is premature. I am instead proposing that Dáil Éireann declines to give the Bill a Second Reading in order that the issue of town councils can be considered in the context of the report, Municipal Governance - Districts, Towns and Local Electoral Areas. This examines potential measures to boost local government leadership and accountability and to ensure local government funding, structures and responsibilities strengthen local democracy, including the issues of town or borough council status and a reduction in the size of local electoral areas. That is currently under consideration by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government.

The report is with the committee, having been submitted to it for consideration in April. It is appropriate to allow the committee time to complete its deliberations before making any decisions. The Government's, Action Programme for Effective Local Government - Putting People First, which was the platform for the wide-ranging reform programme implemented in 2014, set out an ambitious vision for local government to be the main vehicle of governance and public service at local level, leading economic, social and community development, delivering efficient and good value services and representing citizens and local communities effectively and accountably. We intend to further that objective, building on the significant improvements that have been made in recent years. All of us can see how local government has stepped up in the past number of years to deliver a much wider range of services.

Local authorities have been involved in driving both social and economic development and have had some great success, and that should be recognised. They are taking a greater role, and in my view are much more of an authority than they used to be and are much more relevant across the board in many aspects of the development of our towns and counties, and rightly so. They are the key vehicle for making things happen at a local level. I have certainly seen the benefits in recent years.

The next stage in that process is the report to the Government and the Oireachtas under the programme for partnership Government on potential measures to boost local government leadership and accountability and to ensure that local government structures and responsibilities strengthen local democracy. The programme signals this process as the next wave of local government reform and indicates specific issues to be considered, including reducing the size of local electoral areas and the question of town and borough councils. To date, several papers have been submitted to the Government and to the Oireachtas for consideration. In addition to the paper on municipal governance, papers on local authority boundaries and local authority structures have also been completed. Indeed, the recommendations in the local authority structures paper are the main substance of the Local Government Bill 2018 which will be before this House in the coming weeks. My colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, also will bring forward proposals on local authority leadership, governance and administration - the issue of directly elected mayors - in the coming weeks, and a final paper examining devolution of functions will also be presented to Government in the coming weeks.

To achieve the vision set out in the 2012 policy document, the structural framework must be fit for purpose. Accordingly, a core element of the reform programme was structural reorganisation, involving the unification of certain city and county councils, and replacing 80 former town councils by municipal districts integrated with the county councils in a new, innovative, system of governance. This builds on the Barrington committee report of 1991 which identified the need to overhaul sub-county arrangements including the replacement of existing town authorities and also highlighted significant concerns with the existing town council system, including the issue of double representation, where towns have separate councils in addition to representation at county level. Outdated boundaries and other anomalies have now been removed. The new system provides more effective and community-focused decision-making and implementation. There is full integration of local authority resources across each county and elimination of duplication both in administrative and electoral terms. The new municipal district system is also closer to the European norm, covering the entire territory of each county, in contrast with the previous unbalanced arrangement of isolated town councils, while rural areas, many town environs, and some larger centres lacked municipal status and local governance. Indeed, a 2013 Council of Europe report specifically welcomed the decision to replace the town council system with the new municipal district arrangement, particularly because it ended the dual franchise in towns, which the report described as unfair.

An important benefit of the new system is a more appropriate assignment of local authority functions. Local matters are dealt with at municipal district level, while those of wider strategic application are decided at county level, without duplication between county and district jurisdictions. In effect, there is now a dual system of governance but an integrated administrative structure in each county, which maximises operational efficiency while ensuring devolved decision-making throughout the county.

Turning to the Bill itself, I must record that it has technical flaws, particularly the fact that it is linked to repealed provisions of the Local Government Act 2001. Substantial redrafting would be required if it were to progress. However, there are more fundamental issues in principle with the Bill. Insofar as there are shortcomings and scope for improvement in current local government arrangements, these matters can, and will, be addressed without resorting to the re-establishment of an array of town councils, if that is what this House decides. Nobody has said that everything is perfect. Ongoing reform is required and we must constantly tweak the system to make it better. The Bill relies on a local government commission to define the town councils. The local government commission is provided for in sections 89 to 95 of the Local Government Act 2001, which have not been commenced and were repealed in 2014; the commission does not exist. Even if the local government commission was in place, the Bill provides for the commission, and not the Minister, to make orders determining what constitutes a town, including defining the boundaries of a town. The Bill proposes that each town council would consist of one local electoral area. Having more town-focused local electoral areas was part of the terms of reference for the independent local electoral boundary review, which is now complete. Local electoral areas will be now be provided for in legislation, in line with the boundary review report recommendations, and these recommendations do not align with the proposal in the Bill that each town council would consist of one local electoral area. It would not be possible to implement the Bill's proposals based on the 2018 local electoral area boundary committee report.

Arguments being made for restoring the town councils, such as a lack of investment by local authorities in towns, are not generally supported by facts. My home town of Navan, for example, has been very well served by the municipal area approach, although I recognise that the boundary of the municipal area in that example is married closely to the new town boundary, as well as some rural areas. It is one of the municipal areas we got right, and that has been recognised with the changes that have happened with the boundaries. We have tried to recognise those larger towns and realign the boundaries to match up with some of those towns.

Concerns about lack of urban focus, as well as geographically large municipal districts, have in the main been addressed by the local electoral area boundary review of 2018, published in June 2018, in line with its terms of reference to define distinct urban-focused local electoral areas as appropriate in respect of towns where the population was equal to or greater than 15,000. This provision also applied to county towns where they did not meet the population criteria.

There is little general support for the restoration of town councils, even among councillors, as has been confirmed on several occasions by comments from the Association of Irish Local Government. We have met that group at various meetings and it has said that it is not interested in restoration, and has said the same publically. We have to have this conversation, but-----

The Deputy should talk to the town councillors.

We have to engage with everybody, but I am conscious there was duplication there as well.

The Deputy has spoken to the winners of the system.

We went through a certain process in dealing with this matter. There are different views out there, and unlike Deputy Sherlock, I do not have people knocking on my door to ask where the town council has gone. That does not really happen. Perhaps it happens in some cases, but I am being genuine and telling the truth. I am not saying the Deputy is incorrect, but that there are different views out there. I am not getting the feedback the Deputy is getting, although I recognise that Deputy Cassells will also have very strong views on this matter as well and might get different feedback. We have to find a way of processing the different concerns that exist on different issues.

The reasons for restructuring local government in 2014 are still valid, and if town councils are re-established, the flaws and weaknesses that gave rise to their dissolution will return and would, in fact, be increased because it would be necessary to apply much wider boundaries in many towns and create authorities in new locations. In my county, for example, places such as Ashbourne, Dunboyne and Enfield did not have town councils. The only councils we had were those in Navan, Kells and Trim. It was not exactly a fair system. Those boundaries had to be changed, and that process took a long time in some cases. It was not perfect, and it is worth bearing that in mind. The change to municipal areas makes it much more effective. There also have been some benefits in terms of effectiveness and decision-making. I often felt that a twin approach was required, between the council area and the town council. Decisions were delayed, and in my experience, decisions delayed are often bad decisions. If we ever go back to the town council system that should be borne in mind, because the opportunity for nothing to happen then arises.

As the advancement of local government and the need to take centralised power from the Custom House is something about which I am passionate, I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this subject this afternoon. Indeed, I introduced a Bill on behalf of Fianna Fáil on the re-establishment of town councils last year, which was brought through Second Stage and committee scrutiny before Christmas, after which the Government tried to suffocate it with a money message. However, we will persevere.

Fianna Fáil is passionate about making sure that we can have an enhanced system of local democracy, because the model of the municipal district simply does not deliver that in a truly meaningful way. It has conspired against our urban centres and means they are not provided with the powers to improve the lives of the people living in them. We flagged this issue quite clearly, and indeed were joined in chambers across Ireland by members from other parties who shared our view. We said clearly that if key powers, including budgeting and planning powers, were taken from local towns, the ability to positively impact the way these towns are governed would be neutered. Each town is unique. Each has its own challenges and its own strengths. Accordingly, the ability for each town to set different commercial rates, rather than having one rate per county, was always helpful in bad economic times when councillors could use their discretion and judgment to help businesses survive. Equally, in terms of the passing of town plans, councillors in a particular urban centre knew the area best and could produce stronger plans.

I spent 17 years as a councillor at town and county level, and our ability to get things done was far more effective at town council level, where we ran budget surpluses, had the powers to raise our own finance, take bank loans and pursue projects for the people of my town, Navan. These plans were not subjected to a vote or a debate at county council level, where there was an inherently anti-town attitude from many members from other geographical areas. We were already living in an over-centralised and under-represented system before the abolition of town councils, but it got worse after those councils were abolished. We once had 1,627 elected councillors in Ireland. It has been slashed to 950 in the name of reform. Lest anyone think we had too many councillors before this, let us reflect on the hard facts.

