Welcome news from Minister Phil Hogan today- an additional €15 million (on top of the €65 million already announced a few weeks ago) is to be allocated by the Department of Environment for flooding for emergency relief for areas affected by flooding.More info available at: http://www.environ.ie/en/Community/NationalDirectorateforFireandEmergencyManagement/News/MainBody,35281,en.htm
The European Parliament Elections Amendment Bill 2013 changes current European Parliament constituencies. The changes follow the reduction in Ireland’s MEPs from 12 to 11. There will now be 3 MEP constituencies; Dublin, the South and the Midlands North West. There are currently four: Dublin, the south, the east and the north west.
The Bill amends schedule 3 of the European Parliament Elections Act of 1997 and changes European Parliament constituencies in the state. Of course the reduction means Ireland will one less representative in the European parliament which is not ideal as we have one less voice to represent Irish interests but the reduction is pan-European so every member state is losing members according to size and so forth. This legislation follows on from the Electoral, Local Government and Planning and Development Act of 2013 which allowed for the establishment of a committee to examine European Parliament constituencies and make changes to the current nomination requirements for non-Irish or UK nationals standing in European parliament elections here and this Bill includes the committee’s recommended changes to the constituencies as a result.
At present the constituencies are quite large and this Bill proposes changes whereby the constituencies would be larger with the abolition of the east constituency and the creation of three new constituencies: the south, the midlands north-west and Dublin to remain unchanged. In essence what is being proposed is the existing east is to be subsumed into the new midlands North West and the South constituencies with the addition of five counties to both constituencies. The south and the midlands north west will have 4 seats each instead of three. The counties to be added to the existing south are Carlow, Clare, Kilkenny, Wexford and Wicklow. To the new Midlands North West, the counties of Kildare, Laois, Louth, Meath and Offaly are to be added. This enlarging of the constituencies will mean that huge swathes of the country will not have as much representation- for example, if one MEP has to represent an area stretching from Malin Head to the bogs of Laois and Offaly- a huge distance and obviously canvassing and trying to represent everyone’s interests when you must cover such a vast geographical area but we must respect the independence of the commission who had the difficult job of trying to re-align constituencies with a lesser number of MEPs- a decision that came from the EU.
At it presently stand, the MEPs in the north-west constituency must take into account people living in Kilrush and Moville. It is an enormous area. The areas from Dingle to Tramore in the south and Wexford to Dundalk in the east are also very large. Each constituency, including Dublin, has three seats. If one is to move to have 11 MEPs, there needs to be a major change and my suspicion that that we will have even larger constituencies has been correct.
The Local Government Bill is a piece of reforming legislation currently in its second stage in the Seanad. As Fine Gael Spokesperson for the Environment, Community and Local Government, I am very interested in the legislation and spoke recently to the Minister in the Seanad on the topic:
We are here today to bring into being one of the most ‘radical’ changes we have seen in Local Government since the foundation of the State, The Minister has brought forward and set out a wide range of actions, to deliver reform across key areas of local government in order to address weaknesses, to enhance effectiveness and accountability, and to improve performance across the entire system. This Bill gives legislative effect to those proposals and I am privileged to be elected into this position (by Councillors) and given the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, on behalf of the people of Ireland for an enhanced Local Government.
This Minister has I know the enhancement of Local Government at heart, and I want to point out before I get into the Bill that the Minister Hogan has announced last week a €98M funding boost for Local Government Funding 2014 -that is an – 11% increase in national funding for local authorities through GPGrants and Irish Water in 2014. Repeat increase of 11%.
For as long as I have been involved in politics (nearly 20 years as a local Councillor) we have been talking about political reform this Bill is reforming from a structural and administrative perspective and from a functional perspective – While I would like and look forward to further devolution of functions to Local Authorities to ensure we have a system of local government based on strong local democracy, community spirit; citizen empowerment & subsidiarity allied to an effective and cost efficient service delivery, this Bill addresses some of the weaknesses.
