Thursday, 2 April 2009

New Ross: a classic case of imposed vertical fiscal imbalance.

This article, submitted by Tim Ryan, considers current planning and local government problems facing New Ross.

Like all Town Councils in the country, New Ross struggles for income from the restricted sources available. But, in New Ross, access to funds it should have by right, through commercial rates, are denied to it by surrounding local authorities.

'Ross deals with two county councils: Wexford and Kilkenny. Most of the town is in Wexford, while part is in Kilkenny. The Kilkenny part is delineated by straight lines drawn on the map.

In fact, there are several boundaries, including: the fiscal boundary, the electoral boundary (a long way outside the fiscal boundary), the administration of services boundary, and the planning boundary.

In the case of the planning boundary, the Town Council plays little or no part, as virtually all planning matters are dealt with by Wexford County Council. Wexford even oversees the compiling of the ‘New Ross and Environs Development Plan’.

Here we have a town which cannot plan its future in any meaningful sense. Its retail core contains vacant shop units due to the granting by Wexford County Council of retail developments in a ‘donut’ around the town. Thus, the town’s income is shrinking. The result is that it cannot fund the services that it should be providing (vertical fiscal imbalance).

The solutions for a Town Council in these circumstances are few. The amount of Government grant aid is pegged at a limit and the income plus grant shortfall is supposed to be met by variations in the rates (always upwards), but this gets out of hand when the number of premises actually operating and therefore capable of paying is shrinking and where the increased burden is thrust onto the sole commercial survivors.

Wexford Borough Council managed recently (2008) to expand its boundaries and has seen great improvement in its ability to balance its budget but it took nearly 10 years to get the boundaries moved!

Wexford County Council (and Kilkenny) would justify their strategy of placing the new industrial estates and retail parks outside the towns in many ways but the most important justification for them is again financial: “anywhere as long as it makes money for us”.

This I expect is a planner's nightmare.

The benefit to the townspeople of big new stores with often far lower prices than they had with the original tight clique of shopkeepers in such provincial towns cannot be denied nor can the greatly enhanced variety of goods available but – only if you have four wheels.

In 'Ross the Tesco is at the top of the town and 'Ross is built along the line of the ridge of the Barrow Valley and the roads down the ridge into the town slope steeply as they drop over 50m from the Ring Road to the Quays. Walking to Tesco's is not an option for over 90% of the townspeople.

The Town Council is thus forced to look on as its fate is decided by the demands of the county councils and is unable to alter matters for its own benefit. As times get harder, as it appears they will for a while, the people of the town look to the council to promote the town in order to bring at least some business to the place but, with the scenario described, it is a seemingly impossible task.

Just exactly how can a town expand its boundaries? How long should it take? How liable are Councillors if a Town Council fails financially?

There are stratagems that can be employed to at least force the issue before the Government and it can be predicted that a number of Councils may soon resort to various desperate measures to breach the 2001 Local Government Act and force a more town-based approach to local government.

The amount of time the expansion process takes is disastrously too long at present and the process has to be capable of being fast-tracked.

One of the factors that will force the issue is the realisation by certain councillors that they are liable if they accept certain budgets that clearly cannot be met.

Historically, towns were never beholden to the counties and indeed it would always have been counter-productive if they were: nothing is different now.

If we want to have healthy, productive and lively towns they must have “lebensraum”. Contrary to the propaganda connotations of that word it was the denial of living space that in fact caused the problem: not the acquisition.

Please forward any feedback to: Tim Ryan C.Eng MIEI c/o

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