The average population per councillor in Ireland used to be 2,815 and even that was the highest in the EU in 2015, with the UK in second place. We now have one councillor for every 4,838 persons, effectively 5,000. Let us compare that to the rest of Europe. In France, there is one councillor for every 118 persons. France has 36,500 councillors. In fact, across Europe the average of number of people per councillor is in the hundreds, yet here we have one for every 5,000. Those issues might have gotten lost for the ordinary person in the street, but when ordinary people saw the impact hit home as their towns formed part of larger urban boundaries, in some cases the size of Dáil constituencies, the net impact was realised. As I said, the crucial issue of finance then kicked in and the revenue which had been raised in towns from commercial rates or parking charges was now pooled into a county council budget. Our towns have suffered as a result.

Politically, it has to be said that it was the Labour Party which supported Fine Gael in government in implementing this disaster. It was the assassination of our democracy and it was shameful. I heard Deputy Brendan Howlin in the Chamber earlier today accusing Fianna Fáil of buying popularity at election time, yet here we are debating the re-establishment of a much-needed layer of local government because Deputy Howlin and the Labour Party went along with a so-called "populist" move, culling 1,000 councillors in the name of reform to try to make it look to the public that they were doing something positive. It was unforgivable because it centralised more power. More devastatingly, it crippled the ability of small and large towns to run their own shows, to be free of the shackles of government and to progress their own plans. It took away their ability to show how imagination could create urban spaces that are a pleasure to work and live in.

I read the email that Deputy Howlin sent around last week, with the mea culpa story about what they had done. It was a like a fox going into a henhouse. Having savaged all the chickens, he meets the farmer on the way out, and with a shotgun at his head says "Mea culpa". That is Deputy Howlin. Here he is today, the Fantastic Mr. Fox, with feathers coming out of his mouth as he begs forgiveness for culling so many effective councils that represented the beating heart of our towns.

I served on Navan Town Council and was honoured to have been mayor of my town on two occasions. We achieved a hell of a lot. Another town I know very well is Drogheda, located close to us, where the local government proudly held borough council status. That town has felt the brunt of this decision very badly. It is a town with a very proud Labour Party tradition, where I attended many meetings of the National Union of Journalists, NUJ, in the local union hall.

Deputy Cassells comes from a family with a very proud Labour Party tradition.

This morning the local newspaper in that town, the Drogheda Independent, has a front page story arguing that on this very issue it is time to get the power back. That town has felt the loss of those decisions. We will not oppose this Bill on Second Stage because as I said, we believe that any advancement of democratic institutions is to be welcomed. We made a firm commitment to town councils in our own election manifesto, and we moved our own Bill in this respect last year. However, we also believe that the model to be introduced needs to be different from what was there before. I have no problem admitting that there were many ineffective councils that had previously been town commissions. They had little budgetary power, if any. I also believe, as I said during scrutiny of our own Bill on Committee Stage with Deputy John Paul Phelan, that we need to be brave and imaginative about what we want to see for our local councils in future.

I have had a lot of engagement with councils in Italy, in the towns of Bobbio and Broccostella with which I twinned Navan. I gained huge insight from interaction with their elected administration. Those towns effectively have mini-cabinets at council level. Different councillors have portfolios concerning infrastructure, education or recreational facilities and the mayor has executive powers. The most immediate impact I could see was that when the mayor walked down the street of his own home town, people knew that this man was responsible for the running of their town. With that come all the perks and responsibility of that role. Crucially, people can see who is responsible when things go wrong and indeed when they go right. They have a sense of belonging to the administration in their town. There is a starting point for accountability, and that is crucial.

I firmly believe we need to get to that stage. We have the ultimate pass-the-can system in this country. We should be brave. We should look at enhancing the executive control of our own council chambers as opposed to the board of directors ethos that we have at present, whereby councillors come each month to simply receive a chief executive's report and toddle off again. We need something more radical and imaginative, something giving real power to those who are accountable to the people.

I welcome Fianna Fáil's support of this Bill. It is similar to a Fianna Fáil Bill that was produced last year. Some 80 town councils and almost 750 town councillors were effectively abolished by the last Government. This idea was not merely created or endorsed, it was actually championed as a populist move. It fundamentally undermined democracy. We were told it would save a lot of money. That obviously never happened because every level of staff that was there before was kept on, and rightly so as they were needed. The only thing that was taken out was one level of democracy.

We heard from Deputy Cassells that there is now only one councillor for every 5,000 people and those councillors, especially those based in the towns, are massively overstretched. One can see that from talking to any of the councillors dealing with those major towns. Why is that? It is because we used to have another layer of local democracy. In those towns, councillors were councillors who had no ambition to be county councillors or Deputies. They were solely and purely interested in their local town. They were always on the ground and if there was an issue with lights or footpaths one could meet with them. They knew who their engineer was. They would meet their engineer later that day, and that engineer would be able to sort out the problem. One now has to approach a county councillor who has to go to the town where the county council is based. The request goes into the abyss and one may or may not hear about it again. The council might have to contact some third party contractor, or Irish Water as the case may be, to solve the problem.

Local government spreads democracy. It has been said that without local government we do not have democracy. That is very much the case. I very much want to see the return of our town councils. I was proud to serve on a town council for five years. It was a very effective town council that had a balanced budget. The loss of those councils is an absolute shame on this democracy.

I welcome the Bill. I never served on a town council, but my late father served as chair of Ballina Town Council twice and before he went into public life served as town engineer, a position also occupied by my grandfather. From that vantage, I note the debate we had last night is absolutely relevant to this debate. Town councils, urban councils and borough corporations were the most effective providers of public housing in this country. They delivered it and they minded it, when they were properly resourced. This is a good step in the context of a housing and homelessness debate. We are also holding this debate in the week of Tidy Towns. Again, the urban councils, town councils and borough corporations were the initial providers. They gave people the chance to take ownership of the issues and challenges facing their towns and to exploit their towns' cultural and economic opportunities.

In the four years since that has been gone, towns have weakened. I heard Deputy Howlin say the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment wanted this for years. The Department got its way. Deputy Howlin does not see the damage that has been done on a daily basis in towns throughout the country because he got his way. We do, because we are the people on the ground. This year, that damage resulted in community groups in towns in Mayo, such as Tidy Towns, graveyard management and tourism bodies being forced to wait until July to get their community funds because the county executive decided to use the town budgets as pawns in a budget battle with councillors. Organisations suffered because of that. That would not happen if we had town councils with their own planning powers, made up of nine people known in their communities, or whatever the figure in this Bill is.

The Minister's lack of ambition for towns throughout the country is ridiculous. He seems to be afraid to restore their power because Fine Gael does not like town councils. It never did well in them because it never understood them. The Minister has the chance to undo the damage his constituency colleague did in 2013. He has the chance to restore Kilkenny's reputation by restoring town councils.

This Bill reverses the Fine Gael-Labour Party decision to abolish town councils. It is ironic and paradoxical that the Labour Party, which was part of the Government that abolished town councils at that time, is now advocating their restoration.

Can one not change one's mind?

The Local Government Reform Act 2014 of the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan, and the previous Administration created a democratic deficit at the heart of Irish politics, placing more power in the hands of unelected officials. It utterly failed to transform how we do politics in this country. However, this policy shift must be welcomed.

The main strength of town councils was in the personal touch. One of the town council's most vital roles was regular liaison with the local area office of the local authority on issues such as grass cutting, road and footpath maintenance, signage, area enhancement and weed control. These are all the simple things that go unnoticed unless they are not done. For example, Lismore, a stunning heritage town, was dependent on its town council to promote tourism, interact with the tidy towns group and liaise with the local authority. The loss of the town council was widely felt by the local community. In Ireland, towns were used to electing representatives to represent them at local level. In 1898, local government in Ireland was recognised. The county town of Dungarvan, which has a population of 10,000 people, became an urban district in 1898. This system worked well and contrary to the idea peddled at the time of its abolition that we had too many elected representatives, we had the lowest number of councillors relative to population in the EU. The seaside town of Tramore, with a population of 12,000 residents, lost its town council and the right to make local decisions. We need local solutions for local problems.

Tá an-áthas orm tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún seo chun go mbeadh na comhairlí bailte tabhartha ar ais mórthimpeall na tíre. Botún a bhí ann nuair a chuir an Rialtas deireanach deireadh leo agus cé nach bhfuilimid ag lorg go dtabhairfí iad ar ais mar a bhíodh siad, tá deis ann anois rudaí a bhrú chun cinn agus rud nua a chur ina n-áit.

