The Local Government Commission and Boundaries
The Local Government Act, 2001 provided for an independent Local Government Commission which would advise the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on a number of practical, yet contentious, local government issues such as boundary changes, electoral areas, number of councillors per council etc. This Commission has not been established.
Chapter 11 discusses the role of the proposed Commission, the reasons for its non-establishment to date, and options in regard to it.
The Chapter also discusses the problems associated with changing local authority boundaries (in the absence or otherwise of the Commission) and notes the particular emotional affinity to county boundaries. It suggests that there may be more scope to bring greater coherence to town boundaries and that the discussions in Chapter 9 may be an alternative way to deal with the issue of county boundaries.
Finally, the Chapter discusses the imbalance in councillor numbers per head of population from authority to authority - from 1 councillor per 44 population to 1 per 10,000. It notes that there is no one formula which could decide on the optimum number of councillors in any given area having regard to the need for coherent governance.
Given that there are already over 1,500 councillors in the State it is suggested that minor adjustments should be considered rather than wholesale review.
The issues of appropriate local government boundaries, the appropriate number of local authorities, and the related issue of the appropriate number of elected members which should serve on those authorities, is a recurring theme in local government debate in all countries.
Debate on these issues in Ireland often generates more heat than light. In an effort to remove some of the politics around these issues the Local Government Act 2001 provided for the establishment of an independent Local Government Commission to advise the Minister. However, the very fact that such politically sensitive issues were to be considered by an independent body (if not finally decided by that body) has been a factor in the reluctance to establish the Commission under the 2001 Act.
I. The Local Government Commission
The Local Government Act 2001 provides that a Local Government Commission is to report to the Minister in relation to:
- An application for a local authority administrative boundary alteration;
- An application for an alteration to the number of members of a local authority;
- An application for the establishment or dissolution of a town council;
- A request from the Minister to report on the alteration of local electoral areas in some or all local authorities, and the number of members assigned to each area; and,
- A request from the Minister to report on any aspect of local government specified by the Minister, or the boundary of any public administrative district connected with local government.
The Act would require the Minister to seek a report from the Commission concerning an application to alter the number of members of a local authority, or prior to altering a local electoral area. Applications for new town councils or administrative boundary alterations would be made directly to the Commission, which would then submit a report on the matter to the Minister. The Minister would be required to have regard to the Commission's reports and, in certain cases, to give reasons if the Minister decided to depart from the Commission’s recommendations. In the case of new town councils, the Minister could only make an establishment order in cases where the Commission has recommended that a town council be established.
With the non-commencement of the relevant provisions under the 2001 Act, use continues to be made of earlier legislation to deal with some of the issues referred to above, for example, to alter local authority administrative boundaries or local electoral boundaries. It should be noted, however, that there are no current powers available to establish new town councils in the absence of the Local Government Commission.
The reform process provides an opportunity to consider whether the Commission is the best vehicle for addressing the matters of new town councils, changes to local electoral areas, councillor numbers etc.
Establish the Commission
This could include commencing the relevant provisions of the 2001 Act and establishing the Commission as intended originally. It could, alternatively, be decided to make legislative amendments to the provisions of the 2001 Act in the light of reforms which emerge in the White Paper. This may include a reappraisal of the functions of the Commission or an adjustment of some of the parameters by which it would work. For example, as discussed in Chapter 6, it could be decided to raise the population threshold for considering whether or not to establish town councils. This is set at 7,500 at present.
Repeal the Provisions which Relate to the Commission
If the conclusion is that the Commission adds little additional value to the local government system, or unnecessarily fetters the authority of Ministers, the provisions which provide for the Commission could be repealed and, if necessary, new statutory processes put in place.
II. Local Government Administrative Boundaries
The success of the county as an expression of Irish local identity has resulted in proposals to alter county administrative boundaries being politically divisive, highly emotive, and difficult to resolve. Notwithstanding the often emotive nature of boundary debates, county alterations have happened. In 1976 County Louth’s boundary was extended to include land which had previously formed part of County Meath (though on a smaller scale than originally proposed).
Proposed alterations to town boundaries can also be problematic although usually for reasons of finance i.e. the impact of the transferred rates base from the county council to the town council. A related issue is the extension of several town boundaries, for electoral purposes only, in 1994. It was intended to bring these boundaries into line with the administrative boundaries but this has not occurred in all cases, leaving a number of anomalies around the country.
Since 2000, there have been several alterations to town council boundaries; in all cases town boundary alterations have progressed on the basis of local agreement.
