Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 12 Jun 2001

Vol. 537 No. 5

Local Government Bill, 2000: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

I understand Deputy Gilmore had concluded and I now call on Deputy John Browne.

(Wexford): I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the Local Government Bill. I will share my time with Deputy Michael Kitt, if he arrives in the House.

The Bill before us is a continuation of the reform of local government that has taken place since 1996. Some people maintain the Bill is only tinkering at the edges, others say it is going too far. Until now this debate on the Bill has been dominated by the dual mandate question – whether TDs should continue to be members of local councils. I am easy in that regard. It is an advantage to be a member of a local authority, particularly when one is starting out in politics and hoping to become a Dáil Deputy. It is a major stepping stone to be elected to this House. Other people contend they were elected to this House without ever being a member of a county council or an urban district council but I believe it is of major benefit. The time has come, however, to deal with the question before us because it has probably dominated the debate on this Bill for too long. I hope that over the coming days, the Minister will outline whether the dual mandate question is to remain part and parcel of the Bill or be removed from it.

The whole area of local government reform needs to be examined, although I am of the view that councillors generally are not really in favour of getting too much power or of being reformed too much because in most county councils and urban councils, particularly county councils, a cosy arrangement operates on a large scale between the county manager and certain members of county councils. County councillors who have been members of councils for a long time will not take on the county manager but will work with the county manager. At times, county councils in particular can be very frustrating because of this arrangement.

The whole area of the county manager needs to be looked at as a matter of urgency. The county manager has too much power. He has too many executive functions and is too far removed from the day to day operations of people depending on local government services. In many cases county managers act like tin gods. They build empires and a power base behind them in county halls, more often than not with the support of certain county councillors from all political parties. They operate a system which is not good for local government in the long-term.

County councils generally serve the public well but there have been many appointments of new committees, SPC committees and county development boards. In Wexford, for example, we have area committees, general purpose committees and sub-committees and I wonder if the staff and county councillors, or urban councillors, will have the time to serve on so many committees. There needs to be an examination of the way the committees operate, and the number of committees, with a view to perhaps having a more unwieldy system because senior officials can become bogged down in meetings with councillors on a regular basis while, at the same time, services to the public are suffering.

County councils and urban councils, but particularly county councils, operate in a monopoly. The current service from county councils is not good. There is a great deal of dissatisfaction among the general public in that regard. They find it difficult to get telephone calls returned or to get appointments and when we raise that issue at county council meetings, we are told it is because of the changeover, that there is an overlapping of the system and that when the new policy committees and the new county development board are up and running, there will be a better local government service to the general public, but I say to the Minister of State that the general public are very dissatisfied with the service they are getting from local authorities.

Going back to 1996, the Bill, the BLG and the little purple book we received set out to downgrade urban councils. That was wrong. Urban councils throughout the country have served their area population very well but we now find that the county council will be the superior body which will make all the decisions in relation to water, sewerage and other major areas, and that those responsibilities will be taken from urban councils. The way the BLG is being operated is an insult to urban councils and there is much disquiet in urban councils.

I have been a member of an urban council and a county council for a number of years, with my former colleague on the two bodies, Deputy Ivan Yates. We fought to maintain many of the powers for urban councils but, unfortunately, that was not to be. I have no doubt that the previous Government and the present Minister are continuing to downgrade urban councils. That is not in the best interests of democracy and the Minister should seriously re-examine that issue and continue to enhance the powers of urban councils rather than downgrade them.

On the salaries of county councillors, at any conference I have attended in the past three or four months – I do not attend many of them – I have been attacked by county councillors from all political parties and told that we, as Members of Dáil Éireann, are holding up the payment of salaries. I have not held up the payment of salaries. The Minister should not have tied the payment of salaries to councillors on the basis that the dual mandate had to be removed. If urban councillors deserve a salary, it should be paid, regardless of whether they are TDs. It is important that the role of county and urban councillors is considered in terms of a salary.