I welcome this opportunity to support the motion because the loss of their town councils was strongly felt in many towns. More than five years ago, more than a dozen town councils and 100 town councillors in my county were dismissed. Those town councils had provided a voice in their areas. They provided a leadership role and a platform not just for local issues but for how national issues impacted the local community. Macroom residents, for example, would have reasonably expected to be able to walk down the street any day and meet a number of councillors if they wished to raise an issue with them. They also have expected to be able to go into the town council office to discuss a housing application but this is not available to them under the current system.

The town councils were able to advance housing with a local emphasis. I will focus on one example where people in Macroom lost out as a result of the previous Government's abolition of town councils. Macroom Town Council was ready to start construction of seven houses in Masseytown. The town council was dismissed and at county level there was a different focus on bigger schemes. Time was lost having to retender and we have ended up with the houses being under construction only now, five years after the town council could have progressed them. It means people in Macroom have missed out on the opportunity of having those houses over recent years. I have no doubt that if Macroom Town Council had continued in existence families would be facing into their third or possibly fourth Christmas in those houses but they are not yet finished and it does not look like they will be finished this side of Christmas. It was a mistake to end the town councils and the Minister of State needs to look at a way to bring back an upgraded variation of them.

It is a very rare occurrence in politics that people will admit they got something wrong. Most seem to follow Napoleon's advice never to retreat, never retract and never admit a mistake. The Fine Gael and Labour Party Government most certainly got it wrong when it abolished town councils, doing so without any public consultation to add insult to injury. At least in this instance the Labour Party has recognised how ill-judged that decision was and is now advocating the restoration of our town councils. The decision at that time showed a complete lack of understanding of how local communities function. It prioritised the saving of a paltry amount of money over the empowerment of local communities. Our 2017 Bill, proposed by my colleague, Deputy Cassells, sought to right that wrong. The Bill before us clearly resembles that Fianna Fáil Bill.

The democratic deficit created in 2014 must be repressed to allow all of our constituents better access to the political process. Our towns absolutely need good local governance structures to deliver quicker and more efficient services. I got my first bite of the political cherry in Newbridge Town Council when the good people of Newbridge saw fit to elect me to represent them at that level. I saw at first hand the incredible unpaid efforts of community groups, such as tidy towns, community games groups and many others, working to help one another. I was privileged during that time to see so many dedicated people carrying out work to deliver new, exciting and innovative projects, activities and initiatives throughout our town.

The point of the Maastricht treaty, which Europe adopted 26 years ago in 1992, was the principle of subsidiarity, whereby people would make decisions as closely as possible to the citizens on the ground. This has taken us completely away from that. We must absolutely restore town councils. We must restore confidence in our structures. We must restore local democracy and bring back real power to the people.

I am glad Deputy Howlin has admitted that the abolition of 80 town councils and 700 town councillors, as a result of the Local Government Reform Act 2014 introduced by the former Minister, Phil Hogan, was a mistake. Many mistakes were made by that Government but at least Deputy Howlin has admitted to this one. Putting People First was, in fact, putting people last. I was a member of Bandon Town Council for ten years and served twice as mayor of the town in which I now live. I was the first female mayor of the town, an honour of which I was very glad. As such, I am supportive of the Bill.

The Labour Party's Bill reflects similarities to the Fianna Fáil legislation that passed Second Stage in 2017 following a commitment in our manifesto of 2016. The reintroduction of town councils would revitalise towns throughout west Cork and the country as a whole. I have made many references to this on many occasions. Local government is a driving force behind towns and communities because it is at the heart of job creation, democratic representation, civic participation and local service provision. Town councils ensure real issues pertaining to local matters that affect people in west Cork are tackled head-on. It is important that people engage with local communities and participate in local government. The town council structure is conducive to allowing this to happen. Issues such as housing, vacant premises, commercial rates, increasing rents, water, road infrastructure and antisocial behaviour need to be addressed urgently but, more importantly, they need to be addressed continuously. In this regard I welcome the principle of the Bill and we in Fianna Fáil will work with all parties to revitalise local democracy.

Town councils were the bottom rung of the ladder and when they are taken away it is very difficult to jump up to the next step.

Sinn Féin has always been in favour of retaining town councils. This is why we voted against the Bill, introduced and passed by Fine Gael and the Labour Party, to abolish them in 2013. Sinn Féin believes in the retention of properly functioning local democracy that provides for better engagement with citizens and improved accountability at local level. There is nothing new in this and it remains our view. The Local Government Reform Act did not reform town councils. It abolished 75 town councils and five borough councils, including the borough council in Drogheda. In 2012, the Labour Party and Fine Gael Government published Putting People First, which acknowledged the importance of town councils. It was a big glossy brochure but despite it the Labour Party and Fine Gael went ahead and abolished town councils anyway.

This Bill represents the height of hypocrisy. The Labour Party was in government when town councils were abolished. It voted for the abolition of the councils and the then Minister, Deputy Kelly, enforced the policy when he took over responsibility for local government.

There is a list the length of my arm detailing how Labour sold out during its time in Government. It cut the respite care grant, lone parent's allowance and social welfare for young people, and introduced water charges and the local property tax. Abolishing town councils was just another item on that long list.

Section 10 claims that the re-establishment of town councils will be met from existing resources and there will be no additional cost to the State. Will Deputy Howlin explain how re-establishing 80 councils could be done cost free? How will additional councillors be paid, for example, and how will councils run without additional resourcing or budgeting? I can only assume this section was included because of the obvious fact that establishing 80 town councils would cost money, and Opposition parties cannot enact legislation that costs money. The Labour Party is now in opposition but when it was in power, it got rid of councils. The Labour Party talks the talk in opposition but sells out the country when in power. The people know this, as was made clear in the last election. Every argument made by Labour today for the reinstatement of borough councils was known in 2012 and 2013 but the party still went ahead to abolish them.

This Bill also only states that the Minister "may" resurrect councils if he or she so wishes. The Minister knows that and it is only up to him or her. There is an onus on the Minister to reinstate borough and town councils. The Bill, unfortunately, would achieve nothing but the Deputies know that. The Labour Party had the opportunity to reform local government as part of the national Government but it did not do so. It just got rid of councils. Labour does one thing in opposition and the complete opposite in power, so why would anybody trust the Labour Party after all it did? Why in God's name would anybody give the party the time of day? It is a new low in cynical politics, even for the Labour Party.

I will speak about my town of Drogheda. When Deputy Alan Kelly was Minister with responsibility for local government, he stated in reply to a parliamentary question that he was satisfied Drogheda had a status appropriate to its size and location within Louth County Council. He said he had no proposals to introduce amending legislation to establish a new city authority in Drogheda or elsewhere. His colleague, a former Labour super-junior Minister in Cabinet at the time who is from Drogheda, said absolutely nothing and put up no fight for the town. He actively removed Drogheda's borough council. Labour was warned about this consequences time and again of removing local democracy or power from borough and town councils and setting up toothless municipal councils. We in Drogheda and Dundalk have had to put up with the mess created day in and day out since. Louth has the two largest towns in the State and neither has a council worth anything. Louth County Council treats Drogheda as an afterthought.

Has the Deputy's party any proposals?

Drogheda does not even have its own budget because of the Labour Party. The party voted to strip Drogheda of its borough council status, its town clerk and any shred of local democracy or accountability. These were obvious consequences of abolishing town councils and the party was told it would happen. Now, five years later, it is making a weak attempt to rectify the matter.

Sinn Féin has made no attempt.

We all know this Bill is not worth the paper on which it is written. The Government must now establish town and borough councils and introduce local government reform to ensure towns and boroughs can have adequate powers to run towns properly. We need to ensure we have strong, focussed, functional local government. We will support the Bill because, unlike the Labour Party and the Government, we have always supported town councils and believed in the importance of local democracy and accountability.

It is not worth the paper on which it is written but Sinn Féin will support it anyway.

The time is now to reinstate borough and local town councils so as to undo the damage done by Fine Gael and its Labour Party colleagues.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to once again address the very important matter of local democracy. I spoke to a very similar Bill in 2017 introduced by the Deputy across from me, and, needless to say, my position has certainly not changed. The decision in 2014 to abolish our town and borough councils was a sad day for Ireland. It left a deep democratic deficit that has not, and will not, be filled unless this policy is reversed and these councils restored.

We can speak today about the destruction of rural Ireland and the breaking of the social contract between citizens and the State but the extent of power and decision making removed from urban communities at the time was fundamentally wrong. In my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, we lost eight town councils. County Cavan lost councils in Cavan town, Belturbet and Cootehill, and County Monaghan lost Monaghan town, Clones, Castleblayney, Carrickmacross and Ballybay. There were 72 elected members from all parties and none on these councils. They were entrusted by their local communities to make the right local decisions to make their town the best place in which to live, visit, grow up, work and invest.