I welcome the transfer of functions to the District Councils 44 in all and 24 more that can be performed by District or Council -bringing democracy closer to the people. In part 21, section 131a there is provision made for any city or county council in the area of a local authority to delegate more of its functions that may be performed in respect of each municipal authority which I welcome and this is another example of additional power being granted both to the Council & to the new municipal districts (Councils) This delegation of function can only be done if at least 50% of the elected members of the city or county council in question votes in favour of such a move.
Also in amendment of section 72 (transfer of certain functions to local authorities) of Principal Act to make transfer of functions from ‘other public authorities’ as well as from Ministers feasible and I hope to see this opportunity used.
The lack of reserved functions and financial dependence on central government has meant that local government has been a creature of central government & Managers in many ways, implementing policies dictated by Government to a level dictated by the finances made available to it, & indeed a lot still remains to be done but we are moving in the right direction .
In relation to part 3A of the Bill, I want to make some comments on the Municipal District provisions. 1. The Cllrs representative bodies AMAI/ACCC/LAMA (who have gone through the draft Bill with a fine toothcomb & I want to commend them for their work of behalf of their members) they have made some very good recommendations in their submission to you Minister on this Bill and I am confident Minster you will listen to some if not all of them. (a) A recommendation that Municipal Districts should be called Municipal District Council instead of Municipal District Areas, I support this proposal as I also feel that it would improve the authority and autonomy of the Municipal District –a district is a place/boundary, while adding the word ‘Council’ denotes the administrative body & it would not take much to change that or cost anything.
In relation to section 29, I think Minister you should look at the power of the Municipal District to vary the commercial rate and LPT and that was there on page 78 of your own Putting people First Reform document as published in 2012 but it has disappeared?, so you or somebody thought it was a good idea Minister you should reinstate that statement. &provision should be included for it in the legislation.
The Municipal District should also be given the discretion – in certain circumstances only – the power to increase or decrease, the commercial rate and LPT but only to carry out specific projects that will be of benefit to the community for a specific time as agreed by the Municipal District Councillors. I know that the Community Fund is there that can be utilized for local community one off projects – but in this climate that is a non-runner as it would be seen as an extra tax. You might think about it Minister – they do it in other European Countries so why not here. I want to point out that in Northern Ireland municipal districts have the autonomy to set additional commercial rates owned by large commercial entities which is known as the ‘Tesco’ tax and -very large corporations pay a higher rate of tax there, it is a methodology of saving the heart of the towns as well. Overall I welcome the introduction of municipal districts (Councils –put in brackets as not in Bill) and at this point I know many lament the passing of the Town Councils and pay tribute to the many fine Town Councillors & I’m sure many will return to the District/County Councils. The District is not a new concept at all in the Irish context as I remember reading the Barrington Report on Local Government over 20 years ago recommended a system of District Councils and Minister Hogan has now implemented them. But I know we will lose some fine town Cllrs. Who because of the distance/the area covered is much larger than town council areas – some good Cllrs. Who work full time will now be lost to the system and this is regrettable.
Section 34 provides for the dissolution of the county and city development boards and section 35 makes provision fort the establishment of local development committees. This section clearly outlines that each Local Community Development committee is independent in the performance of its functions and I want to wholeheartedly welcome this independent status – I know the Local Dev. Committees expressed concern about losing their independence, I think they can be assured this will not happen which I welcome this and it is stated – “to clear up any doubt that the LCDC in its own right may be the contracting authority for programmes and measures pertaining to local development”.
