An example of how we can do without Town Councillors

Ger Walsh email: gerwalsh.column@peoplenews.ie

Imagine a business with nine employees, based in any County Wexford town. This small business has a policy that if you don't turn up for work for a period of up to six months, you still hold your job. One of the nine staff suddenly disappears. His absence drags from days, to weeks, to months.

Suddenly, six months later, his colleagues notice his absence and decide to extend the non-attendance rules so that his job can be held open for him for a further six months. Meanwhile, it emerges that the employee has actually emigrated to Australia. At the end of a further six months the employee finally gives up his Wexford job and a replacement is sourced.

Readers will understandably find this story far-fetched and insofar as it relates to an ordinary business it probably is, but it did in fact happen at local authority level in the past year.

Fianna Fail councillor Kevin Dwyer, a member of New Ross Town Council, headed off to Australia in September 2011 and obviously, as a result, was not able to attend any meetings of the Council. In March of this year his colleagues decided to hold his place open for him for a further six months before he finally resigned last month. In all, Cllr. Dwyer retained his seat for a full year while he was actually living in Australia.

Environment Minister Phil Hogan could certainly use this episode as an example of why there really is no need for Town Councils. After all, if you are not needed in any job for a year, the likelihood is that you are not needed at all.

No doubt there was a time when urban councillors fulfilled a very useful function and some fine representatives served on them, but for many years Town Councils have been little more than irrelevant talking shops, adding an unnecessary layer of cost to local administration which has to be picked up by the business

community.

The relevance of all local authorities was somewhat undermined in 1977 when Fianna Fail abolished domestic rates. Without the power to raise real revenue, the local representatives were robbed of much of their relevance, but the problem was particularly pronounced at urban authority level where the budgets were much smaller than in the County Council area.

Nothing illustrates the stupidity of the current situation more than the fact that often major streets in towns are not under the control of the local urban authority but are actually the responsibility of the Co. Council.

There are many - not least the members of urban authorities - who will bemoan what they say is an attack on local democracy. However, the reality is a little different and citizens should not fear that some form of local dictatorship will emerge when the reforms are introduced.

The fact that councillors will in future be elected to represent not just the urban area but also the countryside immediately surrounding it is a good thing which should lead to more organised planning and development. There is also the reality that some councillors already sit on both their local urban authority and the County Council.

There will be genuine fears in some areas that local representatives will not be as accessible to the local community but there is no reason for this to be a problem because councillors who do not service their electorate, regardless of what their council is called, will, as in the past, be swept out by voters at the first opportunity. And the fact that there will be fewer places for councillors in future should ensure that competition for seats is greater, requiring an even higher level of service from local authority members than is the case at the moment. The absence of local urban authorities will represent a big change and take some getting used to, that is true, but the new structure can be more efficient, less costly and deliver a better service to the public, if properly implemented. And how it is implemented is key here because a ham-fisted implementation - and Minister Hogan does have a bit to prove in terms of how to implement things - would cause real problems for local democracy.

Therefore, the completion of the final details of how the new councils will operate and the exact form and scale of municipal representation on them will be important.

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