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The fallout from abolition of town councils


3105 Three-Chains 1000
CONSIGNED TO HISTORY Pictured are the three chain worn by the Chairpersons of Castlebar, Westport and Ballina town councils. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Áine Ryan

SINCE societal and cultural reflection and reassessment has underpinned this important centenary year, it is interesting to note that Westport Urban District Council ceased to function due to ‘indifference and apathy’ in the months after the Easter Rising 1916. Unsurprisingly, its perennial members were more preoccupied by the ongoing nationalist political strife and exigencies of World War 1, than the petty bureaucratic wrangling of running a town.
Indeed, the hiatus was confirmed after one Mr Myles Staunton declined to continue as chairman of the local authority after the elections of January 1917.
Ironically, just under a century later, it was his great-grandson, also Myles Staunton, who spearheaded Westport’s campaign opposing the 2014 abolition of town councils.
The former Fine Gael Town Councillor, along with his council colleagues, made a submission to the Council of Europe arguing that the abolition of town councils ran contrary to the key principles of the European Charter of Local Self Government. Essentially, the charter states that public responsibilities should be exercised by those authorities which are closest to the citizen; that changes in local authority boundaries cannot be made without consultation with the relevant local communities; and that, by their abolition, the Principles of Subsidiarity – keeping democracy close to the people – will be undermined.
It is now almost three years since that unprecedented challenge was made unsuccessfully and two years since Mayo’s three town councils ceased to exist under local government reform plans introduced by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition. In the interim, despite the trojan efforts of Westport Tidy Towns and other voluntary groups, there are now weeds growing where grass verges were until recently perfectly trimmed at entrance roads to the tourism haven. Those weeds are merely a visible symbol of a heritage town whose strategic manicuring is no longer underscored by the strategic focus of a most progressive town council.
Speaking last week to The Mayo News, former councillor, Myles Staunton said: “On a practical level, ask anyone in Westport and they will tell you there has been a decrease in the level of services in Westport Town.  Also, the problem for the ordinary person now is that they have lost access to experienced public representatives who would raise their issues and represent them in the Council Chamber. This goes to the heart of the Principle of Subsidiarity, which is that each community has the right to be represented at a local level.”

No clear strategy
Mr Staunton also said that he was very concerned about the fact that ‘there seems to be no clear strategy for the town of Westport’. 
“Traditionally the main advantage of having a Town Council with its separate town rates and budgets was that the Town Council could have a clear strategy working in partnership with voluntary, commercial and tourism organisations to progress specific project.   This has been key to Westport’s success.  The Town Council was the focal point and in many ways the hub through which projects could be progressed.  In my view, having a strong urban centre will always inevitably benefit its rural hinterland.  I think with the Town Councils it has been a case of ‘you never know what you have until its gone’, and that the people in the town of Westport are now realising that.”
Another former Westport Town Councillor, who wishes not to be named, is very critical of the fact that since the General Election there hasn’t been ‘one word about Local Government reform’. He told The Mayo News that the absence of a town council in Westport is clear to see by the naked eye.   
“On a recent walk, everywhere I looked all I could see was the decline in the town. When you go out the Ballinrobe road the green areas are half cut and full of weeds. When you get to the bridge both verges on the Ballinrobe road are now covered in weeds whereas in the past the road was clean right back to the nice walls both sides. On Sandyhill there is a barrier up for months to replace a wall instead of fixing the wall which some vehicle damaged in the past,” he said.
Citing the recently located Tourist Office on Bridge Street, he also observed that there is a new trend allowing ‘plastic signage and flashing neon signs in a few premises’.
“The playground along the railway line is shabby looking with  weeds and uncut grass everywhere. Drive into any residential area and you will see the same. I know people may say most of this is cosmetic but it is as easy to get this right as not,” he continued.  
He said that ‘housing and homelessness’ problems are now seen as ‘national issues’ while in any other country they would be addressed by local authorities.
“We have had the whole Irish Water debate but yet no-one is asking the questions why the local authorities allowed our water and sewerage systems deteriorate to such levels,” he continued.
Other than the Smarter Travel project in Westport, what other initiatives was the council taking for the town, he asked.  
“What projects are the Council undertaking in Westport in the coming year? Other than the Smarter Travel money, what has happened in town the last few years? The likes of the school, town hall and Westport United project had very little input in terms of finance to these projects. Where are we with Westport House. We were given a commitment months ago that something would be sorted but there still appears to be nothing happening,” he said.