The ACCC has raised some concerns in relation to the section of the Bill which I want to bring to your attention – Subsection 2 of section 35 inserts a new section that what was in the original draft which states that the CEO of the Council shall seek and select nominees to the committee. This indicates that the selection of members is being left to ‘an official’ which must be rubber stamped by the local authority “without omission or addition” is what is stated in the Act -this is so undemocratic and I ask the Minister if he can clarify this– if it is only rubber stamping why bring it before the Council at all? I would suggest that ‘the select’ word should be replaced with ‘propose’ & for ratification by the Council. The Councillor members should be nominated by the Council & the Community members put forward for ratification by their own representative organizations . The appointments to committees were always done democratically and a reserved function of the Council – not left to one individual – this situation is not to be recommended, we have seen what can happen to appointments in some organizations when ‘it was perceived rightly or wrongly’ that it was left individuals in the past –not to be recommended, there should be an open and transparent procedure.
In amendment of section 133 No. 45. There is also that the chair of LCDC should be a member of the Corporate Policy Group of the Council – just as I think the LCDC’s should have their independence from the Council – I think the same should hold for SPC’s should remain separate from the LCDC’S yes report to be part of input -but not subsumed into,. Minister if you would comment on this please – in s.35(3) there is also provision in the Act that there can be more than one LCDC in a county ‘with the approval of the Minister’ so how would you choose which chairperson? Or could you end up with more than one chairpersons of LDC’S on the SPC’s? I think independence but co-ordination of both is what is needed – this needs further consideration.
Also in relation to the Corporate Policy Group in S. 45(1)(d) that the registered political party constitutes at a minimum 20% of the total membership of the incoming – as we all know parties can be big sometimes & very small – this would have the effect of maybe not having the leaders of registered political parties within the council may not sit on the CPG. – what about the Independent members elected to Council – I think the grouping system was fairer where Parites/or Independents could group together and depending on their % representation democratically elected could have a member of the CPG. I think Minister you should re-examine this whole 20% , –you might comment on this Minister.
Section 36 deals with the County Councils and civic leadership roles. It sets out that a municipal district should contain the area of a town the population of which is equal to or greater than 20,000. (I know the AMAI recommended 25,000) Provision is made for such districts to use the title ‘mayor’ or ‘deputy mayor’ in place of ‘cathaoirleach’ or ‘leas cathaoirleach.’- and this is good. The city councils are also given power to use the title of their respective city in addition to mayor or cathaoirleach in Irish as well as in English but this is not extended to the county council mayors. We all know how important the County is to the GAA, and I would say the same for the ‘County’ in Local Authority – now not all Counties would or indeed they have chosen in the past when they could have done they did not to exercise this prerogative – but if they so wish the County should make that decision. Mayor’ is a universally recognisable title and the ‘County Mayor’ title is already in use in countries such as Sweden where there is a strong level of local affiliation – the title Mayor/Méara reinforces the sense of civic leadership in their local authority area,. when I was in SDCC the title Méara Chontae was the term chosen then when I was Méara an Chontae . I think myself it would be an anomaly where the district with over 20,000 would have a Mayor and not the larger County Council-if they so wished.
I welcome part 10 of the Bill which sets out the proposals for a directly elected mayor in the capital city – but only if the Mayor is given the powers to go with the title, there will be a plebiscite in the Dublin regions on the issue where/if a resolution has been adopted by each of the Dublin Local authorities & over 50% of Cllrs. Agree – there will be a plebiscite – have you any update on that Minister? ‘Hopefully the directly elected mayor along the line adopted in London is what’s in mind- A Mayor with teeth & powers. I know Minister you have stated that you have requested each department to assess what functions they might consider suitable for devolution to Local Authorities – and maybe you might get the Departments to come back to you on one very soon. I know with the introduction of the Property tax its intent is and was to devolve more revenue raising powers to the LA – and I know it can’t all be done overnight, but I would suggest as soon as it is economically feasible that the commitment that 80% of the property tax raised locally would be spent locally -retained locally to be spent on local services, I would like to reach the stage where itimized billing on what pays for what service to demonstrate what services are provided for the money raised.
