Local government reform smacks of political stroke

HOW many councillors does it take to change a government?

The question may well be asked in light of proposals to increase the number of elected representatives in the Dublin area for the local elections next year. At a time when the compliment of councillors nationally is being cut by 42%, the number in the greater Dublin area is due to rise from 130 to 183.

The changes are part of the Putting People First reform proposals being implemented by Environment Minister Phil Hogan. Some see the Dublin move as a political stroke.

The party most likely to benefit from pumping up the number of councillors in Dublin is Labour, which, right now, is looking at the mother of all beatings in the next general election. Having a new raft of councillors could see some fresh faces take up the slack as incumbent TDs get wiped out. Whether any of this was whispered in Hogan’s ear is a matter for speculation, but, one way or the other, major questions are being asked about the move.

Hogan’s reforms include the biggest shake-up of local government in over a 100 years. Eighty town councils are to be abolished, and county authorities are to be broken up into local municipal districts, which will have greater say over local budgets. The legislation specifying the exact powers to be devolved will be published by the end of the year. There are also promises to do away with the power of councillors to overturn planning decisions, in light of the evidence heard at the Mahon Tribunal.

One of the biggest changes is in the manner of representation. There are 1,627 council seats in the State, accounting for 1,450 individuals, when those holding dual mandates for towns and counties are accounted for. Under Putting People First this will be reduced to 950 seats at most.

In Munster, Waterford and Limerick, which have both city and county councils, will see the two authorities in each county merge.

In Cork, the 12 town councils are to be abolished, and with them 108 town council seats. This has already caused consternation. Last February, a meeting of town councillors from the 12 affected towns met and pledged to fight the abolition.

Midleton town mayor Ted Murphy said at the time that the decision was undemocratic and the towns were prepared to mount a legal challenge if Hogan didn’t back down. It’s highly unlikely that the doomed mayoralties have a legal leg to stand on.

There is also the matter of fairness. Why should established conurbations continue to have its own elected council when new growth areas like Ballincollig and Carrigaline have no such representation?

Cork did receive special mention in Hogan’s reforms. While most of the changes have been left up to the boundary committee, the department announced last November that Cork County and Dublin City would automatically receive a new compliment of members. Cork goes up from 48 to 55, while Dublin City increases from 52 to 63. All other local authorities are to have a maximum of 40 members.

There is logic in increasing the compliment for Cork County, as the abolition of the town councils will require addressing with extra representation at county level. In Dublin, however, there is no compelling reason to increase the number of councillors at a time when the over-representation nationally is being cut back.

And it’s not just Dublin City Council that’s getting more councillors. Fingal, South Dublin, and Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown councils are due to be bumped up to 40 members each from 24, 26, and 28 respectively.

This is not without a cost. Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown is building a new chamber to accommodate its extra membership, at a cost the council estimates at €800,000.

Then there’s the cost of the councillors themselves. At last month’s meeting of the Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown council, Fianna Fáil’s Gerry Horkan said that each new member would cost the council €27,751 in direct costs, plus support costs of €27,920 each. The total for 12 of them would be €668,052 in the first year.

Horkan asked the county manager whether any services would have to cut to stump up this cost. The reply he got was that right now it wasn’t possible to determine the exact costs or whether services would have to be cut to as a result.

In a submission to the boundary committee, Fianna Fáil member Paul McAuliffe described the increases as “jobs for the boys”: “It’s a gerrymander to ensure sitting government councillors retain their seats in the next local elections.

“I understand that this proposal was demanded by the Labour Party in a deal thrashed out between the coalition parties. Dublin does not need more councillors. It’s not what people want and it’s not good for local government.”

South Dublin council submitted for all the elected members: “There was a widely held view that to increase the proposed membership of South Dublin to 40 seats at this time would be seen by the public as an error.”

Of course, these sitting councillors have a vested interest in the process. Just as the town councillors in Cork want to see the status quo retained, so also do many of the sitting members of the Dublin authorities.

But while there is logic and economic benefits in cutting representation, and reconfiguring it, no such excuse can be made raising numbers and the cost of councillors in Dublin.

In the round, it looks like nothing as much as a political stroke hidden away in wide ranging, and generally positive, reforms.

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