Fianna Fáil’s commitment
While the subject of Local Government reform didn’t get any headlines during the protracted negotiations during the formation of the 32nd Dáil, Fianna Fáil TD, Dara Calleary has confirmed his party is committed to the restoration of town councils.
He told The Mayo News: “We are still committed to the restoration of town councils. The effects of their abolition is been felt in Ballina, Westport and Castlebar and terms of the reduction in services, amenity grants,  marketing support and more.”
“The Programme for Government is an agreement between Fine Gael and the Independents. As the lead party in opposition we will pursue the restoration of properly functioning local government-including town councils-during the course of this Dáil,” Deputy Calleary continued.  
Meanwhile, the real fall-out in the north Mayo capital of Ballina is very clear for his party colleague, former Ballina town councillor, Johnnie O’Malley.
“From my perspective, the town council was always a better forum than the county council because every councillor generally related to the issues being discussed. On the other hand, in the bigger forum, councillors generally switched off if the issues wasn’t relating to their area,” Johnnie O’Malley told The Mayo News.
He argues, like many former council colleagues, that ‘democracy was closer to the people and, significantly, town councillors could relate to issues across the political divide’.
“If you take just one element: the Joint Policing Committees [which were part of the town council structure]. Town councillors would meet, along with other local representatives and the Garda superintendent, inspector and sergeant four or five times a year. When there were public order issues – bonfires at Halloween – which were of concern to the broader community we could address them there and then, at a local level,” O’Malley said.  
He was scathing about the fallout from the centralisation of rates.
“Let’s go back to 1999 and Ballina Town Council was the first to introduce car-parking charges in the county – and one of the first in Ireland. It might have initially appeared as a negative measure but it helped to regulate parking in the town and brought in a stream of revenue that allowed us to build the pedestrian bridge over the Moy, the development of Pearse Street and contributed to the development of the Military Barracks and Leigue Cemetery,” he continues.
Fundamentally, argues O’Malley: “The town council allowed us to control how our town was developed. We had our own Town Planner and ensured that the multiples were kept in the centre of the town, for example. All of that has been decentralised now.”

‘Biggest disaster’
FOR Castlebar’s poll-topping Independent councillor, Michael Kilcoyne, ‘the abolition of the town councils was one of the biggest disasters implemented by the last Government’.
“I served for 15 years [over three terms] on Castlebar Town Council and each year we had a budget of circa €7 million to be spent in the council’s area. Last year, in my view, there was less than €2 million spent,” Cllr Kilcoyne told The Mayo News.
Continuing, he says: “The only job carried out in the town, since the abolition of the council two years ago, has been the installation of a pedestrian crossing at Rock Square [down from the former Imperial Hotel] and that was planned by the town council before its abolition.”
He observes that Castlebar, ‘the county town’ doesn’t even have a Town Engineer any more.
“In the worst of times – 30 or 40 years ago – the local councillors went to the Department of Environment and they got approval for a Town Engineer. Since then we have succeeded in getting a Taoiseach but not a Town Engineer.”
He called on Fianna Fáil to stop talking out of both sides of their mouths about the reinstitution of town councils.
“Actually, they are in a position to deliver on this General Election promise because all they have to do is say they will vote ‘no confidence’ in the Government if it doesn’t reintroduce town councils. This town is dying so let them get off the fence,” Kilcoyne says.
He told The Mayo News that himself and newly appointed Fianna Fáil Cllr Martin McLoughlin had met the town traders the previous day and their story was ‘telling about the lack of local authority structure’.
“They have been trying to get signposts to Main Street and cannot because there is  no town structure any more. Instead of upgrading smaller towns, as was promised by Phil Hogan, there has been the downgrading of the towns with councils. It says it all when you look at the former building which housed the town council (Marsh House) lying vacant and Mayo County Council is paying rent in various buildings for its staff.”