That is good. I will speak for my own town council. I do not have the emotional attachment of having served on a local authority. The programme, Better Local Government, has been criticised the length and breadth of the country and there is no doubt it has added a significant cost burden to local government. However, Ballina Town Council is one of the winners in that we now have excellent officials who are based in the town and are planning the proper development of the town, which was not previously the case. There are party divisions within the council but these are generally left at the door. The nine councillors will always work together for the good of the town. The same is true for other town councils such as in Westport where the town council has made a difference and it has acted as the development agency for the town.
I have no difficulty with this household charge because, in my view, we must think differently about local government. Forcing businesses to pay for local government, as we have done since either 1973 or 1977, depending on one's side of the argument, is wrong and is the reason we are where we are now. The Minister may be determined to cap the charge at €100 but charges are the opposite to gravity and they go up. People will be asked to pay for services which they may no longer be receiving. For instance, most councils no longer provide a refuse collection service and householders must instead pay €300 to a private operator. Urban dwellers will get water for free but rural dwellers in general must pay into the group water scheme. The roads in urban areas are well maintained but in rural areas this will become a problem due to the more severe winter weather and roads maintenance budgets are being cut. It will be difficult to explain to people what they are getting in return for this charge. I suggest that a summary of the services provided by local authorities be included with the invoices for the charge. The NPPR, non-principal private residence, scheme, is a model of how local government should operate and I presume the same model will apply in this case. People should know what services they are getting. Residents of counties Mayo or Monaghan, for example, should be able to list the services provided by their local council, whether street lights, planning and development services or more general services. Unless people have a connection to local government and know what they are getting for the money they are handing over, they will resent having to pay the household charge as they believe they pay enough taxes. If it is explained to them what their money is being spent on, the level of resentment will, I hope, be reduced.
Deputy Moynihan referred to the need to provide exemptions. It is wrong that under the proposal, a person living in a "Downton Abbey" style mansion will pay the same as someone living in a "Coronation Street" style terrace. Once local government has been fully reformed, the Government must introduce a tax which reflects the services people use based on the size of their residence and ability to pay. People will want to ensure the inefficiencies that are endemic in local government are eliminated before such a system is introduced. They will also need to be sure their money is paying for services as opposed to excesses in their local authority, for example, in staff numbers. For this reason, the Government must continue the work it has started to reduce costs in the back office and administration sides of local government.
Deputy Moynihan also referred to retail planning guidelines, which are an item on the Minister's agenda. I ask the Minister to consider what has taken place in the United Kingdom because we do not want to go down the British route. The current position meets the needs of our retail sector. While the exemption made for IKEA has been commercially successful, we do not want a form of "Tescoisation" of the country, as has occurred in England where people travel for many miles to shop on Sundays because retail services have been sucked out of small towns and into larger ones. Such a process is not good for rural or urban living, consumer choice or prices.
Let us challenge local government. I accept that this is an easy argument for me to make given that I, unlike most Deputies, did not serve my political apprenticeship in a local authority and do not therefore have an emotional attachment to the system. Every local authority must ask what is its purpose and what is it adding to the equation. They must be given an opportunity to prove themselves or leave the stage.
We have heard discussion about super regional authorities. I cannot imagine a Kilkenny man and Laois man or Mayo man and Galway man agreeing on what is good for their respective regions. County loyalties and parish boundaries in Ireland do not conform to European norms and for this reason super regional authorities will not work. When we define the role of local government and the business it is involved in we must devise a structure to allow it to deliver properly.
It strikes me as strange that a city of 1 million people has four local authorities, all of which display signs at their boundaries informing people that they are entering such and such a county council area. Despite this, they all don the same jersey on the third Sunday in September. Perhaps the GAA is a model of how to operate efficiently. While the introduction of the current structures 20 years ago was probably well intentioned, we must ask whether these structures are delivering. Do we need four local authorities to deliver services in a city as small in international and comparative terms as Dublin? A similar question must be asked in areas which have city and borough councils or city and county councils.
On retail planning, we are stuck in a rut in respect of business rates. The reform of the valuation system is too slow and must be transformed. That is the fault of previous Governments but the current Government has an opportunity to do something about it. The Minister should start from scratch. I receive replies to parliamentary questions which suggest people are comfortable with the prospect that it will take ten years to complete the valuation process. This is not good enough given that many businesses have the remaining ten days before Christmas to generate sufficient income to enable them to continue to operate in January and February. As Deputies Niall Collins and Michael Moynihan noted, it is ridiculous that councils do not have the flexibility to offer specific rates to companies establishing a business in a certain town or offer discounts to firms which agree to employ a certain number of staff. If we want local authorities to have a local economic development role, they must have the power to give businesses in their respective areas a break. They do not have the flexibility in the area of development charges and rates that is required for a modern business model. I ask the Government to make this an urgent priority in its local government reform programme.
The Department is in a comfort zone on the issue of the valuation process because it has been completed in Dún Laoghaire and Dublin and will be rolled out nationwide over the next ten years. We must collectively challenge this comfort zone by starting again and delivering a completed valuation process in 18 months or two years. The 2014 local government elections will take place in two and a half years. This is a short period which will fly by. Unless we have a completely new model of local government by 2014, the recent trend of low turnouts at local government elections will continue because people will believe voting at local level does not matter. It does matter, however, because local government is the coalface of government.
In two and a half years, when people go through their wallets they will have a closer connection to local government than is currently the case. They must be convinced that local government makes a difference in their daily lives and is relevant to them. As the Minister implements the legislation and bills for local government charges are sent out in the coming months, he has an opportunity to drive home this message and show people what they will receive for the charges they are paying, as is done on invoices in other areas. I hope the reforms on which he is embarking will be in place before the 2014 local elections in order that people are given time to buy into them. I also hope that when we come to vote in June 2014 the electorate will vote for a system that has been transformed and become much more effective.