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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 21 Mar 1985

Vol. 357 No. 2

Local Government (Reorganisation) Bill, 1985: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be read a Second Time."

Before Question Time I was dealing with the various aspects of the commission's activities. I will move on to other provisions in the Bill. The provisions of the Bill relate to measures which need to be in place for the local elections in June next and this is why they have been brought forward now and are so limited.

There will, as I have indicated, be five other stages to local government reform. This does not seem to have registered with some Deputies, even though I referred to it in my opening speech. Some people will have to be told again what is under consideration.

First, the completion of the reorganisation in Dublin including the transfer of functions to new councils, and the setting up of a metropolitan council as a coordinating body will be the subject of a further Bill. Second, additional legislation is in preparation to effect reforms and improvements in the organisation and procedures of local authorities. Third, an examination is being conducted urgently of a means of effecting a substantive devolution of functions from the centre to the local authorities so that any necessary statutory provisions may be included in the legislative programme which I have outlined.

People should be able to look to their local authorities more than at present for information, advice and assistance in areas of economic and social interest; in many cases these are areas in which the local authorities have little or no say at the moment. I also indicated that local authorities should have the right of making their voices heard when decisions affecting their areas are being made by various bodies at national and regional level and with this in mind the Government are intent on developing a more complete system of local self-government.

Fourth, the Government have recognised the need for change in the financing of local authorities following the removal of domestic rates and the collapse of the agricultural valuation system and have made provision for a land tax from which the proceeds will accrue to local authorities. Other approaches to see how local revenues might be supplemented and how local authorities might be made more financially self-sufficient are under examination; Fifth, the reform programme will include an examination of the regional level of Government, including the role of the regional development organisations, and the relationship between the various bodies existing at this intermediate level outside the representative system.

There can be no doubt, therefore, about the serious intent of the Government in relation to local government reform and the comprehensive approach which is being adopted in relation to this matter.

Having committed themselves to the commission approach to defining the new electoral areas the Government have decided to implement the recommendations. This meant that the cases that might be made — and some have already been made — for modification of recommendations in particular cases cannot be entertained. The Government have accepted the Commission's report. I believe that this is the only realistic approach. If changes were to be entertained everyone could make their own case and the whole purpose and advantage of the commission approach would be lost in a welter of claims and counter claims, and charges of discrimination in responding to such claims. I hope the House will see the sense of this, and will accept it. Electoral areas can, of course, be adjusted at any time in the future. If clear anomalies are established on the ground in the course of the forthcoming elections and there is an agreed view about this at local level, I will certainly be prepared to listen to whatever representations might be made.

Deputy Mac Giolla and others referred to district councils for Dublin. In addition to taking advice from the Dublin commission on electoral area divisions for the city and the new counties, the Government took advice on a division of both city and counties into districts as well. This will be the basis for future district councils which will be in a position to address themselves more fully and directly than the county councils and the city council to the needs of limited local areas. The special needs of the new town areas will be borne in mind particularly as this system is being developed. It is not possible at this stage to give detailed information about the role and operations of these district councils. This will depend in part on other elements in the total programme, notably on the decisions in the area of devolution. The district councils and their role will, however, be fully dealt with in the next stage of legislation on the Dublin reforms.

The Bill was prepared prior to, and in anticipation of, the report of the County and County Borough Electoral Area Boundaries Commission becoming available. I intend to put down a number of amendments on Committee Stage so as to limit the powers contained in the Bill to those which are specifically required to implement the actual recommendations of the Commission. The amendments in question are:

1. Section 19 enables the Minister to extend by order the county boroughs of Cork and Limerick and the Borough of Galway. In the event, a boundary alteration has been recommended only in the case of Galway and I will, accordingly, be deleting the references to Cork and Limerick. The commission also described the area which should be added to the Borough of Galway which area had been agreed locally. I would also propose to limit the powers contained in section 19 so as to apply solely to this area.

