Whilst the inadequacy of Irish institutions in handling finance is well proven, consider basic distribution channel theory. In distribution, the term “middleman” describes an intermediary between a producer and an end customer. The middleman adds an extra step in the distribution chain, puts a mark-up on for himself and generally adds cost. It is regarded as good to eliminate the middleman.
A middleman without direct link to a producer has lost his raison d’être. He simply swims aimlessly, clutching at any marketable merchandise. His mere existence is an unnecessary expense. In Irish local government, there is only one middleman: the County Council. And elimination of this expense is entirely feasible.
The structure for sustainable, bottom-up local government in this country is already in place. Rural districts were created in the Local Government Act 1894. Typically, they looked like a doughnut shaped ring around a town. The town was managed by the then equivalent of the Town Council whilst the affairs of the rural district were the responsibility of the Rural District Council. Each had an extensive statutory role. When Rural District Councils were abolished by the Local Government Act 1925, all their functions were transferred to the County Councils. But because rural districts are subdivided into the electoral districts we use today, they continue to be used for statistical analysis.
The only sustainable, affordable way of implementing bottom-up local government is to consider a town and its rural hinterland to be intrinsically linked and each to be the responsibility of a Rural District Council. Each rural district, including its central town, would elect nine representatives to that Council. Membership would be considered to be a part-time role. Headquarters of the Rural District Council at the existing Town Council offices would be manned by a single full-time administrative staff member. Each of the rural districts already has County Council Area Offices, so an engineer from each Area Office could function without additional cost as the Rural District Engineer. Management would be a shared function with Cork County Council.
Rural District elected members would receive representational payment similar to that currently received by members of a former UDC, i.e. €5,000 p.a. They would have limited statutory functions, performing primarily representational, rating and social functions, similar to Town Councils. Unlike Town Councils, they would be statutorily consulted on such issues as planning and housing. Their annual budget would be limited and similar to that of current UDCs.
Three elected representatives from each Rural District Council would convene at Cork County Council headquarters monthly for a countywide meeting. This would be the new County Council and the principal opportunity for elected members from each rural district to present the financial arguments for their area to the County Council executive.
Were such an approach to be considered, there would be a suggested 14 Rural District Councils, each with nine elected members in County Cork. At a practical level, some rural districts would need to be amalgamated such that each Rural District Council would have responsibility for 20,000 – 30,000 people. But at least the amalgamations would be between towns with established relationships and with sufficient proximity to have relevance to each other. For example, it would make sense to amalgamate the Fermoy and Mitchelstown rural districts to yield a Rural District Council with responsibility for a total population of almost 32,000. Both towns are adjacent and work closely together. Public representation for each citizen would be 1:3,555. While still greater than the European norm, it is better than the current 1:7,200 and the post-reform proposed representation ratio of 1:7,000. Crucially, such an approach would bring citizens closer to their elected representatives and would allow real local issues to relay directly to the County Council executive.
No system of local government is without its drawbacks, but if well managed, the interactions between towns and countryside are the basis for a balanced regional development which is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. And happy rural areas mean happy cities and suburbs.