I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".
When I first came to the Custom House as Minister for the Environment in early 1992, I was astonished to find that yellowed legal texts, almost as old as the building iself, were still being consulted. The law on local government was still an archaic, obscure and inconsistent labyrinth. Even the very terminology is largely meaningless to an ordinary citizen in the last decade of the 20th century. It is my aim to bring this maze of local government law within the realms of rationality and modernity.
Since I took up duty as Minister for the Environment, a major programme of legislative reform has been pursued across the whole range of areas which come within my portfolio. During that period, a total of ten Bills has been enacted. This is the third local government Bill in as many years, following the Local Government Act, 1991, and the Local Government (Dublin) Act, 1993, which completed the successful process of creating three new county councils in place of Dublin County Council and Dún Laoghaire Corporation. We have also had legislation enacted or introduced in most of my other main areas of responsibility: three electoral Acts, two planning Acts, a roads Act, a housing Act, the Environmental Protection Agency Act and a Road Traffic Bill. I hope to be in a position in the relatively near future to proceed with a further major electoral Bill and a Bill dealing with waste management and disposal. From time to time I am under pressure to look at other changes in the electoral law which could, perhaps, include single seat constituencies and matters of that kind.
The Local Government Bill, 1994, represents a further significant advance in the ongoing process of legislative reform. It is, in its own right, a major exercise in reform, providing for what is probably the most extensive revision of local government law undertaken since the foundation of the State. It consists of 70 sections and five schedules, and provides for the repeal of provisions in 78 different enactments, including the repeal of 27 separate Acts in their entirely. It provides for the replacement of legislation dating back almost 150 years by a modern, comprehensive and effective code relating to a wide range of local authority operations and some fundamental aspects of the local government system itself.
The present Bill complements the Local Government Act, 1991, bringing forward the process of local government reform which that Act commenced and addressing several important new areas. The Bill, the Dublin Act and the 1991 Act, together contain a total of 165 sections, providing for repeal or revocation of provisions in 105 different enactments dating as far back as 1840. By any standards, this amounts to a major overhaul and updating of the local government code. Together, these measures bring us ever nearer the situation where all general local government law relating to structures, procedures and functions can be consolidated into one comprehensive modern enactment. This Bill is not simply a passive consolidation exercise, much as we need that; it is a vehicle for a great many significant changes and substantive reforms, some of which I will now deal with.
Nowhere has the process of legislative reform in recent years been more evident than in the area of electoral law, with new legislation on Dáil and Presidential elections and referenda. Now it is the turn of local elections.
Part II of the Bill contains updated and consolidated provisions in relation to local authority membership. In Part III, I have set out anew, with desirable changes, those provisions in relation to the conduct of local elections which need to be enshrined in primary legislation. This will facilitate the codification of the detailed procedures relating to local elections, now contained mainly in the Local Elections Regulations, 1965, as amended by a number of subsequent measures. Following this Bill. I intend to bring before the Oireachtas for approval regulations to consolidate and modernise all the procedures at local elections. In the process, I propose to apply to those elections the many improvements in procedure which have been introduced for Dáil and Presidential elections in recent years.
The electoral provisions in this Bill are not just a restatement of those which apply in the other electoral codes. I have given a great deal of thought to the special circumstances and requirements of local authorities, with particular reference to qualifications for membership. I am conscious of the body of opinion in favour of ending the so-called dual mandate of local authority and Oireachtas membership, and I know that many local authority members would welcome changes in this regard as a means of enhancing the separate status of local authority membership. No doubt there is also the counter opinion that these should be retained.
What is primarily in question here is, I believe, the significance of local government as a worthwhile enterprise in its own right, separate from central Government in both the political and administrative spheres, as far as that can be achieved. This is a feature of many other democracies. It is notable that in many European and other countries, dual membership of the national parliament and of local authorities is absent, or a rarity. The opposite pertains in this country — a position almost unknown in other small comparable countries like Denmark. The concept of distinct membership is consistent with, and complementary to, the principle of enhancing the powers and discretion of local authorities as bodies with real responsibility for local matters — a major objective of the Government's local government reform programme.
