I welcome this opportunity to make a statement on local government reform in the House today. As we are all aware, a comprehensive Action Programme; Putting People First was launched by Minister Hogan in October last to bring about the most fundamental improvements to the local government system in Ireland. The programme represents a very radical reform plan that will bring Local Government into the 21st Century. This new policy will bring about some of the necessary reform designed to increase the efficiency of local Government and will ensure that taxpayers money is translated into the services people expect and deserve in their local areas and is in keeping with the commitments made in the Programme for Government to deliver on radical reform for our economy, public services and our politics.
The vision that I have is one of a system of local government based on strong local democracy, community spirit and citizen empowerment allied to an effective and cost efficient service delivery. We must ensure that in creating an efficient system of local administration we do not wipe out local democracy and good local government.
What we have seen to date that in pursuit of reform over the years there has been an agenda of reductionism as opposed to real reform. We have had in the past tinkering with local government and no real attempt to reform it. We have seen powers and functions removed from local authorities. Certain functions are best administered centrally but central Government is not best equipped to grasp the inimitable conditions of each locality. It is preferable for local government to carry out that job because locally elected institutions employing their own specialist staff are better placed to understand and interpret the conditions and the needs of local communities. The over-centralisation of government here is inefficient and fundamentally incompatible with a healthy Republic. We need a cost efficient delivery of services.
The Barrington Report over 20 years ago recommended a system of District Councils and we now are going to have a system of Municipal Districts & Metropolitan areas. A part of the Reform programme the Government is to undertake, Town Councils are to be replaced by Municipal District Councils across the whole territory of the state (bar Dublin as it is deemed a special case) will be created. Each county is to be divided into a municipal district based around principal towns in a district. This will address weaknesses associated with the inconsistency of structures, inequality of representation and the fragmentation and duplication of functions between Town and County Council.
I ask the Minister in cases where there are is more than one principal town in a district, how will the name of that district then be chosen? I welcome this change as I think it will lead to greater power for the councillors within municipal districts as a significant range of reserved functions will be performed by Councillors at district level being devolved from county level including housing, budgeting and many roads and planning functions. The new model being adopted will give greater autonomy to the elected members and with a defined separation of functions at county and municipal levels, there will be no duplication and greater efficiencies achieved.
The system in Ireland where some voters have county and town votes is arguably unfair and undemocratic and the establishment of the municipal districts will correct this democratic deficit as there will only be one election for the district where the district will consist of a single electoral area with a minimum of 6 and a maximum of 10 elected members in the majority of circumstances. Each district member will also be a member of their County Council.
The total number of municipal districts in the 25 counties involved excluding Dublin would be approximately 90 compared to the 80 town councils and 120 county electoral areas we presently have but does not mean we would have less representation. On the contrary, we could see a result of actually having greater, more consistent national representation through equalisation. A reduction in the number of councillors from 1,450 (with a cap of 40) to more no more than 950 would mean an overall representational ratio of 1 councillor to every 4,180 head of population which would balance out the representation nationally where the range at present goes from a low 1:1,444 to 1,8,398.
Ireland is anomalous in terms of European countries as the existence of town councils is very much the exception with municipal level districts being the norm in Europe. My understanding from the report is that cities and boroughs will retain mayoral status and also in the case of the new municipal districts with towns over a certain population which was stated as being 20,000 as an example in the report but I would ask the Minister if he can confirm this. In addition, I ask the Minister what the ballot paper will look like- will it state that is a municipal district election and a county council election? I didn’t see it alluded to in the report. The Minister has said that the scope for further extension of the reserved functions of the elected member will be fully considered and he has asked each department to come up with proposals which I strongly welcome as it would mean greater devolution of power which I have already alluded to and advocated.
I want to ask the Minister under what circumstances will the use of the term Chair or Cathaoirleach be confined to.
In relation to the ACCC and the AMAI, I would ask to ensure that suggest that the new merged body should have representation on the new Action programme’s Implementation body when it is established in the interest of democratically elected representation.