This form of local government worked. It was a short-sighted and ill-thought out decision to remove this tier of local democracy and administration. Of course, at the time we did not have as much revenue to spend on public services but this has changed. Now that it has changed, we must reconsider how best to reflect ordinary people's opinions in the democratic decision-making process. It has been my consistent position, and that of Sinn Féin, that the best means of doing this would be through the restoration of town councils.

At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government last May, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy John Paul Phelan, who is present, addressed the committee on the matter of local government reform. He quoted a published report on municipal governance relating to districts, towns and local electoral areas, which "sets out a range of proposals to strengthen the current municipal district system within local authorities and to address identified shortcomings rather than re-establish town councils". He also indicated that stronger powers would be preferred for municipal district members, which would involve strengthening the role and capacity of elected members at municipal district level, particularly in budgetary and local development matters, with financial capacity being of particular importance. These proposals are welcome, as they indicate consideration is at least being given to restoring some powers to municipal areas but I still do not see any impediment whatever to restoring town councils. The boundary changes announced over the summer period complement their restoration. Local people and representatives make the best decisions for their local areas. Fighting for investment, facilities and resources as part of municipal areas and their budgets simply will not deliver the same results.

As others have said, the Labour Party has done an about-turn on the disastrous and short-sighted decision it made in government. It is now attempting to rectify the disaster by introducing this Bill today. I, for one, welcome this. Ultimately, Fine Gael must do the same and admit a mistake was made. I have made my own so it is not the worst thing to stand up and be man or woman enough to acknowledge it. The Government should return power to the people and restore town and borough councils at the earliest opportunity. I support this Bill and I welcome it wholeheartedly. I commend it to the House.

Ar an gcéad dul síos ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Teachta Boyd Barrett and his group for allowing me this time. From the outset, I opposed the abolition of town and borough councils and condemned it as a power grab by an arrogant and self-serving central Government. It was led by the captain of the ship, the Minister of State's former colleague, a former Minister and Deputy, Phil Hogan.

"Phil the Enforcer", as I described him, and that is what he was. He left ruin after him. The Government, with the Labour Party a part of it, supported him.

Deputy Howlin was a Minister at the time. I described him as being like the high priest because he would not listen to anyone. Deputy Howlin had a close family member who was a senior member of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, AMAI, and consequently, Deputy Howlin above all should have been best advised as to the fatalities of this measure. However, this was not the case and I do not know what medicine he was trying to dispense to people. In Tipperary, Clonmel was a proud borough council and the Labour Party was founded there. As a result, the Labour Party could not go back there to celebrate when the party's centenary came around, which was a pity. I decried those who objected to the Labour Party. It should have been welcomed back anyway to Clonmel, but to protests and everything else. There is Carrick-on-Suir, as I said, Clonmel, Thurles, Templemore and, indeed, Nenagh, Cashel and Tipperary town. Cashel of the kings has been renowned for centuries. Now the council building, that was only opened a few years beforehand, is locked up to the people. There is not a place to host a civic reception for all kind of dignitaries who come from far and near.

We retained the town hall in Clonmel with great difficulty because Mr. MacGrath, the chief executive officer, CEO, of the council - they are not called county managers any more - wanted to close that as well. He gave us a lucky-bag chain of office, while we have a noble chain, worth €50,000, that is locked away in a vault. It is an insult to the town of Clonmel. That is what we have and a lucky-bag would be better. We are in and out to - I was going to say "fishmongers" and I might as well - jewellery shops to get it fixed every time it is worn. Those chains of office were a disgrace and those for all the counties were all the same. They diminished and rubbished the people and the dignity of those offices.

Almost three years ago to the month, I highlighted the necessity of a constitutional challenge to the Local Government Reform Act 2014 as well as the urgent need for a judicial review of the legality of the Act, which led to the eradication of more than 80 town and borough councils throughout the country. It was high-handed in the extreme. We can all talk, as Sinn Féin is talking there now as well. On the last day of that Bill's passage here, I was the only Deputy standing - there were other parties representing - to challenge the then Minister, Mr. Phil Hogan, to tell him how fatal it was and that we would be meeting in another forum. The following day, thanks to Former Local Authority Members Éire, FLAME, and former Councillor Niall Dennehy, a former mayor of Clonmel, I served Mr. Hogan with a summons in the Dáil canteen - probably the first ever. Of course, Mr. Hogan was laughing because he knew where he was heading. He did not care about the ordinary people. We are only minions. It was to hell with the people and "Croppies lie down", as Cromwell was back in a different guise.

At the time, the statement provided by Government sources suggested that the merger of Cork County Council was also a solo run by the then Minister, Deputy Kelly. Where is he today? He is not even happy with his Labour Party colleagues. He wants them all gone. He would run the party himself. I told the Labour Party at the time it would come back in a car but they came back in a seven-seater. If they get Deputy Kelly in charge, God knows, I do not where they will end up.

At the end of 2015, the then Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, properly described the abolition of 80 town councils as his single greatest policy regret in four years of Government. I acknowledge that and fair dues to Deputy Howlin for that. It was the worst thing that ever happened. Those comments were then backed at the Labour Party conference by Deputy Kelly. The Deputy was backing Deputy Howlin at that time - now he is snapping at his heels. They wept tears for local government but did nothing to try and reverse that disastrous decision. When they were in government, they could have seen the folly of their way sooner and tried to change it.

In the intervening years, however, we have had no meaningful political debate about the implications of those admissions by the two then senior Ministers, Deputy Howlin agus An Teachta Kelly. This has, in turn, exposed a chasm of political indifference at the heart of Government concerning the threat to democratic structures in the State. It was absurd for this matter to continually go on without debate and for it to be relegated to the margins of political conversation. I stood here on countless occasions in that four-year period on the Order of Business questioning when the Government would return them but they were all happy to forget about it.

I fully supported the work of FLAME, which, at the time of the so-called Local Government Reform Act, challenged the constitutionality of the decision to axe the councils. It was unconstitutional, as far as I am concerned. FLAME advanced the view that the Act was repugnant to the Constitution, specifically, that it violates Article 28A of the Constitution, and the European Charter of Local Self-Government.

At a committee earlier, I was talking to the EU representatives celebrating 45 years membership. I note that our Commissioner is due to retire soon. I told them to bring him to another country and not to send him back here, even to stand for any town council because he would not get elected to it. As I stated, the 80 town and borough councils had 744 members. These were decent people working for a pittance. They were the servants of the people on the ground. They were members of the joint policing committees, JPCs. They were able to help An Garda Síochána solve crime. They were able to help with the Tidy Towns competitions. They were able to help with planning matters and many other issues. Most of them did not do it for money. They were committed to better their own places.

As I said, the Fianna Fáil election manifesto, and indeed, the programme for Government, want to restore those with populations over 7,500. Why is that not being acted on? We are fooling around.

The Labour Party has suffered seriously over this. There were funds then as well. I have asked questions about that. There were funds in the relative organisations of the members such as the AMAI and others. Where did that money go? I am not saying anybody took it but it was amalgamated and sucked in somewhere.

We talk about savings. There were no savings. We talked about €5 million in Tipperary with the putting together and although the British could not rule Tipperary when it was such a long county, Big Phil, the enforcer, thought he could push us all in together and we would get €5 million. We got zilch savings and we got anti-democratic decisions. The decisions are being stripped away as late as last week by reserved functions being taken off the members in Clonmel borough districts.

What is wrong with the north Tipperary people?

There is nothing wrong with them at all. I said the British could not govern us because the county was too long and unwieldy. There is nothing at all wrong with them but, as I said, it is not workable because the county is too big.

The officials and the councillors are travelling up and down at enormous expense and there are no savings. That is what is going on. The local authority is now is too big. They also must have two big constituencies, which are nearly half the size of a Dáil constituency that it was at one time. It is just not functioning and the Minister knows that. The Government stripped the powers and it insulted them then, as I said, with lucky-bag chains of office. It gave them token reports about developments for employment. They have no powers. Our all-famous powerful CEO is king and they have workshops for everything. When I was a member of the council, we had a workshop once a year before the budget meeting. Now there are workshops for everything behind closed doors and the press are locked out of the proceedings. It is dictatorship. The Government removed the democratic right of the people to have people represent them and it banished them all. It acted as it did with so many other matters. The Government refused to take down the HSE. It took the power away from the people and locked them out as the CEO, Mr. MacGrath, is locking the people out of Clonmel cemetery to even visit their dead. There are former mayors and former Teachtaí Dála buried inside there. People who are unwell to go in were allowed drive in but the powers of health and safety were invoked to take more reserved functions from the members. It is dictatorship. It was by the former Minister, Mr. Hogan, and is by our CEO, Mr. MacGrath. The sooner something is done about it the better and give some vestige of power back to the members.

