Back to the future — the return of town councils?

A Labour Party bill proposes restoration of town councils. Justin Sinnott looks at how the proposals would operate in practice.

Back to the future — the return of town councils?

A Labour Party bill proposes restoration of town councils. Justin Sinnott looks at how the proposals would operate in practice.

One of the more controversial changes proposed and implemented under the 2014 reform of local government was the abolition of the town council structure across Ireland at the time of the last local election.

It is important to understand the rationale for the abolition of the town councils.

The Local Government Efficiency Review Group report of 2012 articulated the view that town councils were effectively an additional overhead in the local government service.

The group drew attention to the obvious duplication of administrative work arising from the existence of separate local authorities within counties and operating parallel functions in areas such as planning, housing, and roads.

However, despite the clear rationale for the abolition of town councils, the question of re-establishing this tier of local government has lingered since then with Fianna Fáil, in particular, giving support for the return of town councils.

The Labour Party has taken this a step further last week by proposing the Local Government (Restoration of Town Councils) Bill.

If it were to be successful the proposal would provide for defined urban areas with a population of at least 5,000 to be considered for the establishment of a town council.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin, outlining his rationale for introducing the bill, has focused on a perception that national and regional bodies have somehow lost focus on urban development and that towns are missing opportunities for urban development due to “the lack of a local figurehead, such as a mayor, to promote the town”.

However, the Labour Party leader has offered little in terms of evidence for this assertion.

He also states that “town-level local government can be more responsive to people’s concerns, quicker to react to issues, and provides clear accountability in relation to money being invested to address local needs”. Again, there is little in terms of practical evidence to suggest that this is the case.

It needs to be acknowledged that, since 2014, local government has operated a municipal districts structure which in many respects sought to replace the town councils with a better model.

While it has not been perfect and further reform is necessary it is an improvement on the previous town council model.

The fact is if councillors want to get re-elected they must be responsive to people’s concerns. In my experience, councillors do this very well.

In terms of the practicalities of the bill, it proposes establishing town councils where there is a minimum of 5,000 residents and 1,000 or more dwellings.

How would this operate in practice? The suggestion is that a local government commission would define each qualifying town.

The Labour Party proposals would allow for nine councillors for small towns and 15 councillors for towns with a population of more than 25,000.

It is interesting to look at how this would work in my own area, Fingal County Council.

In reality, it would mean seeing a very significant increase in the numbers of councils and councillors in Fingal.

If we take the latest census figures to estimate the population in each town the following would be entitled to 15-seat town councils — Swords, Balbriggan, and Blanchardstown.

Those eligible for a nine-seat town council would include Baldoyle, Mulhuddart, Castleknock, Donabate, Howth, Kinsealy, Lusk, Portmarnock, Rush, Skerries, and Sutton.

So, under the Labour Party proposals, Fingal County Council would have 144 town councillors in addition to 40 county councillors. Apart from the obvious issue of duplication, the question of funding arises.

The Labour Party has claimed that the costs would be met from existing resources.

However, with an additional 144 councillors and the costs that go along with servicing 14 town councils, this claim lacks credibility.

The Government has already estimated the cost of re-establishing town councils at somewhere in the region of €40m.

In my view, it would be far better if we were to concentrate on improving local government within the structures that we currently operate under, specifically, the powers and functions of local government.

This should be the focus instead of adding another layer of politicians.

Furthermore, what we need more than anything else is to have a mature conversation about how we fund local government and how to provide the types of services that the communities we serve look for.

In my view, another layer of local government with more politicians will do nothing to address these fundamental issues.

Justin Sinnott is manager of the further education and training strategy, policy, research and evaluation, Solas.

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