I recently spoke in the Seanad about the terrible storm damage suffered by residents certain coastal areas:
I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss the recent storm damage as a result of flooding. The extreme weather conditions over the Christmas period has caused much destruction in various parts of the country and along coastal areas in particular who bore the brunt of the storm damage. While it is very unfortunate that this type of freak weather does occur and leave a trail of destruction behind it, it is not the first time that it happened in Ireland and it won’t be the last. In January 1839, a major winter storm hit Ireland. Homes, shops and farms were destroyed, and several hundred people lost their lives. In Dublin alone, nearly a quarter of houses were damaged, and 42 ships were wrecked and it has is said the wind carried seashells as far inland as Athlone. That was a long time ago of course but nowadays we tend to think that sudden weather changes are a modern phenomenon somehow- this is perhaps true to an extent. We cannot know for certain as our weather records only date as far back as the 1800s.
However, increasing polarity in weather patterns often resulting in extreme weather is becoming more of a problem in recent years and we simply cannot ignore the complicity of climate change in this trend. The event in 1839 was so unprecedented and had such catastrophic consequences that ‘Oíche na Gaoithe Móire’ (the ‘Night of the Big Wind’) became embedded in Irish folklore. More than that – at a time when few births were recorded and illiteracy levels were high – it became a measure by which people could gauge their age. Seventy years later, when the State pension was established and many could not prove their date of birth, they were asked if they could remember the ‘Big Wind’; if they could, they were old enough for the pension.
In the 175 years since this event, catastrophic storms – thankfully – have been an infrequent phenomenon in Ireland. In the coming decades, however, if we allow climate change to continue unchecked, extreme weather events will become more common. Extremes of heat and cold – such as we experienced in 2010 and 2011 – will be much more frequent. Summers will be hotter and drier; winters will be warmer and wetter; and a risk of more frequent widespread flooding will occur. There is consensus now in climate science community that climate change is causing serious changes in weather patterns and conditions across the globe and Ireland is no exception.
It is a fact that over the last 250 years since mass industrialisation began in most parts of the world, humans have continually polluted our environment through the emission of over half a trillion tonnes of carbon by burning fossil fuels – a process that has caused atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to rise by 40 per cent. This process continues now even in 2014 in spite of the advanced knowledge possessed by officials and other stakeholders. We are on track to release another half trillion tonnes in the next few decades which will cause a major jump in global temperatures. I cite an article written in September of last year where he articulates these points.
This Government is very conscious of climate change and the damage it causes and is demonstrating this through the publishing of a heads of a climate change Bill which will be scrutinized by the Oireachtas at some time this year it is expected. The publication of this Bill is welcome and represents a further, hugely significant milestone in the Government’s 2-year Programme for the development of national climate policy and legislation issued in January 2012. I believe that we have the commitment to take action in counteracting negative climate change and the subsequent Oireachtas Environment Committee report on the heads of the Bill is positive in terms of how it contains suggestions on how to ensure our climate policies are rolled out in an efficient and effective manner. In particular, it’s good to see suggestions to reduce the timeframe for national action plans from seven years to five, and to develop a national roadmap for tackling climate change in advance of sectoral roadmaps.
However, I do know the heads of the legislation is not perfect as in its current format and there are changes needed. For example, specific carbon emissions reduction targets should be set for 2050 and targets and objectives should be listed in the bill. I ask the Minister what has the European Commission recommended on greenhouse gas targets? I know that the UK is to set these targets higher than the recommended EU targets. Will our national greenhouse gas emissions targets as well as our renewable energy targets be maintained? It is very important that all of this is set out in the final Bill.