2. Section 21 of the Bill enables the Minister to alter by order the number of members of a county council, a county borough council, other than Dublin, and the Galway Borough Council. However, the commission has only recommended that the number of members should be altered in the case of county councils. I will, accordingly, be amending section 21 so as to apply only to county councils.

3. I will also be putting down a number of amendments consequential on those I have mentioned and some other minor amendments of a technical nature.

Reference was made to the absence of equality of representation as between local authorities. The point was made that, in counties such as Leitrim and Longford, each councillor represents rather less than 1,500 people whereas in certain other counties three or more times that number may be represented by a single councillor.

The Government recognise that it would be desirable to have a more consistent relationship than exists at present between county council membership and population between as well as within counties. However, the Government take the view that it would not be appropriate to reduce the existing membership of any council and I am sure that the House would go along with this view. To achieve equality without reducing the membership of any council below the traditional level would require a very substantial increase in the total number of councillors; about 120 extra would be required outside the Dublin area. While a case exists for such additional representation, especially in comparison with the much more extensive local representation in many of our EC partners, the Government decided that a large increase in the number of councillors would not be desirable in advance of the actual devolution of extensive additional functions to local authorities. The concept of a rationalisation of representation as between local authorities is not being proceeded with at this stage, at least, and the terms of reference given to the boundaries commission related only to equality within a local authority.

In looking at equality of representation as between local authorities, from the practical point of view, it is necessary to give some weighting to factors other than strict equality. For example, if a council is to function properly, a certain minimum membership will be necessary. On the other hand, if membership goes above a certain level, the council may become unwieldy with a consequent fall-off in efficiency. Similarly, the same level of representation may not be appropriate in the different kinds of authority. For example, the same level of representation may not be essential in, say, a compact, fully built-up county borough as in a physically large but thinly populated county. It may well be that different scales might be appropriate in different kinds of authority.

The view has been expressed that Dublin city, in particular, may be under-represented by comparison with the rest of the country. I would like to draw attention to the fact that the representation of the county borough is being increased substantially from 45 members at present to 52 as from the next election. It should be noted, too, that the net effect of the boundary adjustments is to increase the population of the city by only 18,000. It is relevant also that the overall population of the county borough has shown a small but steady decline over recent years. Thus, unlike the county council area, Dublin county borough is no longer a population growth area. In my view, it is being treated reasonably from the representation viewpoint.

In the County Dublin area, the number of councillors at present is 36 on the county council and 15 on the Dún Laoghaire Borough Council, making a total of 51. This total is being increased to 78, which is a substantial increase by any measure and gives the county as a whole a population-councillor ratio which compares not unfavourably with the larger county councils. The allocation of seats to the new county councils results in an almost identical councillor-population ratio in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Dublin-Belgard. This seems to me to be very appropriate because both areas are similar in the sense that the more spectacular growth in population has already taken place in both cases and a tapering off in growth may be expected in the coming years. In the case of Dublin — Fingal on the other hand very substantial growth is taking place and, in fact, this will be a real growth area in the Dublin district in the future. It is only appropriate that we should take some account of the anticipated development in allocating seats to this new county council. That refers to a criticism by Deputy Mac Giolla. We are taking the point on board and anticipating the changes in population that will occur in those areas.

As far as the allocation of seats within each of the new counties is concerned, the Government will implement the recommendations of the boundary commission and there will, therefore, be a closer quality of representation within each of these new authorities.

Taking all these circumstances into account, the House will accept that from the point of view of representation Dublin is being dealt with in an evenhanded and sensible manner.

Deputy Molloy inquired in the context of discussing the proposed boundary extension for the Borough of Galway about compensatory payments in the event of land property being transferred from one authority to another. The Deputy is aware that the county electoral commission recommended that adequate provision should be made for payment of compensation to Galway County Council in respect of the alteration of the boundary of Galway city.