Deputy Brassil is sharing with Deputies Eugene Murphy and Lawless.

I greatly welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill.

As has been mentioned by previous speakers, when Deputy Howlin admits he made a mistake, which I admire, we should stand up and take note. I had not the opportunity to hear what Deputy Kelly had to say as I had to leave the office but if he has admitted to making a mistake, indeed, it is a monumental and historic occasion for this Chamber. It must give the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, great satisfaction to sit there and listen to us tearing strips off his former constituency colleague, the former Minister, Mr. Hogan, and all the Minister of State has to do is sit down and agree with us without opening his mouth. It is a good day all round for the Minister of State.

Deputy Cassells has been to the fore in promoting the return of town councils since he was elected to this Dáil and I, along with all my colleagues in Fianna Fáil, very much support his efforts. I very much welcome that the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and the Independents, and I would hope the Minister of State, agree that a mistake has been made, it is time to rectify it and now is the time to do that.

Local decisions are always best made locally. Issues around housing, planning, street maintenance etc. are best dealt with at a local level. One will get much better value for money by letting local democracy return to a local level. For example, since the abolition of the town councils, Tralee and Killarney recently passed town plans and the level of engagement in both of those plans was significantly less than would have been the case, were the town councils doing the work. Already, less than a month after they have been passed, significant errors are beginning to show and will now have to be rectified. The reason is because of the lack of engagement from the public. When one has a healthy local democracy with people providing an input and local councillors who know their own area dealing with the issues, one will get far better results.

There are improvements that can be made to the town council structure. There are lessons that can be learned.

I hope the Minister of State, having the full support of the House, will consider reinstating town councils, particularly in towns with larger populations, and reintroduce local democracy where better decisions can be made. I will not repeat what my colleagues said, but local democracy is best dealt with locally.

In the limited time available, I welcome the introduction of this Bill. It is a pity the Labour Party could not have come in behind our Bill because it was progressive and the right thing to do.

If it did, it would not have brought this one in. That is my point.

Nevertheless, I acknowledge the admission that an error was made at the time. I pay tribute to Deputy Shane Cassells, who has a very strong campaign ongoing on this. I will upset the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, when I say that his former colleague, Phil Hogan, made an outrageous error of judgment when Minister in what he did to local authorities and town councils. It has been stated here time and again that many of the urban councils were the strong voice of the people. I take the town of Ballinasloe in my constituency as an example. There is no doubt that the town of Ballinasloe with a population of 7,000 has suffered significantly because of the loss of that town council. That is why we will not look at this figure of starting to put back town councils where there is a population of 10,000. That must come down to 6,000 or 6,500 to take in towns like Ballinasloe.

The figure 5,000 is even better and is good news. Those town councils were a strong voice. Time and again today, we have heard how that voice was important in things such as Tidy Towns and promoting employment and what was good in those towns. When one looks back at what happened, there was a little snobbery involved because the guys and girls in the town councils were seen as bits of idiots that one could not really have representing their town or area. That was very wrong, but it existed. I hope the damage done and the hurt caused to people will now be reversed as quickly as possible and town councils for a population of 5,000, as Deputy Howlin just told me, will be restored to their rightful position. That will mean a lot to those towns and invigorate them, giving them a real voice at local level, one that should never have been taken away.

I applaud Deputy Howlin for bringing forward this Bill and note that he has acknowledged that it was a mistake for his Government to abolish the town councils. I say this in a magnanimous and sincere way because it is important when one realises that something is wrong that one says so. I also recognise my colleague, Deputy Shane Cassells, who brought forward a similar Bill which passed Second Stage not long ago. It is a very important measure. We know that decisions are best made by those closest to them. The principle of subsidiarity has been recognised for millennia, since the first city charters. The famous Irish American politician Tip O'Neill spoke of all politics being local and they are. That is why it is so important that we recognise the role. There are anomalies, such as the poor maligned town of Ballybay - I am looking around the Chamber for any colleagues from Cavan-Monaghan and see Deputy Ó Caoláin is present - was an example of where there were 900 residents and nine councillors, so it had a ratio of one to 100 whereas the towns of Celbridge and Maynooth in my constituency have 20,000 residents and not a single councillor because it did not have a town council. It is important that if we re-establish them, and I hope that we do, it is done in such a way that it is uniform and balanced across the country.

We have heard much criticism of the former Deputy Phil Hogan. When the abolition took place, the cost savings amounted to €15 million over the 72 town councils abolished. It reminds me of the 132 Garda stations that were closed for a cost saving of €2 million. There was a general populism at the time, which we might put at the door of Fine Gael. It was a kind of anti-quango talk, of which the current Taoiseach was to the fore, calling for the abolition of various agencies, when all he was doing was abolishing public services. It was a populist, anti-expert kind of mood because the figures do not bear it out.

There was an idea a few years ago that Ireland was over-represented and had too many politicians but if we look at local government, France has one councillor for every 118 people, Denmark has one councillor for every 115 people and Ireland has one councillor for every 4,800, so we are actually at the opposite end of the scale. We are hugely under-represented in local government. That type of populism was unhelpful to local democracy.

I commend the Bill and hope it is enacted.

I call Deputy Michael Harty who is sharing with colleagues.

I am sharing with Deputies Michael Collins and Michael Healy-Rae.

I speak in favour of the Local Government (Restoration of Town Councils) Bill 2018 which will reform the Local Government Reform Act 2014 and restore town councils. It will address the democratic deficit that arose with the abolition of town councils. It is a political correction for democracy. It represents a return to a form of democracy whose loss we now understand. The pendulum has swung too far away from local democracy. This Bill attempts to allow local towns and councils to make decisions for themselves. The centralisation of local government into county councils drew politics too far from people, including in substantial towns. In Clare, Shannon, Ennis and Kilrush lost their town councils and Kilkee lost its town commissioners. This Bill would restore to County Clare town councils in Ennis and Shannon which would be welcome because we are suffering a sustained attack on rural Ireland and rural life. The withdrawal of local democracy was another example of that. We in rural Ireland are losing our services, including medical services and post offices, and we need to restore local democracy which would help to redress that balance.

It also allows towns to make decisions specific to themselves, develop local amenities and cultural activities but also maintain services within the towns and the integrity of those communities. Council councils have now divided into municipal districts which often means a huge area being covered by a small number of councillors. Often many areas have no representation at all. The restoration of this democracy, this correction of local democracy, is extremely important and I commend this Bill to the House.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak this evening. The previous Government abolished the town council tier of local government. The abolition of the tier which focused on urban centres was clearly a mistake and must be rectified by the restoration of our town councils.

I strongly argue for the reintroduction of an urban focus. There is disconnect between the municipal districts and urban towns. People in the towns of west Cork no longer have ready access to the same number of councillors or what used to be the town hall, and we must restore that. In my constituency, when the town councils were abolished, Clonakilty set up a mayoral council. Volunteers such as Anthony McDermott, John Loughnan, Gretta O'Donovan, Colette Twomey and Cionnaith Ó Súilleabháin have given tirelessly and continuously to their community. There is an annual mayoral contest and the mayor attends between 150 or 160 functions. I commend them for giving their time to the people.

Some of the decisions around rural Ireland of the previous Government and the current one beggar belief. Take the community voluntary forum and how it struck them off. The way the last Government was going, we were lucky it could not get its hands on local community councils or it would have struck them out too. It wanted to make sure it did not give a voice to anyone but has anything changed? The recent boundary changes in Cork, which include the transfer of Cork County Council areas with large populations from the county council into Cork corporation, will have a detrimental effect on the county. The loss of revenue from areas such as Glanmire, Blarney and Ballincollig will result in a huge drain in revenue from the county in the long term. Once again, it is dictation from the top. I represent rural areas in west Cork, some of which are the most disadvantaged in the county, including the peninsulas and islands which cannot afford any loss of revenue.

Has anything changed? When we consider the new county council boundary changes, there was no consultation with the people of Courtmacsherry, Barryroe, Timoleague and Darrara. They do not want to be pushed into the Bandon electoral area but the Government has pushed them into it. It is dictation from the top again.

Nothing has changed. The Government got rid of town councils. It is seeking to erode anything to do with community as much as it can. All of this is being led by a political party that has another agenda. While I agree with the restoration of town councils, I do not trust this Government to do it. In my view, it will be doctored in some way to suit its own needs. The Government needs to start taking the people of rural Ireland seriously. It should give the people of rural Ireland back their voice. The reintroduction of town councils would be a step in that direction.

I call Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, fresh from his new role as a TV presenter.

If one lives long enough, a Cheann Comhairle, one will get to see everything. A short number of years ago, the Labour Party abolished 80 town councils bald-headed.

The Deputy would have done it cap-headed.