You might stop and ask how is this relevant to this debate? It is VERY relevant because if we have the necessary measures set out in climate change legislation then extreme weather occurrences in the future can gradually become less frequent and we must aim for prevention rather than cure. While this does of course does not offer immediate short term solutions to the problem of flooding and storm damage, this aspect of the debate must be explored. I am cognizant of the predicament that many households and businesses along coastal areas are affected and in particular by the recent episodes of stormy weather and flooding. The OPW and the Department of Environment do have policies in place to assist victims of storm and flooding damage. I know that the Government’s inter-agency, emergency response group met two weeks ago to coordinate responses to the storms which caused severe damage the west and south coasts. Counties Clare, Galway, Mayo and Kerry, with coastal damage and damage to the roads infrastructure were the worst affected by the storms.
There was severe in some cases and I have been contacted personally by individuals in Connemara who had experienced damage to lobster pots and to structures. The cost of repairing the dameage is of course one of the first questions on the lips of everyone and how it would be done. The Minister did clarify last week that initial estimates by his Department of the cost of the clean-up and the repair and restoration of public infrastructure are of the order of €65 million. He also confirmed that the cost of repairing roads infrastructure is estimated at some €20 million, €35 million for coastal works and €10 million a range of other costs, all estimated at this point time. T
Some €41 million, almost two thirds of the total estimate of €65 million, arises from two counties, those being, Clare and Galway, reflecting the severe impact of the storms along the west coast and it is in those counties where the concentration of the restoration efforts is needed, naturally.
Local co-ordination and delivery of clean-up and restoration works will be led by the local authorities as well as I understand it. Emergency funding is allocated from the OPW as well and Minister Brian Hayes will be responsible for assessing many of the individual areas in terms of damage and cost of repair. The OPW is responsible for funding flood defences, large and small and it has repeatedly given a lot of money to all parts of the country amounting to €45 million on an annualised basis. That is €250 million over a five-year period from the Government.
Flood defence funding I know is one of the few areas of capital funding that has not reduced which is positive. However, I think there is recognition that we are underfunded as a country when it comes to infrastructural flood defences. Minister Hayes and Ministers Hogan and O’Dowd in their respective departments must be commended on the efforts they are making I know the efforts that he and his Department are making to acquire funding from Europe with regard to the recent disaster. I know that a number of our Irish MEPs have said funding is available from a €500 million-a-year EU Solidarity Fund to help defray the costs of major natural disasters and since its inception in 2002, the fund has been used for 56 disasters covering a range of floods, forest fires, earthquakes, storms and drought. A total of 23 European countries have so far benefited to the tune of €3.5 billion.
It is not clear if we would qualify for this funding but this will become apparent in the coming weeks I would expect. The Minister might comment on this fund. Do we need to apply immediately to be eligible to receive it? The restoration effort while important is part of the solution to flooding and severe weather damage- as I have already mentioned our national climate change strategy enshrined in legislation will be key to preventing occurrences like the one we had a few weeks ago. In the short to medium term, there is a need to install improved flood defences to avoid repeat circumstances in high risk areas and the funding for flood relief schemes is ring-fenced as Minister Hayes confirmed last week.
Insurance is also a key issue in this debate and one that crops up often when discussing flooding in Ireland. Areas where people will struggle to obtain affordable flood insurance must be a priority and I would encourage home owners have insurance, I would encourage them to consult to their insurance broker. The Government is very aware of the issues affecting those households living in high risk areas and that there is a difficulty obtaining insurance for many. I know that Minister Noonan did say only last week in response to a Dáil PQ that the idea of making flood insurance compulsory has been considered by cabinet but it is a double edged sword insofar as it would mean that in areas where there was likely to be regular flooding, the cost of insurance would almost certainly be more expensive and could make premiums unaffordable for policyholders in general.
I know that the OPW and the Irish Insurance Federation have been engaged in discussions to agree on a sustainable system of information sharing in relation to completed flood alleviation schemes and works undertaken by the OPW or, in certain instances, by local authorities with OPW funding, and where the standard of protection afforded by these works could be verified. Improving flood defences in high risk areas is a priority for the OPW and we forward planning is key in dealing with flooding and storm damage when it occurs, being proactive rather than reactive is the best strategy for the future in this area.