Initial steps towards enhancing the separate status of local authority membership were taken in 1991 with the exclusion of Ministers and Minister of State from membership. I thought long and hard about the further extention of this principle before concluding that a blanket statutory prohibition on dual membership would not be appropriate at this stage. Such a prohibition is not often found in other countries. Besides, an outright ban would cause inordinate discontinuity in local authority membership, given the existing high level of overlap.
However, the Bill does provide for the exclusion of a range of public office holders from local authority membership. These are the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, chairpersons of various Oireachtas select committees, members of the European Commission and other EU office holders. Oireachtas members will be disqualified from being local authority chairperson or vice-chairperson — to be known incidentally as cathaoirleach and leas-chathaoirleach in future. These new exclusions will serve further to promote the concept of separate local authority membership. Together with the other changes in the law relating to qualifications for local authority membership, they will apply from the 1998 elections. Existing local authority members are not, therefore, affected.
More immediate electoral interest will focus on the holding of the town elections in June, as provided for in sections 14 to 20 of the Bill. These will involve five borough corporations, 49 urban district councils and 26 town commissioners, authorities which have not had elections since 1985. As already announced, the elections will take place on 9 June in conjunction with the European Parliament elections. They will be held, not on the basis of outdated town boundaries which have, up to now, excluded many residents from having a say in electing the council, but rather with the electorate enlarged to allow residents in the built-up environs of towns to participate in electing the authorities for those towns.
The Bill provides for the extension of boundaries for the purposes of the elections in the case of 54 towns listed in the Third Schedule. These boundary alterations will be put into effect by way of regulations under section 18, implementing proposals submitted by county managers following consultations with the county and town authorities concerned. The boundary extensions are being implemented in each case on the basis of proposals agreed by the local authorities concerned.
Of the 89 local authorities affected, 62 have a population outside their urban boundaries. Local agreement has now been achieved in the case of 55 local authorities. I compliment the county managers and the elected members of the county councils and of the urban, borough and town commissioners where such marvellous success was achieved against very severe time constraints. I appreciate that support. I realise that Members of this House who were elected in some of these areas have contributed also.
This brings me to the wider aspects of the issue of town local government. Before I comment on the specific provisions of the Bill, I would like to provide a brief historical perspective to this question and to set the proposals in the Bill in the overall context of the Government's programme of local government reform.
The report of the Review Group on Local Government Reorganisation and Reform, published in 1991, produced no agreed recommendation on this matter. The importance of the issue becomes apparent, however, when one considers the perspective of Ireland's social and demographic development during the past 30 years or so.
In 1961, a clear majority of Ireland's population was rural. Today, that situation has been reversed and at the time of the 1991 census, almost 60 per cent of the population lived in urban areas. This fundamental shift in a relatively short space of time has presented new challenges, particularly in areas such as employment, infrastructure and amenities, recreation and leisure facilities, education and youth matters, community structures and the whole area of social infrastructure in the towns.
The Government is alert to these challenges and has responded constructively and imaginatively on several fronts. The significant investment in urban water and sewerage facilities; the provisions of town by-passes which remove disruptive and damaging through-traffic, allowing towns to develop as social and economic centres; the priority being given to social housing and the urban renewal schemes which have revitalised the centres of many of our towns and in the process created valuable employment are all examples of a decisive response to the issues of concern to towns.
The actual structure and framework of local government in our towns has not developed in keeping with social and demographic changes. The legal provisions associated with bodies such as town commissioners are archaic in many respects. Large and important county towns, such as Mullingar and Portlaoise, are still hampered by a form of town government introduced 140 years ago. I say this without disrespect for the members of those authorities, but rather in the certain knowledge that those same members would be the first to acknowledge the need for modernisation of the structures within which they must work. Similarly, the fact that large centres of population such as Dundalk, Bray, Tralee, Ennis and Athlone have local authorities of the same classification as places only a small fraction of their size would suggest a lack of consistency and of good organisational arrangements. Other places, like Celbridge and Maynooth, have witnessed very rapid development in recent years, with populations now far in excess of many longstanding urban districts. They are very much in need of proper representative structures, yet they have no town local authorities.
In short, the system of town local government has not moved with the times. When the rural district councils were abolished in 1925, the urban districts survived, but the emphasis has remained on survival rather than on development and growth. There has been a tendency to adopt sterile, simplistic, adversarial positions whenever change is mooted. Perhaps for this reason, succssive Governments have shied away from addressing the issue. The result, for town local government, has been relative neglect and failure to keep pace with modern developments.