Regardless of their political persuasion, I adored the 744 councillors whose positions were eliminated. I did not care whether they represented Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party or Sinn Féin, or were Independents. They were doing great work in their localities. The Fine-Gael-Labour Party Government of that time was so arrogant that it thought it could impose whatever it wanted. It had such a majority that it was able to do so. It tore the heart out of local democracy because it was so big-headed and swollen-headed. I remember having a debate in this Chamber with the then Minister, Phil Hogan. I hate talking about somebody who is not here. I mentioned to him that certain Fine Gael councillors with whom I was personally friendly were upset about what their party was doing. I liked and admired the people in question because I was brought up as a child knowing about the work they were doing in their communities. When I was finished speaking, the then Minister stood up and said, "I am quaking in my boots". It is on the record of the Dáil. That is what Phil Hogan thought of his colleagues at the time. Just because he was a big fancy Minister above here, he forgot completely about the local councillors.

He was not that fancy.

In my book, local councillors are not thanked half enough for the work they do. The Labour Party and Fine Gael thanked them by getting rid of them. It is hypocritical of Deputy Howlin to propose now that these councils be re-established. He and his ministerial colleagues did not listen to us at the time. We did not just ask them to retain the councils; we begged them to do so. It was not about saving money. The Government of the time was being stupid and arrogant. Deputy Howlin has now realised that a big mistake was made. Other people like Deputy Alan Kelly are not here. I hate talking about people who are not in the Chamber. Their heads were so far up, where I will not say, they could not see the light of day.

That is not allowed, a Cheann Comhairle.

They were just being so arrogant that they thought they could do whatever they wanted and get away with it.

He cannot say that.

I would dearly love to see town councils coming back. I remember the great work that was done by people from across the party political divide in towns like Killarney, Tralee and Listowel over many decades. The work they did was so important. The re-establishment of town councils is of vital importance. They have a very important role to play in the future. They should never have been abolished in the first instance.

The question of making the charge of being arrogant has been raised.

No, I raised the question of someone having his head shoved so far up a part of his body.

It was a metaphor.

I did not hear that.

The Ceann Comhairle will have to clean his ears.

The accusation of being arrogant is a political charge that is routinely made here.

I know. That is not what I objected to.

Right. I am sure Deputy Healy will not give us anything to object to.

One would not know.

One would not know is right. I welcome this Bill and hope it will be passed. I am calling on the Minister to withdraw his amendment to allow this Bill to be scrutinised on Committee and Report Stages. Local decisions should be made at local level, as near as possible to the people affected by them. Local government was working well. There was no need to fix it because it was not broken. I have seen at first hand the workings of town and borough councils. I was a member of Clonmel Corporation and Clonmel Borough Council between 1985 and 2004. I served as mayor of Clonmel from 1994 to 1995. Clonmel is a significant and substantial town. It used to be the biggest inland town in the country. Councillors across all political parties, including independent councillors, worked very well on the corporation and the borough council in Clonmel.

County Tipperary was very badly hit by the abolition of the councils, which has been a disaster and obviously has failed. I welcome the introduction of this Bill. It is a pity that it has to be introduced, but so be it. County Tipperary lost Clonmel Borough Council and the town councils in Carrick-on-Suir, Cashel, Tipperary, Thurles, Templemore and Nenagh. It is important to get a flavour of these towns, which have been stripped of local representatives and local government. Carrick-on-Suir is known for the only existing manor house of its kind in the country. It was visited by Anne Boleyn, who was the wife of Henry VIII at one stage. Carrick-on-Suir was the home of the first president of the GAA, Maurice Davin. It is the home of Seán Kelly and Sam Bennett. It was the home town of the Clancy brothers.

Clonmel, which is the capital of south Tipperary, defeated Cromwell in May 1650 with the help of our northern neighbours, Hugh Dubh O'Neill and his people. The mayor of the day - Mayor White - negotiated a deal with Cromwell that saved the town and its people, and the soldiers who were supporting the town. Clonmel courthouse was the scene of many high-profile sessions, including the trial of the Young Irelanders in 1848. Of course, the Labour Party was established in Clonmel town hall in 1912. Clonmel has been the seat of administration in the south of the county for many years. Musicians like Frank Patterson, Mick Delahunty and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin came from Clonmel, which is a Quaker town. Charles Bianconi, who was mayor of Clonmel on two occasions, set up his first transport system in the town.

Cashel is famous for the Rock of Cashel, which was once the seat of the kings of Munster. Tipperary town is known in Irish as Tiobraid Árann, or the well of Ara, and may be described as the nucleus of the War of Independence. Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, Séamus Robinson and Séan Hogan started the fight for Irish freedom in nearby Soloheadbeg in January 1919. Nenagh, which is the capital of north Tipperary, is a Norman settlement. Nenagh Castle was built in the 13th century. A great-grandfather of mine - Michael Healy, who was a Fenian - was incarcerated in the county jail in Nenagh for some time in 1867. Semple Stadium is in Thurles, which is the birthplace of the GAA.

Roscrea, which is a heritage town, has 600 years of the finest Irish architecture at St. Cronan's cathedral and a Norman castle that dates back to 1280. Cahir is the location of Cahir Castle. I could also mention Templemore. This kind of history gives towns their identity and makes them communities. These towns should not have been stripped of their local government. There is no doubt in my mind that we should restore the town and borough councils as quickly as possible. It appears that the Minister and his Government colleagues, who abolished these councils some years ago with the help of the Labour Party, intend to put this off again. I hope they do not do that. I ask them to withdraw their amendment and to allow this Bill to go forward for scrutiny on Committee and Report Stages.

I am glad to have an opportunity to support Deputy Howlin, who has introduced the Bill. As one of the longest-serving Members in the Chamber, I am somewhat surprised by the peevishness and small-mindedness of Deputies from various parties who have used their contributions to this debate to try to undermine Deputy Howlin. In my 26 years as a Deputy, I have not previously seen a former Minister come into the House, put his hands up and acknowledge that something wrong was done. It is very important that he has done so. While I appreciate that Deputy Lawless acknowledged the Deputy's mea cupla, as I listened to his contribution, I did not know where he was coming from.

It was ungracious.

It was ungracious, to say the least.

The fox in the henhouse.

The Deputy should not worry about the fox. He is using the ould Meath trick. We know well in Westmeath what he is like. Deputy Munster is feeling the heat from Senator Nash. There is a campaign being led by the local newspaper to ensure Drogheda will have corporation status restored. Ultimately, we should all learn lessons and not be afraid to come in here to apologise. I have great respect for Deputy Ó Caoláin. Former Senator Máiría Cahill is looking for acknowledgment on various issues. Perhaps if they adopted the same position as Deputy Howlin, regarding where we have made a mess in abolishing town councils, it might be useful. Let us be clear that we did make a mess and regret it. One could not say, however, that town councils in which one could get elected by 50 people were worthy of retaining. There should have been reform rather than abolition. Let us be clear and call a spade a spade. I know of some of the town councils in question. Let us all grow up here. Let us not always fly off the handle over nothing. Let us deal with this in a critical, cool-headed way. We made a mistake and are in here apologising for it. I am delighted with the support coming from all quarters. We feel this Bill could probably be improved and put together with the Fianna Fáil Bill, brought forward and put into the committee. It was the colleague of Minister of State Deputy Phelan who led the charge. I was not there at the time. I was not even a member of the Labour Party. I did not have the Whip when this happened but I still assume responsibility, unlike some, because I was a Member of the House. I suppose I could have spoken out with greater clarity against the proposal.

We are now proposing that every town with a population of more than 5,000 and at least 1,000 dwellings, and with a clearly defined urban centre, should have its town council restored. In other words, there is critical mass. There should be nine councillors elected from one electoral area, but if the town is larger, as in where Deputy Lawless represents, there should be 15. This could be changed or reconsidered, of course. Deputy Cassells's idea may well be better. Let us bring the two ideas together. Let us not be afraid of this. Other Deputies, including Deputy Ó Caoláin, have other points of view. The central point is that the town would elect its own councillors to serve the needs of the town. People do feel remote from their public representatives at present. The proposal would remedy this. Councils would have the ability to set their own rates. They could be lower or higher than those set by the county council.

The restoration of the town councils for Mullingar, Athlone and Longford would enable them to be in control of their own development plans, budgets, planning applications and finances. In Mullingar, the town council could promote the local industrial park at Marlinstown, which has 27 ha, so it could be sure to get an industry there. It is centrally located, well appointed, has planning permission and three-phase electricity, yet IDA Ireland has failed to secure an industry for the area. We could do more. Athlone and Mullingar both have well over 20,000 people, heading towards 25,000. Longford has 10,000. All of those areas would qualify. That is important.