The onus on Councillors now is much greater than it was 20 years ago and I would be interested to know if anybody has done a review of the hours spent or even asked the local councillor about the time involved. Participative democracy, citizen engagement is to be commended and recommended and this all takes up all of a councillor’s time. I know this from my own personal experience and during my time spent as a County Councillor.
Councillors are not in the job for the money and I am of the view that you cannot expect women or men to pay for childcare and work entirely on a voluntary basis. I think it would be good to have this review published well prior to the 2014 Local Authority elections to let people know what they are signing up for and I here note the spate of resignations in the Dublin area shortly after last local elections – when people experienced the demands of the job. It is stated in the report the need to ensure sufficient incentive for high quality representation and I agree with this.
Under the Action Programme there are proposals to significantly increase the role of local government in local and community development programmes which I welcome. A Departmental Steering Group report was completed last year to examine the scope for greater alignment between the local government and local development sectors to advise on options for a more integrated delivery of local and community services. I ask the Minister if the procedure for this integration has been determined yet. And has consultation on this taken place with the Community Development groups? I know I chaired a meeting myself where we had a delegation from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions ICTU community sector where they presented findings of their report to us – this was brought to the Ministers attention.
In relation to Participative Democracy arrangements, I am pleased that mechanisms to promote community and citizen engagement will be considered and I am wondering Minister, when the report on this is to be published?
The community alignment plan provides for a Socio Economic committee (SEC) in each city & County council area for planning and oversight of local and community development ensuring joint participation of the local community sector and the elected representatives. Programmes will be established. Those SEC’s will have responsibility for developing a 5 year City & County ‘local and Community’ development initiatives. A National policy on local & community devolution is to be launched before the 2014 local elections? I want to ask the Minister if this is on track.
I welcome the Government’s decision to integrate the local micro-enterprise support services currently undertaken by the County and Local Enterprise boards with Local Authorities and the establishment of Local Enterprise offices is as it will provide a strong platform for local authorities to play a leading and integrated role economically. I would ask to ensure that Councillors maintain their input to the local enterprise services and partake on the evaluation committees. Can the Minister confirm if this is to be the case?
Waste Management ‘ Planning ‘ will remain with Local Authorities which I welcome as local authority staff have significant expertise and experience in this area and retaining this will be an advantage to the planning process. However, the number of Waste planning regions will be reduced from 10 at present to no more than 3, taking full account of the proposed New Regional Assembly structure as set out in chapter 8 of the report.
Under reform proposals I know that the position of City/County Manager is replaced with a Chief Executive and measures are to be taken to support elected members to assert their primacy in policy using the existing legal and policy framework. Measures include new accountability mechanisms, a review of the Strategic Policy Committees and consideration to extending ‘reserved’ functions and to giving councillors a statutory role in ensuring the Chief Executive complies with policy.
In the case of Dublin, the issue of replacing the town authorities does not arise aside from Balbriggan but the same functions that will be performed by other members at municipal district level will be applicable to three County councils in Dublin where they can meet at a sub county level of each electoral area but I understand that as stated in the report ‘In light of recent major restructuring’ the utilization of this system in Dublin is optional at the discretion of the Councils?. I know that a special forum of the four Dublin Authorities will be set up to consider Mayor and I ask the Minister when this is to be?, I presume that the district system will be introduced to Dublin also?
In the case of metropolitan Districts which is applicable to the cities, the proposal that the metropolitan area in Limerick is to be in the region of 100,000 populations with a commensurate membership. I understand also that the intention is that there be a number of electoral areas within the Metropolitan Districts of Limerick and Waterford and the three City Councils of Dublin, Cork & Galway are to be retained. In total there will be 28 County Councils including the existing three in Dublin.