The issue is, admittedly, a complex one. Various suggestions have been floated over the years but there is no single simple solution. I pointed out, when announcing the publication of the Bill, that its purpose was not simply to guarantee the continued survival of town local authorities but to create a modern and effective system of town local government. However, by putting to rest once and for all the fundamental question as to the future sub-county structure to be adopted, a major step has been taken.
Town local government is to remain and is now to be modernised. The outstanding matters requiring decision have been narrowed down considerably, and it should now be possible to focus on these without sterile and distracting controversy. I hope that all concerned will make a positive and constructive input to the next stages of the reform process provided for in the Bill.
These stages will involve a statutory review by an independent local government reorganisation commission which is provided for in Part X of the Bill. The commission will consist of up to seven members and must include elected councillors from both town and county authorities among its members. The task of the commission is to prepare and submit a reorganisation report containing proposals for town local government, including such matters as the number of classes of local authority; the role and functions appropriate to each class; financial, staffing and organisational matters in relation to each class and the implications for county councils. The report will also contain proposals regarding the appropriate class for each existing town local authority, criteria and procedures for the creation of local authorities for non-municipal towns and measures and arrangements for the implementation of reorganisation proposals.
The commission will have regard to all relevant factors such as community identity and civic tradition, local capability, the need for effective and efficient discharge of functions and delivery of service and the need to safeguard the position and capacity of the county councils as the primary units of local government. The Bill gives the reorganisation commission a clear mandate and a definite framework, and makes specific provision for implementation of its proposals. There is no question, therefore, of solutions being imposed by the Custom House.
During my visits to local authorities I was amazed at the difference in capacity — this is not always related to size and function — of many of them. This will have to be addressed in a comprehensive way with maximum local involvement so that the best possible solutions can be found.
Since 1991, a policy of strengthening the powers of local authorities and giving them greater flexibility and freedom of action has been consistently followed. Removal of the ultra vires rule, relaxation of centralised controls on local authorities and devolution of functions in specific areas of operation such as housing, are cases in point. Similar measures are proposed in the Bills on road traffic and casual trading. The Bill before the House continues and extends this approach. For example, it provides for the removal of central controls which currently apply to local authorities in areas such as by-laws, parks, burial grounds and personnel matters. The principle that the local authority is best positioned to decide local issues on its own initiative is similarly reflected in the creation, in Part VII of the Bill, of a new broad by-law making power which will enable the elected local authorities to regulate a variety of matters and activities where they consider this desirable in the interests of the common good of the local community, without the need for ministerial approval, sanction or consent. The same philosophy is also brought to bear in Part VI which provides flexible, devolved powers for local authorities in the provision of various amenities and facilities. A scattered range of largely outdated provisions will be replaced by a modern, uniform code which will be concise, yet comprehensive.
I wish to make special reference to the provisions relating to public library services. These provisions, contained in sections 34, 35 and 36, will have the effect of consolidating and modernising the law while at the same time strengthening and extending the library powers of local authorities. The three sections will replace a total of nine separate Acts dating as far back as 1855, largely archaic in form and restrictive in effect. This is exemplified by the fact that they even prohibit compulsory acquisition of a site for a library, something which I think was unique among local authority services.
In their place, a simple enhanced set of provisions will be substituted, providing a new statutory basis for the library service, with broad and flexible powers, as well as important new elements such as provisions for the adoption of library development programmes. Removal of the anomaly regarding the acquisition of land is provided for and there is provision to allow the application of updated provisions to An Chomhairle Leabharlanna.
The public library is one of the most valuable services provided by the local authorities. It serves educational, recreational and cultural purposes as well as more specialised needs such as those arising from the ever-increasing interest in local history and heritage. The service constitutes a valuable resource and I want to see it continue to grow and develop. I am delighted, therefore, to announce that I will be providing additional funding for the library service to the tune of almost £2 million this year. This significant injection of funding is intended for new book stock providing an important boost to the service to coincide with its "statutory relaunch" under the Bill.
