PUTTING PEOPLE FIRST?

19 October 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The local government reforms announced on Tuesday by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan are certainly radical ones.
Governments have been playing keepy-up with this particular political football for an eternity, it seems, producing intermittent spasms of fancy footwork before kicking firmly to touch.
Minister Hogan, never one to shirk a tackle, has now muscled his timorous predecessors aside, grasping the ball and running with it in an emphatic direction.
The question is: is he heading towards his own goal?
The headline feature of the new Putting People First proposals is undoubtedly the decision to abolish the country’s 80 Town Councils in 2014.
The announcement carried a certain shock and awe factor – it was expected that town authorities would be drastically reduced in number, but that at least some would remain – and initial reactions to it are perhaps more muted than might have been expected.
The people who are reputedly being put first by a move that carries the fingerprints of the economist Colm McCarthy more prominently than those of the politicians who are parroting his dogma are perhaps best described as initially ambivalent.
A lot has been made recently about the recompense which those who serve on local authorities enjoy in terms of allowances and expenses – and there will be many who will feel that the savings generated by having 42% less local public representatives will alone justify the decision.
The men and women who serve as Town Councillors are undoubtedly angry and disappointed, experiencing a hurt that is not, we imagine, primarily located in the vicinity of the pocket.
They have, after all, been told by the Government that their breed, which has served local communities for a very long period of time, are now dispensable – that the work they do can in large measure be replicated by a website which their constituents will in the future have to access if they want that little job attended to that they previously went and asked their local public rep to see about – a website that promises a satisfactory response in two working days!
The implications of the abolition of Town Councils is a deeply insulting one for local politicians and by extension the people they represent – as is the suggested future remedy for the address of those concerns which all members of the public have intermittently to engage with local authorities about.
Doing away with Town Councils does not of course cancel out the need for the functions they have traditionally discharged, which will now be vested in an expanded form of the Co or City Council model.
Administratively, Co Councils have been preparing for this day for some time, absorbing staff and responsibilities from the urban authorities, and from the point of view of continuity in the provision of services the transition is likely to be relatively smooth.
There will be a period of uncertainty for those who work in the local government sector, for Town Councils are significant employers and economic contributors, and it remains to be seen what, and to what extent, stratagems will be deployed in terms of redundancy packages to bring about the “efficiencies” that have come to supply the principal justifications for reforms of this nature.
Local government has already undergone a stringent process of belt-tightening in the cause of public sector reform, and the representatives of those employed in the sector will undoubtedly be seeking reassurances about any intimations of further severities that might lie disguised within the guilefully aspirational phrases of the programme outlined by the Minister on Tuesday.
The current climate of unease about the efficacy of the Croke Park agreement in delivering upon the full potential for public sector savings will only add to the uncertainty of the months ahead for those working in local administration.
Although the reforms sketched by the Minister did not detail their composition, it seems that the structures of county administration that will come into effect after the 2014 local elections will have, at least in some cases, a somewhat expanded population of elected representatives to accommodate the new Municipal Districts in addition to the existing electoral areas.
But adding a few extra seats to some Co or City Councils does not significantly detract from the fact that in future the opportunity for people to serve as elected local public representatives in this country is being severely curtailed.
This is a very serious democratic diminution – for those wishing to stand on a non-party platform in particular, or to represent a particular community or sectoral concern by offering themselves for election, chances of prosecuting a local election campaign successfully in the future appear particularly bleak.
With less seats to play for, the bigger political parties will retrench and lay claim to the majority of the spoils in a manner that not even the checks and balances of the proportional representation system will prevent from being a triumph more of might than right.
There is a strong tradition of independent political representation in this country that has had its most colourful and productive flowering at Town Council level, and elected chambers will lose much in its passing.
In the context of the greatly reduced opportunities for representation now available, the references made by the Minister on Tuesday to making the climate of local politics more conducive for female participation in the future are mere tokenism.
The implications for political parties are also interesting: less local councillors mean less people active in what has always been a valuable nursery for political potential – as well as fewer minions to do the prosaic but necessary groundwork at times of national elections or referenda.
But in the end it is the people more than the politicians that matter, and there is little early evidence to suggest that the people are going to be better served under the new model than they were under the old.
The Minister is certainly right that local government in this country is massively overdue for meaningful reform.
However, it remains to be seen whether the changes he announced on Tuesday will improve the level of service that is the public’s due, or protect the democratic entitlement they enjoy to have their voice heard, either directly, or through their elected representatives, on the important issues which concern them.
Have the public been put first? We have our doubts, but time will tell.

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