The decision to abolish councils in wholesale fashion was stupid, driven by a false narrative that abolition would lead to significant savings. What happened as a result was that the reduction in the number of local public representatives, who are the fulcrum of representative democracy, just heaped work and pressure on a smaller number of public representatives, many of whom were not local to the area to be represented and who had to carry an extra load with no pay. The pay is absolutely useless. Let us call a spade a spade: the big problem we will face in the coming years is trying to get people to actually run for those offices. We bow to the lowest common denominator. Someone in the media makes a point about public representatives and we immediately rush in. We in this House are kings and queens of it. We condemn every public representative and lacerate ourselves in here. I have seen it. The deterioration over 26 years is frightening. When I came in here first, we respected one another. We had our political arguments, no more than the way in which I might now disagree with Deputies Cassells or Ó Caoláin, but ultimately there was respect. If we do not have respect for one another, we should not expect anyone outside to have respect for us. One might think one is gaining the upper hand by some snide or glib remark but one is only playing to the gallery and denigrating one's fellow representatives. We should argue the political toss vehemently and strongly but we are all colleagues, and I am sure we are in politics for the best motives – 99.9% of the people I have served with were always motivated by public service and I was proud to be one of their own. After the next election, I clearly will not be but I will be proud to leave and say I was part of that House and that it was a great honour. We should not run around denigrating one another because it is only fuel for somebody else to continue the denigration.

In the last week I have heard stories from across Ireland on the impact of the loss of the town council and why it should be reintroduced. Mr. Liam van der Spek, our representative in Cavan, is urgently seeking the restoration of his town council. He told me that Cavan town, with its population of more than 10,000, has been noticeably underdeveloped since losing its town council. The main streets and housing estates are suffering. The town has been dropped from the top spots in the league of Irish Business Against Litter. Owing to the lack of representation, Mr. van der Spek doubts the town could now host the Fleadh Cheoil like it did in 2010. I was very proud to be at Cavan's three fleánna, bearing in mind that I am a great Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann man, as most people know. It would be difficult to attract such events now because all towns want them. We are spending €3 million in Mullingar and hope to get the Fleadh Cheoil in 2020 and 2021 because it was founded in Mullingar. We want it in Mullingar for the 70th anniversary. Let that go out to everyone, including Deputy Howlin, who is seeking to have it in Wexford.

Wexford is also a bidder.

Mr. Ian McGahon from Bray, County Wicklow, told me the town has lost direct decision-making powers on housing and planning as well as direct finance and budgets. Towns have lost out greatly because of the 2014 legislation.

Mr. Seamus Ryan from Ennis, County Clare, told me communities took pride in having their local councils for their towns, and that the councils were a vital avenue for advocacy for people in small communities across the entirety of the country and they gave people a local focal point. People are being badly represented because of the changes introduced in the municipal districts, where it can literally take hours to cross from one end to the other. Ennis, a town of 26,000, effectively has three councillors as the other five are all rural. Shannon, which has a population of 13,000, has one councillor from the town. This shows the imbalance that can arise. I mean no disrespect to the rural councillors. They are fighting tooth and nail. Every councillor is travelling miles and getting damn-all for it. I was a rural councillor myself, in an area 12 or 14 miles from Mullingar. I was representing rural areas but the councillors elected in Mullingar knew intimately every pothole, ditch, hedgerow, light, pavement and manhole cover. I could not know those. This is where it all fell down. We need to give back a voice to the councillors and not be afraid to do so.

Mr. Aaron Byrne from Kells, County Meath, is a neighbour of Deputy Cassells. Mr. Byrne told me the removal of the town councils has created a deficit of representation for people in smaller towns and villages around the country. In his area there are three towns - Kells, Athboy and Oldcastle, which neighbours my county - that have all lost town councils and are now represented at county level by the shared seven councillors. This means seven voices among 40 on Meath County Council fighting for resources for three towns in a large municipal district. Kells is listed in the county development plan as having only a support function to Navan, which is in a different municipal district. As a result, there are seven councillors trying to vie for funding across a huge area of the county against seven councillors specifically elected to serve Navan town, backed up by a county development plan. That is the type of imbalance that happens because of the structure. While I might represent Mullingar and Deputy Cassells represents Navan, we represent everyone but it is important that the large towns have representatives. Kells needs representatives who can prioritise the needs of Kells and focus on developing the town and hinterlands in their own right and not as supporting entities of larger towns in the county.

Mr. Johnny Walsh from Ballinasloe, County Galway, listed eight reasons a town council is needed in the town. First, the town could set its own commercial rates, which were 30% lower than the county rate. The increase is hitting the town hard. Second, it would restore personal contact with local council officials instead of people having to travel 40 miles to the closest office. Third, it would reconnect the general public in our towns with the political process, which is important. Fourth, it would restore our budgetary, planning and housing functions to our town, giving people local control. Fifth, it would restore the discretionary community fund in respect of which the town council had the relevant local knowledge for allocating money to projects that needed it. Sixth, it would ensure proper services for people in the town for council housing maintenance and the upkeep of council green areas. Seventh, the previous town council had an affordable council rent scheme but the county council scheme is a more expensive scheme for tenants, even if there is no increase in their income. Eighth, it would restore a sense of civic pride in that the town would have its own local mayor to officiate at important local events.

As the Minister of State can see across the State, people who care about their towns want the opportunity to make their urban areas better. Their specific concerns are getting lost. Diversity is essential. It allows towns to experiment with new ways of doing things, to try out new projects and specialise based on the attributes they have. It gives towns a voice – a voice they now lack. I support the returning of those voices to the local councils.

I thank the Deputies who contributed to the debate. It was very interesting, and I am something of an anorak about matters relating to local government. I cannot support the legislation drafted by Deputy Howlin.

Nineteen Deputies spoke in the debate and they gave some good reasons as to why they feel the changes were not suitable and have not worked in some areas. My fundamental principle is that when people vote in local elections, they should have one vote, as in national elections. The previous Victorian system, introduced by the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898 and referred to by Deputy Butler, created a situation where certain individuals who lived in certain urban centres had two ballot papers at a local election. There is much work to be done in this area and perhaps there is not much between my view and those of other Members as to how we develop an integrated system of local government. We can all agree that the county as a unit, outside of the larger cities, is the primary identifiable geographical division by which local government should be implemented. Is there a method of ensuring that our towns can be more strongly or better represented within the county structure? Our current system has 30 local authorities, which is enough.

I note the contributions regarding representation from Deputy Lawless and others. Deputy Cassells spoke about a councillor for every 118 people in France. It would be interesting to have that in this country, although that proportion is perhaps too low. Our system is undoubtedly on the higher end but we are also over-represented at national level. Perhaps we should cut the number in the Dáil in half and double the size of local authorities to bring us more into line with international norms, or we could have our own proper integrated system of local government

Get rid of the Fine Gael Members.

I do not say that the current system is perfect. I listened to examples given by Deputies from around the country. Deputy Mattie McGrath spoke comically, as usual, about chains of office in Clonmel and council offices in Cashel. What offices are open and not open are matters for Tipperary County Council. The idea is that because the British could not rule Tipperary - I do not know if they could rule Deputy Mattie McGrath - the county was divided in two and should be kept frozen in aspic in perpetuity. Deputy Penrose made the best contribution when he spoke about people not denigrating each other. I do not dismiss any of the arguments made by others but I cannot understand how people who are supposed to be democrats in this House think that some people should have two votes in a local election and others should have one. Nobody referred to it.

Can we integrate our towns properly-----

People have two votes in the Seanad election.

I know, and that is absolutely outrageous. However, I am changing that. There is a committee, which will have legislation shortly on how Members of the Seanad should be elected in the future.

I wish to deal with other specific issues. Members spoke about this Bill being cost neutral. It is not cost neutral. Deputy Howlin spoke about 100 towns with a population of 5,000 or more. Interestingly, Deputies Butler and Aindrias Moynihan said they were supporting the Bill because it would bring back Lismore Town Council and Macroom Town Council. Those two towns are far below the population threshold of 5,000 so perhaps they should have read the Bill before they contributed.

I believe the reason Deputy Cassells's legislation, which was passed by the House, has not been discussed since then is that there was a report due before the Cabinet on local government and local leadership. That was approved by the Cabinet. I find it frustrating, as the spare leg in the Customs House who is not directly involved in housing, that most of the issues discussed by the housing committee relate to housing, which is natural given that it is the biggest national issue at present. It is difficult to get time to discuss local government matters. I would prefer if there was a separate local government committee, and most Members here have served on local authorities, or if there was a subgroup of the joint committee to examine local government. We could have a proper and full discussion there, without shouting at each other, as to how we wish town councils, county councils and local authorities to progress in the future.

