Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has called for the reintroduction of town councils, saying they should never have been abolished in the first place.
He said the removal of the democratic structures ended up having only “a minuscule fiscal impact”, even though the move had been proposed as a cost-saving measure.
In actual fact, he said, the change resulted in the devastation of civic participation right across the country – and now local Government reform is needed.
“The slash and burn approach taken by Minister Phil Hogan in dealing with town councils, or the 'bigger is better' philosophy that drove on the Smiddy report here in Cork, is not the way forward,” said Deputy Martin, speaking last night at the Centre for Local and Regional Governance conference in UCC.
“Nor is the proposed arbitrary boundary change to historic and ingrained county identities a sustainable route. These measures will only further distance people from their Government.” By way of a solution, Fianna Fáil has submitted a bill to Dáil Eireann with the aim of establishing a commission tasked with setting out a new town council structure.
“Up until the abolition of town councils, there were 1,627 elected local government members in Ireland. The average population per councillor in Ireland was 2,815 people. This was the highest proportion in the EU,” said Deputy Martin.
The party leader said the abolition of these councils effectively slashed Ireland's democratic representation.
“Fianna Fáil has put forward a suite of measures to reshape our local government structures and empower communities and citizens across Ireland,” he said.
“This bill initiates a commission to set out the details of what areas should be covered, the powers of such councils and their financial resources. The goal of that bill is to put before the Oireachtas a new Town Council system based on objective criteria that will restore a tier of governance that has played an important role in many parts of the country.” Mr Martin said the current Government is to publish a review of local government by the middle of this year but said the country needs more than this “if we want to strengthen our democratic institutions” and called for legislative action.
In addition to the restoration of town councils, Fianna Fáil is advocating for a new community council model in areas not covered by a town council – municipal areas with a population of less than 7,500.
“This system, operated on a voluntary participation basis and with no expenses related to representation, forms the bedrock and first tier of our vision for a new local government structure,” said Deputy Martin.
“Another important innovation which will help to address the gap between citizen and state is the idea of Directly Elected Mayors. With such a role, Citizens in our cities can identify clearly with their local champion, fighting their corner. They provide direct accountability and leadership on key issues. Properly set out they can help ensure our cities are drivers for economic growth.” He said the challenge to restore trust in civic participation is “immense” but said we need to tap into that local sense of pride and identity and give power to local communities to know what is best for their area.