North Tipperary County Council has poked a very strong finger in the eye of Environment Minister Phil Hogan, and his department, following the rejection of his ‘Putting People First’ document, which aims to unify the county and disband Town Councils throughout, thereby taking services from the localities.
The council voted two to one to reject the document which was regarded as a “load of bluff and bluster” and referred to as “gobbledegook” by the Minister’s party colleague, Councillor Denis Ryan.
And, despite the defence offered by some members of the Minister’s party, the majority of councillors, including Mayor Micheal O’Meara, sided with Councillor John Hogan who lead the way towards the rejection of the document which was hailed by the Minister as the dawning of a new era for local democracy.
With up to 76 public representative positions to be lost to the county under the Minister’s plans, and with many functions of the local authority to be transferred, or changed entirely, the face of the councils is set to change dramatically over the next eighteen months. And, part of that change will see the establishment of Municipal Districts to replace the current county council areas and town councils. But, there are considerable fears amongst the current public representative body that large areas of the county could end up without any elected member, depending on the election results.
County Manager Mr Joe MacGrath told members that Tipperary will be one of the most affected counties in the country given that the Town Councils are to be disbanded and the North and South Tipperary County Councils are to merge. And, he outlined the plans which are in train to have the county ready for the Municipal Districts with an implementation group working towards ensuring that the June 2014 deadline is met.
Councillor John Hogan (FF), who has always voiced his support for the unification of Tipperary, rejected the document put forward by the Minister and offered the view that better efficiencies can be attained by having many of the services managed locally. He mentioned the student grant scheme as a prime example and stated that students are “going hungry” and having to drop out of college because of the disaster that is SUSI.
“There are students driving to college and having to take a chance by not having their car taxed, because they are awaiting the grant and cannot afford the tax. There are students going hungry as well, and now we hear that Minister Hogan is talking about taking the driving licence service from us as well. This is his way of closing down local authorities altogether,” Cllr Hogan said and he proposed that the council reject the document.
Support came from across the floor with Cllr Michael Smith seconding the proposal to reject. The 200 page document had been whittled down to 2 pages by the councils management team, he said, because there was nothing in it. He referred to other “fiascos” which the Minister had presided over and his comments were backed by Cllr Jim Casey who saw the document as “the ultimnate insult” to public representatives.
Cllr Seamus Hanafin said that the document was worthy of being compared to George Orwells ‘Ministry of Truth’ and referred to it as being “littered with spin and spoof”.
Cllr Seamus Morris said that Minister Hogan had treated the people of Ireland with contempt and he was of the view that the document was undemocratic as it would result in ‘people with deep pockets’ only being able to afford to stand for election.
There was disagreement amongst members in relation to some of the comments, with Cllrs Pauline Coonan and Phyll Bugler happy to endorse elements of the document. Cllr Denis Ryan too said that from his experience the general public were quite happy to have the number of councillors reduced. He referred to the document as containing a lot of “gobbledogook” but said that there were some very good elements in it as well. He did, however, admit to “throwing it away after six or seven pages.”
“The simple fact of the matter is that, to borrow Charlie Haughey’s comments, we are living beyond our means and we have to change our ways so that we can balance our books, get rid of the Troica and become a nation once again. Until we we do that, we will continue to have big problems,” he said.
Cllr Ger Darcy admitted to being “taken aback” by some of the comments from members and said that while there were some aspects of the document which he did not agree with it, there were others which he did agree with. Minister Hogan, he said, is putting power back into the hands of the councils and he looked to the Municipal Districts as working with similar success as the area meetings.
Cllr Virginia O’Dowd did not like the word decentralise and said that it has not worked with the HSE, the medical card scheme and the student grants. “I just feel that having everything local is better and more efficient,” she said.
Cllr Micheal Lowry said that rather than enhance the political system, the Putting People First document will drive people on the edge out of politics altogether. Cllr Hanafin said that the document was actually “anti-democratic” and he predicted that the only people who would be elected in the 2019 elections would be full time politicians.
The County Manager Mr MacGrath informed members that the document requires significant legislation and requires the Local Government Code to the amended. A Local Government Bill is likely to be introduced in 2013, he said, and will likely include the make-up and functions of the municipal areas.
Cllr Hogan’s proposal to reject the document was met with a counter proposal from Cllr Darcy, but having taken a vote, Putting People First was defeated by 14 votes to 7.
Cllr Hogan said “I think this is good news because it sends a strong message to Phil Hogan that North Tipperary is not prepared to allow it’s services to be taken away.”