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Town councils will be abolished and councillors’ ability to overturn decisions by planners will no longer form part of their powers – moves described as “nonsense” by one former councillor and commentator.
Dan Boyle, who was a Cork City councillor for a number of years, admitted that the section 140 provision – commonly used to allow planning permission which officials have refused or advised against – has been “widely abused in the county to allow one off housing over the years.”
“However, councils may have shown they cannot be trusted, but management cannot be trusted either, leaving planners caught in the middle,” said Mr Boyle.
“There should still be a section 140 mechanism allowing councillors to hold the manager to account. I would have a concern that the management might initiative a separate planning process through developers, effectively giving themselves planning permission. There has to be a way for councillors to have a say.”
The proposals were announced by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan as a “radical” shake-up of local government. Proposals included the abolition of town councils, amalgamations of local authorities and a reduction in councillors and staff. Mr Hogan estimated €420 million would be saved.
Although Section 140 has been used sparingly in the city over the past number of years, the most recent use of it was only last week as councillors sought to stop a development approved by An Bord Pleanála in Bishopstown.
Local Government expert and University College Cork lecturer, Aodh Quinlivan, was deeply critical of the new proposals.
“A vital layer of local democracy is to be removed and with it will go accessibility to local decision-making processes,” said Dr Quinlivan.
“The underlying premise to the document is that ‘big is beautiful’ and we will gain efficiencies from economy of scale. There is a dearth of evidence that this has worked in any country. Rather many countries report dis-economies of scale from mergers, amalgamations and rationalisation.”
Dr Quinlivan also questioned the vagueness of some parts of the document.
“It says that the power of councillors ‘in respect of planning and certain other matters will be curtailed.’ What are ‘certain other matters’?
Part of the reforms announced included the merger of several local authorities around the country. However while Cork County and City Councils remain intact, the report does call for an extension of the city boundary before 2014.
Speaking before the announcement, County Manager Martin Riordan paid tribute to strength and commitment of Mr Hogan to increase the remit and powers of the local authorities but was wary of an expansion.
“I think Cork is big enough, the city is big enough to drive the regional economy of Cork,” said Mr Riordan.
“Boundary extensions will always be the focus of conjecture. We need to focus on how we are going to recover our local economy rather than divide the spoils.”
Lord Mayor of Cork, Councillor John Buttimer, welcomed the proposal on the boundary and called for it to be in place by the 2014 elections.
“From a practical perspective extending the city boundary makes sense,” said Mr Buttimer.
"As it stands now the boundary runs down the middle of some residential areas, parts of the county are can only be accessed from the city. The people living in the suburbs which adjoin the city consider themselves to live in the city; their daily activities reflect this connection. It makes sense for the system of local government to reflect this reality.”
The extension was also welcomed by the head of the Kinsale Road Business Association, who said it would allow Douglas and Rochestown to develop.
“It may be a loss to the county but they never put the money in,” said Dan O’Mahony, who was also a founder of the Douglas Business Association.
“They took the finance out of Douglas. We didn’t even have any representation until Deirdre Forde came on the scene. We have had survey after survey so we now want action.”
The full report can be read at environ.ie while some commentators speculated that it could take up to a year for the legislation to process through the Oireachtas.
'The best form of democracy'
Town Council Mayors expressed a mixture of disappointment and anger at the news that the lowest form of government is to be abolished before the next election 2014. They are to be replaced with municipal districts formed by hinterlands and towns with county councillors occupying any roles required in those areas.
“In my opinion it is the best form of democracy, being killed by democracy,” said Macroom Mayor, Cllr Owen McCarthy (Fianna Fáil).
“It’s a devastating announcement. He (Mr Hogan) spoke about nothing else other than town councils. You have nine local councillors working for the community and then they are told that they are no good. The majority of town councils are Fine Gael also, so you have a Fine Gael Government telling Fine Gael councillors that they are no good.”
Mr McCarthy predicted that if the legislation is passed, it would herald the demise of towns like Macroom.
Fine Gael Mayor of Cobh, Cllr Sinead Sheppard queried what people who need represenation would do if the local councillors were taken away.
“This will be a big loss,” said Ms Sheppard.
“I understand the need in one way but how many seats will be for Cobh? Will Cobh be represented? I don’t know how it will work but I suppose it has to.”
Ms Sheppard admitted she understood the need to save costs but warned that people don’t know what a councillor does until they need one to represent them.
“It is a sad day for Clonakilty, which is celebrating its 400 years birthday next year,” said Sinn Féin’s Clonakilty Mayor, Cionnaith Ó Suilleabháin.
“Town Councils are proven to deliver the best service and democracy is losing out. Over the past number of months with the flooding and the defending being done in the town – that was all being done by the Town Council. To have power centralised 15 miles away is a big void psychologically for people.”