What’s happening to local government

Local Government is an institution which is closely involved with providing services to the public, yet it has traditionally been tardy about public relations.

Local Government is an institution which is closely involved with providing services to the public, yet it has traditionally been tardy about public relations.

It doesn’t always tell us what it is doing.

When arbitrary announcements have been made about proposed major changes in local governance, especially in Tipperary, we ordinary people, significant stakeholders in the institution, are given little or no information. We know changes, which will impinge on our lives, are about to happen. But we have neither information about or any influence over them.

The Minister for the Environment has announced that the changes which are proposed, and which will be implemented from the local elections which will be held in June 2014, will be a thorough reform of the system and that it will give more relevance and power to local governance. Since the powers of elected members are already nominal, and severely circumscribed, that proposal is welcome. But what are these powers? Will they be meaningful or just cosmetic? Does anybody know?

If somebody does know, then they are not talking. No “Information Meetings” have been held for the public. The political parties, which have a vested interest, have done nothing to inform their constituents. My local councillor, for whom I have much respect, sends me a report a few times a year, telling me about his work in South Tipperary County Council. But of the changes which are about to take place, especially in the County administration, he has said not a word.

The reformation, from the little the Minister has said, in his inimitably dismissive style (take it or leave it!), will be radical and will involve the dissolution of all the Borough Councils (the old Corporations), most of the Urban District Councils, and in the case of County Tipperary the amalgamation of the two Ridings. Tipperary, therefore, will undergo a more revolutionary change than any other county in Ireland.

The Ridings in themselves were artificial. Donal Murphy in his book - “The Two Tipperarys” describes the administrative division of the County in 1838, as illustrative of “the Irish genius for politics, at the levels of both the Anglo-Irish ascendancy and the emerging nationalist (Catholic) middle-class of the 1830s.” Essentially, it was the stroke politics (yes stroke!) of the wealthy landlords to achieve the perks of an assizes town for their locality.

In the north of the County that was Nenagh. Clonmel was already well-established historically as the seat of the Ormonde Palatinate Court (in the Main Guard). There was also the argument, relevant at the time, that the Grand Jurors (the unelected local representatives of the time - mostly the aforesaid wealthy landowners) found the twice-yearly travel to Clonmel for meetings, and lengthy stays in the town, “arduous.”

Those arguments and conditions are no longer sustainable, but in which town will the new and rationalised Council be housed? Both towns - Nenagh and Clonmel - are already well accommodated with extensive office space. Will the amalgamation result in more or less bureaucratic high jumps for the public which local government is supposed to serve? Will the new and the reformed bring more efficiency and less expensive administration? And will the public have more access to information?

The dissolution of Clonmel Corporation (already reduced to the status of Borough Council), is indeed historically momentous, and there can be few of us citizens who will not be sad to see it go. Local governance in the town has been here, in some form or other, since 1319, when King Edward II granted the right to “the Provost, Bailiffs and Good Men” of Clonmel, to raise tolls for a period of seven years to build walls around the town.

There have been many reformations. According to Canon Burke (“History of Clonmel”) the most significant was that enacted in the reign of James I when the “modern” concept of local government was introduced. The most notable change took place in the reforming legislation of 1842, which brought some elements of democracy into the election system and gave access to Catholics to Council membership, following the punitive and self-serving reign of the post Cromwellian Corporation.

All of that is now history, and it would seem that the lesson to be learned from that history is that change is inevitable. Of the proposed new changes we know very little, yet it would seem that, since the electorate - the ordinary person, will be affected by them, then the details of the proposal should be well-circulated and discussed and debated. But that cannot be done until we know what is involved.

If, for instance, the reform is going to be radical, then should the composition of elected Council membership be changed? At present, this seems to be confined to political parties. Should, at least, a percentage of that membership be allocated to the vocational, the cultural, the sporting, the social? And, please, please, could we be informed well ahead of June 2014 - of precise details of the powers (real powers!) in decision-making which will make Councils more democratic than they are at present, when all important decisions are made by the executive. Does anybody know? If they do - please stand up and tell us.