DILUTING DEMOCRACY IS FALSE ECONOMY

13 January 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Even in difficult times such as these, distinctions must be drawn between wise and ill-advised economies.
Proposals apparently afoot to radically change the structures of local government administration in this country, which could involve the abolition of existing town councils and the reduction in the number of county councils as a new district council structure is evolved, would seem to fall into the latter category.
A meeting arranged by Ballybay Town Councillor Gerry Treanor to take place in the town’s Wetlands Centre next Monday (see story page one) will give local authority members from throughout the county the opportunity to put their views on the subject to national level politicians and senior figures from one of the main representative organisations for local public representatives, the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland.
This is a very important meeting, an early battleline-drawing opportunity against a potentially deleterious diminution of local democracy as well as a forum at which the current somewhat nebulous fears for the future of existing council structures might be formed into more concrete shape, via the perspectives on the debate offered by those with more ready access to the ear of Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan, who is to preside over the restructuring.
A letter on the Minister’s behalf elicited by Fine Gael TD Sean Conlan in response to the concerns of the Ballybay authority is a studied exercise in legerdemain.
Its espousal of the time-honoured virtues of local authorities could deceive the gullible into thinking all is well – but the nub of the Minister’s message is smuggled covertly into phrases that refer to “new structures”, “consolidation”, and, of course, “value for money”.
It is quite evident that when the reform proposals come to light – perhaps through the publication of the long awaited White Paper on local government, or perhaps through the sort of peremptory Ministerial edict that has heralded the waves of cuts and charges implemented by the Government in recent times – their primary motivation will be the drawing off of further resources from local services to discharge a little more of the darkness from the abyss of the nation’s indebtedness.
Considerations such as the facilitation of “greater decision-making at local level” will be given a lowly priority – and it is insulting of the Minister to pretend otherwise.
We are perhaps jumping the gun here – surely it would be more prudent to hold condemnation until the actual shape of the new structures is unveiled?
But recent precedent set by the reforms of service provision instituted by the current and the previous Government suggests that the moment of revelation is too late a time to effect change.
Of course, local government could bear a degree of reform, and changes would be welcomed by public, civil servant and local politician alike if they were motivated by a genuine commitment to the improvement of service delivery and accountability, and subject to a thorough-going consultation and discussion process involving all those with a stake in the issue.
The suspicion that there will be little consultation, and little attention given to the public’s opinions on how local government could better serve their needs, makes us very wary as to the Minister’s objectives.
We therefore commend Colr Treanor and his Ballybay Town Council colleagues on their initiative in bringing this issue to the fore and providing a forum for debate and fact-finding.
It is towns of equivalent size to Ballybay who stand to be the big losers in any rationalisation of local authorities – but any weakening of the vital local linkages between the public who are the users of the services local councils provide and administer, and the structures responsible for delivery, should concern everyone.
We have seen, through the painful experience of the effective ruination of hospital services in Monaghan, that democracy delivered at a distance is not really democracy at all – local needs and local wishes can be blithely swept aside and ignored by unelected and unaccountable power-wielders who pursue their own agendas unrestrained by the checks and balances inherent in genuinely democratic structures of administration.
That vital engine of restraint and instrument of accountability is operated in the main by the local councillor – a much maligned figure whose evident popularity when elections to local authorities are held and votes cast often seems to vanish in the interim to be replaced by prevailing public attitudes of dismissive contempt.
There are perhaps too many of them, and at least some of the modern manifestation enjoy quite bounteous sources of remuneration for their endeavours, but the criticism cast councillors’ way is often ill considered.
The men and women elected to our local authorities are servants, indeed, employees of the people – and if we feel they do not earn what comes their way in terms of monetary or status reward, then that is perhaps because we as constituents are not working them hard enough, not fully appreciating the functions that local public representatives can discharge for us.
We all like to criticise the local politician, and sometimes they deserve our disapproval for the actions they take or the comments they make in public forums – but if there were a great deal less of them, or if the powers they are elected to discharge on town and county authorities were further diluted or removed, we would all quickly discover that recourse to redress when our engagement with society throws difficulties, problems and indeed crises our way would be less easily accessed.
Proposals to change the way local government is administered very much concern us all – when Colr Treanor told the Ballybay Council meeting that “It’s our own future that’s at stake here”, he was speaking not just for his elected colleagues but the constituents they represent, and that sentiment can be replicated across all local authority areas in our county and nationwide.
Hopefully next Monday’s meeting in Ballybay will cast some illumination on what the future holds for our Town and Co Councils – and send out a clear message that the dilution of local democracy is very much a false economy.

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