The library service has done much to promote interest in local history and heritage, helping to develop a sense of identity and self-esteem within a community and a pride which can spill over into practical, beneficial effects such as care for the local environment and the built heritage. There can also be an important tourist dividend with the increasing numbers of visitors motivated by a desire to trace family roots and gather material about their ancestral place of origin.
It is not appropriate, however, that we should depend solely on the local librarian, or local history societies, to see to the collection, safeguarding and presentation to the public of local records and archival material. That is the reason section 67 of the Bill contains a new provision relating to keeping local records and archives, modelled on the law applying to the national archives.
There must be a priceless heritage of archival material throughout the country, deriving from the activities of our local authorities and the bodies that preceded them. In the absence of any formal statutory provision and without a co-ordinated programme for the development of a local archives service much of this material could be lost or destroyed. A network of fully-fledged local archival institutions cannot be developed overnight, but we cannot afford to delay in taking the basic steps. Five years from now, in April 1999, our country councils will be 100 years old. What better way could the councils mark their centenary than by resolving now to put in place a phased programme for recording, conserving and making available for inspection the records of their own activities over the years? I hope to be able to make a tangible input to this in terms of a modest, but I hope useful, amount of funding. Initially, this might be directed towards ascertaining what has been done to date in relation to local records and archives, what material exists in different areas, what the immediate priorities are, and how a consistent programme of development could best be put in place.
With a wide-ranging Bill of this type, it is virtually impossible to comment on all the provisions in a Second Reading speech. Some are, in any case, of a relatively minor or technical nature and do not require any elucidation of principles. I would like, however, to touch very briefly on a few further provisions.
Part IV contains provisions relating to the office of local authority cathaoirleach and leas-chathaoirleach which will, in future, be the official titles of the chairperson and vice-chairperson and were recently introduced for the new Dublin authorities. The titles of lord mayor and mayor will, however, continue to be used, where they already exist, with a new statutory provision for deputy lord mayor and deputy mayor.
The existing law relating to local authority meetings is obscure, fragmented, inconsistent and well-nigh impenetrable from the point of view of the ordinary councillor or the public. Part V provides for making regulations to introduce a modern and uniform code which will be beneficial to local authority members and officials and conducive to more efficient discharge of business. It should also make the workings of local authorities more understandable and accessible to members of the public.
I will conclude by referring briefly to Part VIII of the Bill as it contains provisions relating to the unavoidable question of finance. The provisions themselves are largely technical in nature, dealing with such matters as situations where a local authority might adopt an insufficient estimate and updating the statutory basis for the payment of general purpose block grants to rating authorities. I would like, however, to refer briefly to the wider question of local authority finance.
Local government is a huge financial concern with a total workforce of almost 30,000 across the country and estimated total spending of over £1.6 billion in 1994; of that total, about £850 million is financed by Exchequer grants, almost all from my Department. Local authorities provide a wide range of services, the extent and diversity of which are unequalled by any other undertakings in the land. Many of these services are essential to life itself; all are vitally important to our quality of life, even if they are often taken for granted.
I, more than anyone in this House, would like to be able to provide ever higher levels of financial support to improve and expand local services, but we must all be realistic about this. Calls for more local authority spending are either calls for more taxation or calls for expenditure cuts in other public services which are important in a caring society. We must take full account of the inescapable reality that there is no bottomless well of resources to meet all the many genuine demands that can be put forward. The Government has to strike a balance between expenditure and taxation. We simply cannot have it both ways. The Government's aim is to reduce, rather than increase, the overall level of taxation and to achieve a fair allocation of the overall resources available. Within these limitations local government has been doing relatively well in recent years. It is often said at times like this that local authorities have no resources of their own. This year they will raise over £400 million from their own resources. With Exchequer and European Union funding, this will allow them to finance housing, road developments and sanitary and other services for which they have responsibility.
We must also ensure that the maximum return is achieved from the resources which are available. The changes for which this Bill provides, with other reforms in recent years, will make for more efficient and effective local government. In particular, the removal of out-dated centralised controls should promote a greater sense of responsibility, initiative and dynamism on the part of local authorities and increase their determination to achieve the best possible return from the resources at their disposal.
This Bill is designed to improve local government in its operations and relevance to the communities it serves and to modernise its procedures and structures. It is a landmark Bill and I confidently commend it to the House.