Both the existing section 19 of the Bill and the revised section 19, which I will move to incorporate in the Bill on Committee Stage and to which I will refer later, enable provision to be made for the payment of compensation. Section 19 of the Bill provides that an order under that section may include provisions similar to or with the same effect as any provision contained in the Second Schedule to the Bill which deals with provisions consequent on the alteration of the Dublin city and county boundaries. Article 2.(1) of the Second Schedule provides for an agreed adjustment in regard to any loss of revenue, actual or prospective, which is or may be incurred by the corporation or the county council. In seeking an agreed adjustment it will be open to the two authorities concerned to enter into negotiations and, if they wish, to appoint an agreed arbitrator to make recommendations in the matter. It is only if these processes fail that the Minister, at the request of one of the local authorities concerned, is empowered under article 2.(4) of the Second Schedule to make compulsory adjustment. I hope that it will be possible, with or without the assistance of an arbitrator, for the two local authorities to reach a mutually acceptable understanding locally.

Deputy Molloy and Deputy Mac Giolla mentioned the metropolitan council in Dublin. The metropolitan council will be provided for in further legislation. As I have indicated, there has been a certain amount of confusion as to the role of the metropolitan council and it might be useful if I outline briefly the broad role envisaged for that body. The metropolitan council will not be directly elected. Instead they will consist of nominees of the principal authorities. They will be essentially a co-ordinating body rather than a body with an executive day to day role. They will be the appropriate body to establish policy guidelines on an integrated basis for the major services, including transport planning, throughout the Dublin area. The national plan Building on Reality 1985-1987 provides for the Dublin Transport Authority to be set up by the Minister for Communications and become part of the reformed local government structure. It is envisaged that the DTA will constitute a sub-element of the metropolitan council with specified functions in the transport area carried out within the overall policy framework established by the council. Precisely how effect will be given to this together with the functions and roles of the metropolitan council, will be spelt out in due course in further legislation. The main line local authorities——

Does the transport include roads?

The Dublin Transport Authority will make recommendations about roads. They do not take over the functions of the roads within the corporation. Obviously, they can make recommendations to the council about the roads but they will not take over the functions of the local authority of the upkeep and maintenance of the roads in Dublin.

What about new roads?

Or new roads. As I said, they are a consultative body. The mainline authorities will be responsible for putting forward their plans for road structure for the local authority system. The main line local authorities will remain responsible for the traditional local government functions subject to an effective co-ordinating role being vested in the metropolitan council. In the interests of integrated development over the area as a whole, full account will be taken of the recommendations which emerge from the eastern regional development study which is now being completed. Obviously, this will be considered by my Department and particularly in the case of Dublin by the metropolitan council in regard to the effects it may have on the traffic situation and transport in the area.

Deputy Molloy has argued that the Gaeltacht areas are being denied special recognition of our local government system and remain divided by electoral area boundaries. He regrets the fact that the terms of reference of the county electoral commission did not refer to Gaeltacht areas.

Contrary to what Deputy Molloy has stated, the Government are very concerned to preserve Gaeltacht communities. Indeed, the Government considered very fully the recommendations in the action plan for Irish, 1985-1986, which suggested that each county council whose area includes part of the Gaeltacht should establish a Gaeltacht committee consisting of the councillors for Gaeltacht electoral areas, such committees to have advisory and other functions.

There are, however, difficulties about establishing electoral areas based exclusively on Gaeltacht areas, arising from the physical nature of the Gaeltacht. To begin with, the Gaeltacht is spread over seven counties and in six of those counties it is divided into two or more non-contiguous areas. In several counties non-Gaeltacht areas are isolated by the Gaeltacht from English-speaking areas. Gross inequalities of representation would arise if all Gaeltacht areas were to be represented by separate electoral areas. This would run counter to the principle underlying the establishment of the two independent electoral commissions, namely, equality of representation within counties and county boroughs. It would be difficult to justify the creation of separate Gaeltacht electoral areas in any counties other than Donegal, Galway and Mayo, and even in these counties it would seem necessary to exercise a substantial bias in favour of Gaeltacht districts and accept electoral areas which are awkward in shape and include non-contiguous areas.