Local authorities will be locally funded through an equitable property tax and will, therefore, become less dependent on central government funding. Given the local nature of property, the link between community location and service demand and provision and the potential to provide for local discretion and accountability, a property tax is uniquely appropriate as the principal source of sustainable funding for local government. I know there is debate on the Dublin area being asked to pay more than the country and this is so, but as spokesperson on Local Government, I have also had representation on the other side of the coin from people in the country saying ‘they have no footpaths, no lights, no public water supply, no community facilities – so they ask where’s the fairness/unfairness. It is clear that greater financial independence and responsibility are essential to the development of a stronger, more efficient, mature, accountable and self-reliant system of local government whose relationship with national Government will no longer be characterised primarily by dependency, lobbying and centralised control.
The Putting People First report sets to reform the system of local government from structures that are largely unchanged since 1898; to modernise the approaches to ensure more is delivered to the citizen and to build confidence in the Local Government Sector by making it more accountable to the people it serves.
The overall programme will save the taxpayer over €420 million. Over €830 million in total savings has been achieved in the area of local government expenditure since 2008 & over €196 million in the last two years. This is a significant saving to the taxpayer and in the next two years alone the structural reforms alone will deliver €45 million in savings.
Local Authorities have already implemented a considerable degree of shared service arrangements, for example, in respect of the household charge, human resources, payroll systems and procurement. Local Government has achieved the highest proportionate staff reduction of any sector with Local authority staff having reduced by 8,478 from mid-2008 to 28,765 or 23% as of March 2012, representing a saving of €288 million and they must be commended for this.
In relation to VECs, a Government decision was taken last year to reform them and legislation is currently passing through the Dáil in the shape of the Education and Training Boards Bill which will provide for 16 education and training Boards to take over from the current VECs. The 7 River Basin District Advisory Councils which have responsibility for river basin management plans under the EU Water Framework Directive and has included two members of Local Authorities along with an elected member from a sectorial Strategic Policy Committee. I understand that the functions of the Council are to transfer to the EPA. Am I correct here Minister? I want to state that the issue of the River Basins is also an important North-South issue as the river erne straddles both sides of the border and greater inter-governmental co-operation is needed in this area.
At regional Level the membership will reduce from 290 to 62 with 2 members of each constituent City & County comprising a regional assembly. The Government opted not to abolish the regional authorities because they have an on-going and important role to play in policy development in line with the territorial cohesion agenda at EU level and their abolition would therefore be a mistake. They now play an increasingly effective role in relation to the development and implementation of Regional Planning guidelines and core strategies under the Planning and Development Act of 2010.
A new National Oversight Audit committee is to be set up under the aegis of the Regional Assemblies as I understand. I put the question to the Minister as to how the Councillors Representatives will be selected for this committee as a possibility of a merger ‘ with the Comptroller and Auditor general office is mentioned in the report?
The report has outlined that a performance indicator review group is being established to review current suite of indicators and I ask the Minister when that this is to be completed? Something I would strongly welcome is the addition of a dedicated customer service officer in each Local Authority (some have them already) to monitor and standards and service delivery. It states in the report that, ‘an effective modern system of public administration should incorporate a robust process of standards-setting sand quality assurance in relation to local government performance,’ and having an officer that would effectively oversee service delivery would be very positive. I ask the Minister when this is to be rolled out.
The Government has already demonstrated a firm commitment to political reform since taking office in March of 2011. Last spring, the Electoral Amendment Political Funding Act was passed which gives effect to anti-corruption measures which make the political funding process much more transparent and drastically reduces the donation thresholds that can be legally accepted by parties. The Act also gives legal effect to gender quotas for women in politics with the aim of increasing female participation in Politics.
The findings of the Mahon Tribunal last year Tribunal of Inquiry which was established in 1997 in response to serious public concern in respect of allegations of corruption relating to the planning process concluded last year and the government has decisively implemented its recommendations. Sadly by the actions of the minority, Powers of Councillors under section 140 will no longer apply ” in respect of planning functions and consistent with this, these powers will not apply to any decision by a local authority involving Financial or other benefit to an individual or specific organization ” and so as recommended in the report the powers under section 140 is diluted for Councillors.