County and urban councillors are doing as much work as TDs did 20 years ago, and deserve to be paid for this work. The best approach would have been to increase expenses, rather than to pay salaries. Salaries will cause problems for councillors who are on disability benefit, unemployment assistance or means-tested payments. A number of councillors will not be able to draw down salaries as they are in receipt of such payments. The Minister should examine the possibility of paying a higher level of maintenance allowance or expenses, rather than introducing a salary. Once such a payment is classed as a salary it will be means tested, taxed and deducted from social welfare payments which councillors are being paid. Not many councillors are in receipt of social welfare, but some good members had to give up work because of disabilities and so on. Such councillors will find themselves means tested under the proposed system.

The Minister should consider reforming the role of county managers who are too powerful and have little regard for councillors or the public they serve. In my county there will be a county manager and five directors of services on an assistant county manager salary scale. There will be two other layers of administration below these directors which will cost taxpayers a fortune. We will no longer have county engineers, county architects or county planners. This approach is a mistake. We are told the directors of services will be answerable, but I am not sure about this proposal.

If a councillor attempts to have a road worker appointed, the county manager will look down on him or her as if he or she had two heads. At the same time, senior executives can be appointed. The Minister should examine this, as council road workers and service providers on that level are a diminishing breed who need to be replaced. This service must be built up as such workers, and not directors of services or senior executive engineers, are at the coalface of providing services to the public. However, the Minister and the Department seem to have no problem replacing senior executives.

The Minister should examine certain aspects of this reform which are not in the best interests of local government. We may hold a different view in five or ten years. However, the system which operated in the past was a good one. Some changes need to be made, but making councils top heavy with senior executives will not prove beneficial.

If councillors are to be paid a salary, they should be paid from day one, rather than linking the matter with the issue of the dual mandate. That is a matter for another day and much negotiation will have to take place before it is resolved. However, local councillors deserve to be paid a decent salary forthwith.

I thank Deputy Browne for sharing time. The Deputy mentioned that Members of the Oireachtas are being criticised for delaying this Bill. That criticism comes largely from local authority members. I do not intend to delay the Bill more than any other Member, but I accept that councillors are disappointed the Bill has not been passed. That is not to say the Bill will bring about miraculous change. However, councillors are doing a good job and are working hard.

The Bill will enhance the role of elected members and that is a good description of what is taking place. However, there is a difficulty in that it would be unfair on those waiting payment if a salary is tied in with the dual mandate. Local authority members deserve to be paid.

There is much dissatisfaction with some aspects of local authorities. The example which immediately comes to mind is that of planning offices. I am most familiar with County Galway, where much of the criticism is due to the fact that there is so much planning activity taking place and so many people want to meet planners to discuss applications. Some applications are of a sensitive nature and councillors and Oireachtas Members find it difficult to hold such discussions because of the high level of activity in planning offices.

Housing departments of local authorities are also very busy. There are many social housing schemes which have been introduced by successive Governments and there is some duplication with regard to whether health boards or local authorities are responsible for repairs to the homes of elderly people. However, were it not for health boards, many people, particularly the elderly, would be waiting for repairs to be carried out. People wish to see improvements in this area.

The voluntary housing programme has been successful. I pay tribute to those organisations which put forward proposals which are supported by local authorities and communities and which have been of great assistance in the provision of housing, particularly for people on low incomes.

The new county hall in Galway was opened only two years ago, yet the management is considering an extension to the building as there are queues for driving licences, road tax and so on. It is amazing that we have not found some way of dealing with these issues.

I was a member of a local authority in County Galway for 17 years. The last item on the agenda of every council meeting was usually the setting of the date for the next meeting. The usual criticism was that we could hold meetings only on certain dates because some members of Galway County Council were also Members of the Oireachtas. For this reason alone there is a strong argument for ending the dual mandate. County councillors are now members of strategic policy committees which meet regularly and work hard within the committee system. It will be more difficult for Members of the Oireachtas to attend SPC meetings and that is why most members of local authorities want to get on with the job and work the committees. Such councillors argue that if Members of the Oireachtas do their job, there will be no obstacles put in the way of councillors. The Minister is correct to provide that councillors can get on with their work without any restrictions.

Section 19 deals with casual vacancies and sets out the procedures to be followed in replacing a member through co-option by resolution of elected councils. The Bill stipulates that the co-optee must be nominated by the same political party which originally nominated the person who caused the vacancy. This reflects current practice.

