Irish local government is preparing for its most significant overhaul since the foundation of the State, including the abolition of town councils and the merger of six larger local authorities. The status quo is indeed based on Victorian legislation. The Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898 was passed by a Conservative government. It reduced the control of landlords but the Government’s overriding intention was to satisfy nationalism without introducing home rule. Elections moved from first-past-the-post to proportional representation in 1919.
Most powers remained at Dublin Castle, a position which went unchanged after the Treaty as the Free State was keen to assert its new authority.
Rural districts were abolished in the 1920s but urban districts have continued in place, overseen by town councils. The North repealed the Victorian Act in 1973 and established 26 district, borough and city councils. These will be merged into 11 larger districts in 2015 after elections this May.
The Local Government Act 2001 abolished dual mandates and there are currently five city councils, 29 county councils and 80 town councils.
Minister Phil Hogan’s Local Government Reform Bill will dissolve the town councils, ensure that each local authority has a Chief Executive and create three amalgamated councils: Limerick County Council with Limerick City Council; Waterford County Council with Waterford City Council; and North Tipperary County Council with South Tipperary County Council.
The internal political influence of 1,627 councillors has made reform a difficult task for previous governments. Under the Bill, the number of councillors will go down to 949, sitting in three city councils and 28 county councils.
Town councils will be merged into county councils but their areas will become municipal districts. Councillors in these districts will have some extra powers e.g. to regulate parking, rights of way and trading. The title of Mayor will continue to exist, including lord mayors for Dublin and Cork.
City and county development boards will be dissolved and replaced by local community development committees. Strategic policy committees will deal with economic development and support for enterprise. City and council managers will be replaced by chief executives, appointed by the Public Appointments Service and formally approved by their respective councils.
A national oversight and audit commission (NOAC) will hold local authorities to account for their performance and value for money, and could carry out investigations if requested by the Minister. Councils will be obliged to published draft budgets by early October of each year and adopt them by 31 December.
The eight regional authorities will be replaced by three regional assemblies – Connacht-Ulster, Eastern-Midland and Southern – made up of councillors from those regions. Dublin councillor Andrew Montague has called for a Dublin Regional Assembly chaired by a directly-elected Mayor (eolas issue 14, page 83). The Bill allows for a local plebiscite on establishing such an office.
Fianna Fáil’s alternative proposals allow for directly elected mayors in all cities, Cabinet-style leadership and the retention of town councils for settlements with over 7,500 residents. Local referenda would also be permitted on major local issues. In the light of the Mahon Tribunal, the party also proposes ‘anti-corruption plans’ i.e. stricter audits, complete transparency on planning issues and mandatory declarations of interest by councillors.
Sinn Féin has claimed that the Bill will undermine local democracy and is seeking significant devolution of power from central to local government, particularly in relation to housing. The party proposes a minimum of 1,165 councillors. However, back in 2005, it supported the ‘super-council’ model which would have almost halved the number of councillors in the North.
Environment Minister Phil Hogan presented the Bill on 15 October and it went through its Dáil second stage between 22 October and 19 November. It passed the second stage in Seanad Éireann on 16 December and is likely to go through its final stages by the spring.
Reform will culminate in the local government elections to the new councils, on 23 May.