Local government reform plan a welcome step

It is certainly arguable that the most decisive act taken by any minister in the current government occurred this week when Environment Minister Phil Hogan announced a pretty significant reform of local government.

Given the vested interests involved, it is not surprising his new template for local government has elicited a very negative response from some quarters.

The plan announced by Mr Hogan has elicited many different responses, but the two that seem to be most common relate to whether this is a “reform” plan or just good old-fashioned “cost cutting”, and the claim it is an attack on local democracy. In my view neither of these arguments is that relevant.

Obviously, given the dire state of the economy, savings are absolutely essential. Mr Hogan has suggested the reform programme will yield savings of up to €420m on full implementation. Savings of this magnitude would be quite significant in the context of the medium-term budgetary process. However, as well as being a cost-cutting exercise, there is also a significant element of reform contained in the new plan. A reduction from 114 local authorities to just 31 city and county councils; the amalgamation of Waterford City and County Council, North and South Tipperary and Limerick City and County Councils; a reduction in the number of council seats from 1,627 to about 950; and the replacement of the eight regional authorities and two assemblies by three regional assemblies — if delivered — would represent a very significant reform of local governance in this country.

Furthermore, in the very large document that has been produced — Putting People First — there is a lot of detail about how local government will function in the new regime. For example, local services administered by local authorities will be funded through an equitable property tax. It would appear that each local authority will have some discretion in terms of the property tax. Putting local authority financing on a sounder footing is essential, because the financial structure of local government has struggled since the calamitous policy decisions taken in the aftermath of the 1977 election.

While the change in the title from city or county manager to chief executive may just appear like the change in a nameplate, the hope has to be that this signifies local authority management and performance being put on a much more commercial, accountable and formal footing. That would be no bad thing. There is also a lot of other detail in the report, which if implemented, should improve the efficiency and effectiveness of local government, not least a serious look at the junkets and conferences — the term abuse comes to mind. We taxpayers deserve that.

In respect of the undermining of local democracy, it is not at all clear to me what this means. Ireland is a very small country that has been ridiculously represented by elected officials at all levels. Does it make sense for every small town to have an expensive town council? In the real world in which Ireland now finds itself, it is simply an extravagance that we cannot afford. Reducing the planning powers of local councillors does not appear like a bad idea to me. Just look at what they have given us around the country over the years — apartment blocks in places like Kilmacthomas come to mind and much more besides.

All in all, the proposals announced this week have to be welcomed. Ireland’s system of local government is currently very expensive and unfortunately the business sector has been forced to bear much of the burden. Hopefully, some of the savings made will be passed back to the business sector in the form of lower local charges, such as commercial rates. Creating and sustaining employment must be the guiding principle.

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