10 | OPINION
opinion&comment I welcome the move to abolish councils
cut my teeth on a local newspaper, covering courts and council meetings. The courts offered a menu of petty crime and traffic offences, seasoned with the occasional serious case. Defendants could be quirky and the justice arbitrary but the hearings were interesting and unpredictable; often lively, rarely boring. Council meetings were the opposite – marathons of boredom where pompous windbags droned on interminably about their pet subjects. Even the councillors looked bored with the proceedings, slouched in their chairs, waiting for the chance to rise and bore everyone else. One exception seemed to be Andy, a newsagent and grocer who was partially deaf. He would adjust his hearing aid at the start of each meeting and smile happily through it all. I always suspected he just turned off the device but years later, when I had left the local paper and Andy had left local government, he admitted to a more interesting deceit. This was the Sixties, the age of the mini skirt, the mini car and the mini radio. Small transistor radios were a new craze and Andy had one in his jacket pocket with an ear phone indistinguishable from the one on his hearing aid. While his council colleagues bored for Ireland, Andy enjoyed his favourite music programme, paying just enough attention to the proceedings to know when it was his turn to speak. At that point this entertaining and articulate man would get to his feet and prove that he could be just as a big a bore as the rest of them. Back in the day, Andy and his pals weren’t paid for their services. Indeed, I’m pretty sure some would personally have paid for the privilege, had they been asked. Then councillors started to get expenses, a travel allowance and a phone allowance and, since 2002, a ‘representational payment’ – money for turning up. They are paid for chairing committees and for holding such offices as mayor. All in all, becoming a councillor is now a reasonable career option, although most, like Andy, do have another source of income. A survey last year revealed that on average city and county councillors were taking home €31,600 for their efforts and some were earning more than €80,000. Town councillors do not fare as well as their city and county counterparts. But they are still an expensive item when you add in the price of running the councils themselves, staff wages and office costs. So when people talk about the need to preserve local councils, I say that’s fine, just so long as I am not expected to pay for them. Since I am expected to pay, I would be quite happy to say goodbye to the lot of them. Failing that, a severe pruning would be welcome. A country with a population less than that of greater London could manage fine with just eight councils: two for greater Dublin, one each for Cork, Galway and Limerick and one each for Leinster, Munster and Connacht-Ulster. Any other local assemblies should be what, in England, they call parish councils: powerless, unpaid bodies, with a brief to discuss local issues and influence them if they can. They would have
the right to lobby TDs and ministers, who would probably give them a bit more attention than they do the rest of us. Taxpayers should pay for the use of the hall. That’s all. It’s not just a matter of cost. Local government creates a level of bureaucracy which the country would be better off without. Councils like to portray themselves as cornerstones of democracy and councillors will tell you that, without them, centralised authority would steamroll over the needs and aspirations of local communities. Councillors see themselves as our representatives in the big bad world, fighting our case against the uncaring politicians of Dublin and Brussels. Really? In my lifetime I have lived in several parts of the country. I have lived under city councils, town councils, rural councils and county councils. Yet other than at election times, or in the course of newspaper work, I have never once spoken to a councillor. If they’ve been performing stalwart deeds on my behalf, they’ve kept them very quiet. I couldn’t name most of my councillors, never could, and I bet most of you would say the same. I welcome the move to abolish town councils as a very small step in the right direction. I have nothing against the town councillors of Bray, Greystones, Wicklow Town or Arklow, who certainly do no less a job than their counterparts elsewhere. But I don’t believe these towns will suffer any for having their affairs controlled by Wicklow County Council or that it would suffer from being under the control of a Leinster council. Local hearts might rail against such developments but local heads will know they make sense. Michael Wolsey is a former deputy editor of the Irish Independent, features editor of the Irish Press and managing director of the Drogheda Independent group. Michael sits on the judging panel for the National Newspaper of Ireland Journalism Awards.
‘So when people talk about the need to preserve local councils, I say that’s fine, just so long as I am not expected to pay for them.’
with Michael Wolsey
with Mick Glynn
Town councils will only be missed when they’re gone
We have heard so many times that we need national politicians looking after national issues – and equally we need local politicians looking after local issues.
understand the frustration of people with politicians in general, but the complete dissolution of town councils will not, in my opinion, be a good thing. While there can be little doubt that local government was badly in need of reform, there will be unforeseen consequences when town councils are abolished after next year’s elections. Bray Town Council, where I am a member, is staffed by dedicated, honest and hardworking people who strive to make the town a better place for all its citizens. I am sure it the same in Greystones, Wicklow Town, Arklow and elsewhere, and I believe many citizens will only miss their respective councils when they are gone. It is estimated that the plans to reduce the number of local authorities by two thirds and remove 500 elected councillors will save up €400m. The reform agenda will also see the existing powers enabling councillors to challenge planning decisions removed, and without any internal checks and balance system and will now be left up to An Bord Pleanála and An Taisce alone. No other sector has attained the same levels of savings as the local government sector, with €830m saved by the reduction of costs and wages since 2008 while the number employed in the sector has been reduced by 18.5pc. While some of these savings are welcome, there is another aspect: the damage to local democracy. In a time when apathy towards politicians and public representatives is at an all-time high, we need to make the local electoral process more inclusive and accessible. Smaller numbers of elected members in smaller councils, or new Municipal Districts, suits the bigger parties – 75pc of the vote in the 2009 local elections went to the State’s three biggest parties.. Our proportional representation system will mean that a first-time local candidate will stand little chance as well-established candidates affiliated to bigger parties will be able to
protect their seats. The reforms also do little to help the shortage of women and younger people getting involved in the electoral process. In the new electoral reforms a 30pc female gender quota will be linked to state funding for political parties. But it stands to reason that they will find it hard to attract new women to run for office when the chances of gaining a seat are non-existent. In the 2009 local election, 20pc of the seats on town and borough councils were taken by independent candidates, against only 12pc at county council level. The figures get even worse at national level, with only seven per cent of the seats taken. The local electorate finds it easier to vote for an independent candidate that might be working on a single issue that appeals to many. The number of independent seats suffers as the electorate size increases – the localised agenda becomes diluted and the electorate tends to follow a party path when the stakes of representation are higher. We have heard so many times that we need national politicians looking after national issues – and equally we need local politicians looking after local issues. Local democracy has always thrived on real differences of opinion and helps the fringes of the public get their voice heard. A reduction in the numbers of seats decreases diversity of the representatives, and fuels the ivory tower attitude which has developed. We need to bring forward ideas that will help communities with a wide range of views feel part of the process. In the future, consideration for an elected voluntary grassroots or community council that would feed into the new Municipal Districts might have to fill this vacuum.
Cllr Mick Glynn is a member of Fine Gael and sits on Bray Town Council and Wicklow County Council.