All of this does not mean, of course, that the Gaeltacht will be ignored in the context of local government reform. The Government accept fully the desirability of having local structures which recognise the special nature of the Gaeltacht areas and are responsive to the needs of such areas. Accordingly, further legislation will permit the establishment of Gaeltacht committees in the relevent counties to which functions can be devolved. This will represent a realistic response to the special needs of the Gaeltacht.

Reference has been made to the complexity of the proposals in the Bill in relation to Dublin and to the risks attached to the change over from old to new authority in the county. I would respond to these points on two different levels. Firstly, it is a matter for the Oireachtas to decide how the local government system should be reorganised. Inevitably this raises complex problems which require complex solutions. Risks are involved in any attempt to remould our local government system but this should not, as has happened in the past, be used as an excuse for inaction.

Secondly, it is necessary in implementing any proposals for reorganisation, to have detailed consultations with the various interests involved including the staff interests. This is and has been an integral part of my approach to this matter. Clearly the speed of reform depends on the support and co-operation forthcoming from local authorities and their staff. I have a right to expect that the co-operation and process of consultation being pursued at present should be capable of being concluded satisfactorily, given the necessary co-operation and goodwill.

Deputy Molloy referred to the need for what he described as adequate second tier structures for towns which have developed over the last 30 years. He remarked on the fact that no reference was made to this important area of reform. That is not the case. In outlining the various phases which will be involved in local government reorganisation I referred specifically to legislation which is currently being prepared and which will, inter alia, concern itself with the matters referred to by Deputy Molloy. Provision will be made for the setting up of town councils — a new form of urban local authority — in towns, the adjustment of urban boundaries, extended functions for local authorities in the social and economic spheres and a variety of adjustments in relation to the procedures, bye-law making and so on. All these proposals, together with the special arrangements which will apply in the Dublin area, will ensure the relevance of the local government system to urban areas.

Deputy Kelly's remarks are always interesting and his speeches are always attractive to listen to. However, he made some statements I could not agree with. Local authority members, councillors and members of borough councils and so on have contributed substantially to the democratic system for many years. Although I have had occasion during the past year and a half since I have been Minister for the Environment to point out to local authorities that they would have to have a much stricter approach to the way finances are disbursed within their areas, that does not take away from the great contribution councillors make. It was implied that councillors have a great financial benefit from being members of a council. Councillors are not paid for the time they spend in local authorities. They are given some compensations for attending meetings which goes some way towards meeting the loss of pay they must suffer by being members of councils. Some travelling expenses are given to them for travelling from their homes to meetings. When taken with the totality of money spent by local authorities this is a meagre amount.

I am aware and have written to local authorities about the problems of visits abroad to various seminars. I have pointed out the need for a closer and tighter restriction of attendance at these seminars and that local authorities should consider whether any benefit accrues to their areas by their attendance at such functions. On a number of occasions meetings are held which would have relevance to the areas councillors represent. However, I agree that on occasion there has been some extravagance in the numbers involved in delegations. I have made it is clear in a circular issued to councillors that this practice must be looked at in these times of stringency at national and local level. Councillors are taking heed of this. Perhaps Deputy Kelly did not read the documentation which was sent out by my Department or my speeches and those of the Minister of State about local government reform.

It must be taken into account that this Bill is the first of six initiatives which will be taken regarding the reform of local government. To say that this is the beginning and end of it is far from the truth. The reform will take several months. It will probably be a few years before all the structures are put in place, but this is not a long time when one considers that there has been no real reform of local government since the foundation of the State.

When we come to Committee Stage we will have an opportunity to look more closely at the various aspects of this legislation. We can then tease out any of the points raised which I may not have an opportunity to reflect on at this stage. I thank all those who contributed to the debate and propose to the House that this Bill be accepted unanimously.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 26 March 1985.