Our Town Council is an example of the practical application of the working of Local Government in Ireland. Within the Town Council structure are exercised local rights and responsibilities which central government authorities left at local level. This was done in order to maintain the very essence of Local Government, which is the territorial distribution of power.
The all embracing control of central authority was however felt in 1978 when domestic rates were abolished, thereby throwing Councils throughout the country on the mercy of central government. This was followed in more recent years by various Local Government Acts, the effect of which was to transfer from Town Councils to County Councils a whole range of public services which once fell under the exclusive control of the Town Councils. What Town Councils like Athy Town Council are left with today in terms of statutory functions are a hotch potch of public utility services which are of ever decreasing worth to John and Mary Citizen.
Now Minister Hogan proposes to bring in legislation which, if we are to believe the press reports, is likely to abolish Town Councils and transfer whatever few functions they still possess to County Councils. Local elections would still be held every five years or so to elect County Councillors to sit on an area committee whose functional area would include Athy and a large chunk of South Kildare.
If this happens would it, I wonder, make any difference to the citizenry of Athy? Would the loss of municipal status result in the lessening of the quality of services we presently enjoy courtesy of our Town Council?
I suppose to consider this question one must first ask what Councils do for its town, for its people and for the social and commercial development of the area. Not a lot I hear you say, but then much criticism of local Councillors is not always well informed. Councillors can and do give advice on the needs of the local population, but only so in terms of the limited range of functions and services still reposing in the Town Council. Roads, water and sanitary services have gone back in recent years to the County Council, leaving the provision of houses for those in need of housing together with town planning as the key functions of the Town Council. But even here nothing is as it seems for the planning function, which originated with the 1963 Planning Act, and was intended to preserve and improve the amenities of town and countryside has effectively been passed to the County Council. It is Kildare County Council which exercises this most important function in the name of Athy Town Council, even if every five years the local Councillors have the opportunity to prepare and adopt a development plan for the town. That development plan provides the framework within which decisions are taken by the Planning Authority on development projects for Athy but in reality the plan is the creature of County Council officials with minimal input by local Councillors.
Added to this is the real division between the powers of the executive, who in the person of the County Manager has executive functions which only he can exercise, and the reserved functions of the Councillors. The reserved functions of the Councillors constitute a substantial body of power and include the raising of finances, the approval of expenditure and a diverse list of powers which are seldom known to or exercised by, elected members of the Council. The recent failure of the Town Council to follow up on its well publicised desire to acquire Whites Castle is an example of the failure of Councillors to utilise the powers given to them in Local Government legislation.
Town Councillors can compel the County Manager to do any particular act within the Council’s competence for which money is available. If, as was indicated, the Councillors wanted to acquire the Castle, they had the power to raise the necessary funds by way of borrowing, or otherwise, and require the County Manager to proceed with its purchase. However, apart from expressing a strong wish to acquire the Castle, nothing further was done by the Councillors to progress the matter.
The loss of an ineffective Town Council is not to be regretted. However, I would not wish Irish towns to lose their municipal status or the office of a Town Mayor. If Minister Hogan proceeds with his plans for radically changing Local Government in Ireland I would hope he would extend to townspeople the right to elect annually their own Town Mayor. Speaking with a local Town Councillor and former Council Chairman during the week I was surprised to be told that each town Councillor receives an allowance of €80 per week and an additional €4,500 per year in unvouched expenses. This gives a total of almost €9,000 for each Town Councillor or over €80,000 for the full Town Council. Do we in turn get value for our money?
In terms of the development of the business and social lives of the community they serve I have to register my feelings that Councillors do not add much to the general wellbeing of the local community. Maybe it is time to radically review the entire Local Government structure, looking afresh not just at Town Councils but also County Councils to see how more efficient and effective services can be provided by and for local communities.