Deputy Browne said there were no savings. There have been savings. Some €21 million was saved following the mergers of Tipperary, Waterford and Limerick local authorities and between €18 million and €20 million was saved through the abolition of town councils. It is not necessarily a huge amount but it is untrue to say no savings were made. I was struck by Deputy Cassells's comment that there was an anti-town attitude in county councils across the country. Perhaps that is the case in Meath but I never encountered it. Perhaps Kilkenny was unique. There was one urban centre and everything else around the county was much smaller but there was never a sense of anti-urbanism.

Fianna Fáil's deputy leader, a man for whom I have great respect, made a strange contribution in which he spoke about his ancestors being town engineers. He let the mask slip a little when he said Fine Gael never did well on town councils and was always opposed to them, the corollary being that Fianna Fáil always did well on them. I do not believe that this is behind Deputy Howlin's contribution or behind most of the contributions to the debate but there is an element of patronage involved in town councils. It offers a role for local party activists, who can be paid by the rate payer or the property tax payer, to become involved in the political activities of an organisation or as an independent in seeking election. I got a strong whiff of that from Deputy Calleary's contribution, which is unusual for him.

There was nothing much from Deputy O'Loughlin. Deputy Murphy O'Mahony spoke about town councils being the bottom rung of the ladder and said that people could stand for further elections after being on town councils. They did serve that function to an extent but that is not necessarily a good enough reason for them to exist in the future.

With regard to Drogheda, it is in the same boat as my own part of the world in Kilkenny where the borough council was abolished. The new Drogheda borough district was drawn up and most Members who contributed to the debate have acknowledged that the recent review of local electoral areas has made an attempt to make them more manageable geographically. It has also made an attempt to make them more manageable in terms of the focus on towns. Deputy Howlin has spoken to me several times about Wexford town. The new Wexford borough district corresponds to Wexford town and its immediate hinterland. My local town-----

The report said it was going to be linked to another one.

It will not be. The committee members erred in terms of their terms of reference. Any town of more than 30,000 or any ex-borough will have its own municipal district.

My local town is New Ross in County Wexford. In the case of the town council in New Ross, some of the people who live in Rosbercon, which is my home area, had a vote in New Ross but the rest of them were in County Kilkenny. There will always be the boundary issues, with which I am familiar. New Ross is a beautiful place and I have great memories of going to school there, but it was run by five Fianna Fáil people out of nine for most of my life. It was like a cumann. The town suffered as a result.

It was hardly a reason to do away with it though.

There were probably other examples of town councils where Fianna Fáil had the majority that did not suffer, but it was the individuals who were involved.

That is some charge. The Minister talks about making charges against Deputy Mattie McGrath and not denigrating. That is some charge.

I did not name any individuals. Deputy Mattie McGrath was naming a public official.

The Minister of State is compounding the errors.

I am asking Members to postpone the vote because we need a proper discussion on the issue. In the year and more since I became Minister of State with responsibility for local government, there has been no discussion solely on local government reform issues. I would welcome that debate. Rather that divide on the Bill, we should have that discussion first.

I thank everybody who contributed to this debate. This being Private Members' business, the Bill has had one of the largest number of Members contributing that I can remember in recent times. Everybody in the House has an affinity to the democratic system. We all strive in our own ways to try to make it better. There have been various attempts to do so, including by me during my tenure more than two decades ago in the Custom House when I produced the Better Local Government plan. The idea then was not only to strengthen local government but to link it to community activity for the first time. There was great resistance to the notion that unelected community groups should be involved in strategic policy committees and in shaping policy, although the majority of every committee would be, of course, the elected members.

The former Minister, Phil Hogan, also produced plans, in respect of which I do not attribute any malice to him. There have been various contributions to this debate, most of which were very constructive and measured. There are some Members from whom one never expects anything more than vitriol and they never disappoint. I am taken aback by the ungraciousness and lack of generosity in the comments of Deputy Cassells. It is important for politicians to recognise that mistakes were made and to come into this House and say that and to change their minds. As I said in my opening contribution, up to last night I had spent three days in Liverpool trying to persuade the British people to think again about what I believe is a grievous mistake in Brexit. We must have the ability to say that we should think again on the basis of how things work out. Whatever the merits people argued for a more integrated type of local government, it has not worked.

I would like to make a couple of points on the contributions of the Ministers of State, Deputies English and Phelan. The Minister of State, Deputy English, said that the municipal system is working. It is not, although I acknowledge that the revised boundaries will improve matters. We all know our own areas best. The new municipal district of Wexford, which is essentially Wexford town and its immediate environs, will be immeasurably better than the old one which encompassed one-quarter of the county because as people from Kilmore Quay to Rosslare Harbour had no affinity to the town and mayors elected from those areas had no urban tradition, it did sunder the district. There needs to be an urban driver. While I acknowledge that an attempt has been made in the new boundaries to bring about improvements, I believe we need to have a stand-alone urban council and not one that is merely a sub-committee of the greater county council, which is what it is now.

I am anxious to have this Bill enacted and I am determined to ensure it proceeds. I acknowledge the campaigning work of Deputy Cassells on the issue but his Bill did not seek to create the new councils. If this Bill is passed new councils will be created. Deputy Cassells's Bill sought to create a process that would consider the creation of the councils, which was welcome and we supported it. There will be a lot of work to be done on this Bill in Committee if it passes Second Stage. I would like to see this legislation in place in time for the next local elections. This is not an impossible task. The Minister of State, Deputy English, also said that Government proposes to commission another report on the issue, but that will probably be subject to a further report. This is not the way to deal with this critical issue. We want a debate. If the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, wants a debate then let us set aside a Friday or a Monday for a full debate on local government issues. I would be delighted to map out my own time to contribute to such debate and I am sure all Deputies who spoke this evening would do likewise.

On the contribution of the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, I think the Minister will regret talking about the patronage issue. I believe that was unfortunate.

I genuinely believe that people elected to town councils get precious little out of it, other than abuse. They work really hard and they have ideas. I served for many years on Wexford Borough Council. I also served on Wexford County Council. I can say with clear conscience that far more constructive work was done at Wexford Borough Council than at Wexford County Council. Perhaps because of the scale of Wexford County Council, not everybody was interested in every issue but on the borough council everybody was interested in every issue and it was of great moment. An awful lot of time was wasted all well. I recall that one rates process took ten meetings even though we were dealing with relatively small sums of money. People were passionate about their roles and the issues and the wider public knew it. The public was aware that their councillors often met until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. arguing for their issues, such as whether £20,000 should be allocated for a local playground. It was about small money but really important decisions for people. I regret that we no longer have such a system and I would like to put that right.

I have taken note of what everybody said. What I found most damning about Deputy Munster's contribution is that she clearly had not read the Bill. One expects that people would know what they are talking about, even if fairly general terms, before they make a critique. Deputy Munster was obviously motivated by whatever is going on in her own constituency. Perhaps because Senator Ged Nash is championing this and has traction on it, because he is right on it, the Deputy feels she has to put her oar in. If her general thesis is that it is fundamentally wrong to change one's mind, Sinn Féin is in a sorry state. I welcome people changing their minds. I welcome people admitting they did not get something right, that they made a mistake or that they could have done something better. If we could all do that, our democracy would be an awful lot better and an awful lot healthier.

Would Deputy Howlin acknowledge that I said exactly that?

I would. As I said earlier, there are some people whose contributions one always expects to be of a particular standard. In terms of Deputy Ó Caoláin's contributions, I always expect them to be of a very high standard, never playing the person; always addressing with passion the issue. I acknowledge that very readily.

Returning to the critical issue, will we have consensus in this House to take on some of the people in the Custom House who I dealt with 20 plus years ago, who were never enamoured with town government?

Take them on, please.

The Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, admitted that the housing issue is so great and important the local government issue is very much a secondary issue. The local government elections will take place next year. In light of the fact that there is consensus in this House on the restoration of town councils in some shape or form, not necessarily in the formulation of the Labour Party as presented tonight, will the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, commit to trying to have this Bill enacted in time for next year's elections, even if doing so requires the establishment of a special committee of the Houses if the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government is too busy? I will serve on that committee. I ask people to assist in making this transformation, which I believe will be an important restoration of our local government system and a real important step in reconnecting people who are increasingly disenfranchised and disconnected from the things that matter most to them.

When talking to people at the doors they speak about the small things such as anti-social behaviour, the state of the footpaths, the lights, the signage, the grass verges and all the issues that are the bread and butter of local government which people want to be able to contact their local representatives about. I ask the Minister of State to withdraw his amendment and allow this Bill to pass. I think that it will pass in any event and I thank all of the Deputies who supported it. Let us then make our best collective effort to do something right for local government.

That concludes our discussion on the Local Government (Restoration of Town Councils) Bill 2018. How stands the amendment in the name of the Minister of State?

I am pressing the amendment.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 27 September 2018.