The local electoral area boundary reports

LGiU Ireland Director Andy Johnston explores the Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee Reports that were published last month.

Nothing concentrates the mind like a good hanging, or so the saying goes. Well, while not quite as rigorous a prospect as a good hanging, the publication last week of the two Boundary Reports (here and here) will certainly have focused attention on the timetable towards the local government elections in 2019.

The reports are the result of what has to be appreciated as an extraordinarily difficult challenge. Given the tight terms of reference of the process, the actual production of recommendations that largely meet the expectations of those terms is no small achievement. To do so, while also pointing toward a framework for the 2019 local elections across all 31 local authorities, in a manner which recognizes the diversity of Ireland in its population, increased urbanisation and the challenges of  rural decline, has to be admired. The members of both committees and their supporting secretariats  did some job. The question that might now be asked is whether the outcome of the reports will contribute to further development of the local government system?

Unfortunately, given the relative paucity of submissions for the individual local authority areas, there might be a view that while those involved directly in local government are interested in how democracy is structured at local level, the wider population is at best disinterested. This does not bode well for further reform and for the development of a much wider range of responsibilities and availability of resources to a local government system which has proven itself time and again in the past years to rise to the many, at times, traumatic, challenges of delivering services, with ever decreasing numbers of elected members and staffing levels and reduced funds.

So even if the work of the two committees is to be admired, it is disappointing that there has been relatively limited debate about the two reports. Commentary largely focusing on the immediate questions of local boundaries is to be expected in the local media, but at national level there has been hardly a statement about the level of representation at local level. Some limited commentary suggesting that the Citizens Assembly should take on the issue of reforming local government has come forward, but again it is hard to see any resulting discussion.

Also, it is interesting in reading the two reports how poorly the people of Ireland are represented. With the ratio of members to population increasing given the increase in population the restriction in membership numbers to that already in place will result in an even higher average ratio which was already well beyond that across most if not all of the OECD. Of course this is going to have to be addressed at some point. If the National Planning Framework is suggesting a population growth of around 1 million people in the next 20 years or so (only 4 electoral cycles), are we going to see some increase in membership to at least keep representation ratios at their current and all too high levels? This is going to be a critical challenge, particularly in growing urban centres but also for those rural areas fighting the prospect of depopulation.

It is possible to have very high levels of representation ratio in urban centres. Cities like Portland in the US and Brisbane in Australia indicate that this is the case but the role of the elected member in such city regions is very different from the tradional role played by councillors in Ireland. Even in large city regions such as found in the UK and Auckland in New Zealand, governments have found it necessary to create local levels of representation within the city region structures such as parish councils etc. in order to bridge a perceived gap between the elected member and the citizen. Such fundamental questions do need to be addressed in Ireland.

So work well done by the two committees by any measure, but in terms of local government reform, there is still a lot to think about.