The following 3 factors need to be considered in relation to dealing with boundary changes:
- Issues that arise regarding town boundary extensions tend to relate to technical, legal and financial matters - which are resolvable - rather than emotional or historical factors;
- Changing county boundaries on the other hand leads to significant public resistance based on those emotional and historical factors; and,
- Can key criteria be established which can guide the setting of local government town and county boundaries?
Submissions from the Public and Consideration by Consultative Committee
The local government reform consultation process indicated a general view that town boundaries should be revisited, on grounds that the pace of urbanisation in recent years has resulted in large numbers of people being disenfranchised. A minority opinion considered that the boundary debate is misplaced as people live in a fluid, diverse world and boundary changes are not the solution. The view was also expressed that the financial consequences of boundary alterations needed to be carefully addressed in all cases.
Options Regarding Boundaries
There is logic in seeking to align town boundaries with the developed areas of a town. However, successful local government is not dependent on there being perfectly ‘clean’ lines. The influence of towns spreads well beyond their legal boundaries, however defined, and, as discussed elsewhere in this Paper, strategic policies set at county level should be relevant to areas on both sides of the town boundary. Chapter 9 discusses if alternative mechanisms should be put forward to address strategic cross-boundary issues in key areas where there is resistance to changing county boundaries.
Options for consideration in relation to boundaries include:
Retain the Existing Statutory Mechanisms
In the absence of the Local Government Commission, recent boundary alterations have used the provisions of the Local Government Act 1991, which allows for the establishment of Boundary Committees in individual cases. The processes under both Acts are broadly similar. Ultimately, these processes require a final political decision to be made. In the case of county boundaries this system is likely to favour the status quo. Retention of the current system would emphasise the need for authorities to work in tandem to progress boundary alterations, and, in the absence of consensus, to focus on increased co-operation and collaboration across existing boundaries.
An Automatic Mechanism
An alternative approach would be to devise a mechanism which would involve the automatic incorporation of built-up areas and/or development land within urban authorities. This could be based, for example, on revising town areas based on the definition of town census boundaries which are updated every 5 years. However, such a system would remove the process from democratic oversight. An automatic mechanism would not be an acceptable way of dealing with county boundaries. If such a system were to be deployed, the financial impact on certain county councils could be severe unless agreed mechanisms were put in place to deal with financial issues.
Town Boundaries and Electoral Areas
Those towns which had their boundaries extended, for electoral purposes only, in 1994, represent an anomaly, as residents of the environs of a town may help elect the town council but do not fall within the functional area of the council. A number of these towns’ boundaries have been altered since 1994, however in the majority of cases the anomaly continues to exist. The correction of this anomaly would appear to be in order.
III. Councillor Numbers
The number of councillors per local authority is set out in the Local Government Act 2001. County councils have a membership varying between 21 and 32 members – the exception being Cork which, because of its size, has 48 members. The 3 smaller city councils have between 15 and 17 members each with 31 members on Cork City Council and 52 members on Dublin City Council. Town councils have 9 members with the exception of the 8 largest councils which have 12 members.
Unlike Dáil elections, there is no constitutional or other legal requirement for equality in councillor representation per head of population at local level. The local electoral areas within council areas are revised from time to time. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has recently announced the establishment of 2 Boundary Committees under the 1994 Local Government Act to review local electoral areas in advance of the next local government elections in 2009. In this case the Boundary Committees have been asked to endeavour, as far as practicable, to achieve variance from individual average local authority representation within the range of + or – 10%.
At present county/city councillor representation ranges from 1 councillor per 1,318 people in Leitrim, to 1 councillor per 10,000 people in Fingal, and 1 councillor per 9,735 people in Dublin City.
Town councillor representation ranges from 1 councillor per 44 persons living within the legal boundary of Ballybay town council to 1 per 2,440 in Dundalk.
There is no simple formula which can be adopted for deciding on the optimum number of councillors on a particular council. Insofar as any principles do apply, they include having sufficient councillors to give reasonable representation to the local community, but not so many as to make organisation and decision making unwieldy (for example, it was considered that the size of the old Dublin County Council did not make for effective and accountable local government). An added consideration in the Irish context is the role that city and county councillors have in electing Seanad Éireann, with rural local authorities having a greater proportionate influence in the election than overall population levels would otherwise suggest.
In total there are over 1,500 local councillors in the State. There seems to be no great need or call for this number to be increased significantly. A move to reduce councillor numbers in councils with a small population, to compensate for increases elsewhere, would give rise to significant opposition. There may be arguments for some minor adjustments – for example, to reflect population changes within the Dublin local authorities – but not for any large-scale increase in numbers. How any changes in numbers should be made will depend on decisions to be taken in relation to the Local Government Commission, as discussed above.