I agree with the Minister's argument that there have been difficulties with some local authorities where the co-option is not allowed to the same political party which nominated the person who lost the seat. Ten years ago, when I was appointed as a Minister of State, the Fianna Fáil candidate nominated in my place was not co- opted. That was not because Galway County Council disliked me or the new nominee, rather it was in retaliation for an event in 1960 when Fianna Fáil took a seat which should have gone to Fine Gael. The pound of flesh has been obtained and I hope we can now return to allowing parties which lose seats to regain them by way of co-option. In some cases, local government members may leave political parties, lose the whip or move to another party. Standing Orders should clearly outline the procedures which should apply in such cases. This would make co-option more straightforward and would do away with the party political bitterness which prevailed in the past when vacancies occurred.

Section 22 states that town councils with nine members may apply to increase their membership to 12 if the town concerned has a population greater than 15,000. The Minister is seeking to address situations in which town commissions may wish to become urban councils. The Department has hundreds of applications in hand in this regard. The Minister clearly outlined the procedures which will apply under the new legislation following the next elections. I welcome the inclusion of section 22 as it gives a clear sense of direction.

It is important to appoint a directly elected cathaoirleach for a period of five years as many believe local authority managers have too much power. No great conflict should arise between the cathaoirleach and the manager, they should co-operate to drive forward the county council's agenda in co-operation with the members. I do not see any merit in alternating the position of cathaoirleach on an annual basis merely for the sake of change. The direct election of a cathaoirleach gives people a sense of ownership of local government. The election of the Mayor of London is a case in point. Where a vacancy occurs in the position of cathaoirleach, the leas-chathaoirleach should be allowed to fill it. The Bill provides for a by-election to be held to fill the vacancy unless the cathaoirleach had less than 12 months to serve. Surely it would be more simple to allow the vice-chairman to fill the position.

I would like to comment further on the Bill, but my time is limited. I look forward to its speedy passage through the House and hope it will result in an improved local authority system.

I particularly welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate as I did not believe it would be held prior to the summer recess. However, the decision to restrict the time allocated to debate a Bill comprising 241 sections is very unsatisfactory. Many Members who wish to contribute to the debate on the Bill may not have an opportunity to do so.

Many Oireachtas Members also serve on local authorities. Deputy Browne who spoke previously is a member of an urban council in addition to a county council. I have served as a local authority member for only two years. While I find the work exasperating and frustrating at times, it is also interesting and rewarding. The frustration arises from the fact that local authority members have very little power and that local authority funding is restricted, although the local government fund has resulted in welcome increases in some areas which have served to improve road quality etc. Cork County Council's allocation probably suffers as a result of the kilometre per mile provision. Cork Corporation, of which I am a member, has experienced a deficit in investment in recent years, as have other county boroughs, due to the fact that the county roads programme focused on county roads. We have raised this issue with the Minister on previous occasions and tomorrow's debate on the Estimates will provide a further opportunity to champion our cause.

Judging by the feedback I received from local authority members, the payment provision is one of the most important and welcome elements of the Bill. It is certainly long overdue. The workload of local authority members has increased considerably with the introduction of SPCs and other issues and members are required to attend increasingly frequent meetings. Huge demands are placed on local authority members by members of the public, residents' associations etc. Many local authorities are dealing with waste management issues which demand considerable time and expertise. Some councillors do not have the required expertise in this area and have received very little support or information on the technical aspects of waste management. Local authority members must find time to do local authority work in addition to their own jobs. I do not know what is the proposed salary level, but at least one working day should be provided for. The payment provision is a recognition of the endless work carried out by local authority members on a voluntary basis. The vast majority of local authority members serve on local authorities because they are driven to improve the quality of life in their communities.

The banning of the dual mandate will be good for local government. However, I would be wary of going down this road until structures are put in place to ensure Oireachtas Members will have some form of representation on local authorities.

It is very important to ensure that and it is a point I shall make on Committee Stage. I understand objections from some Members of this House to removing the dual mandate. It is very difficult when one cannot get responses on local issues or have them attended to. That is what the public expects of politicians be they members of local authorities or of the Oireachtas. I said, despite criticism, that was why I stood in the last local government elections though I was a Member of this Dáil. At least 70% of the issues in which I was asked to become involved by constituents had to do with local issues and I am sure that is something we all find. It will be very difficult to deal with those issues unless we have some form of representation following the passage of this Bill.

Debate adjourned.