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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Oct 2013

Vol. 818 No. 2

Local Government Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)

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

It borders on the preposterous to be debating local government reform against a background whereby 25% of local authority workers have been axed, a total of 9,000 jobs, and massive cuts have been inflicted on the central fund for local government. Local authorities need resources and front-line staff to provide the services required from them. Everything else is shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic. In recent years, as funding and staffing have been axed, we have seen the creeping manifestation of outsourced or privatised services and, as a result, more charges being loaded on local communities and residents to pay for the services they used to receive in return for the taxes they paid to central government. Local authorities are being forced to ramp up parking charges and they cannot give small businesses a break on rates. They are required to find ways of making money at every hand's turn, whether from local communities, amenities or other areas, and in the process many people are effectively excluded from services for which charges are imposed.

The attempt to deal with the controversial position of county managers, who - let us be honest - are not the most popular people in the world as they stand because they are so unaccountable by describing them as CEOs is indicative of the corporatisation of local government. That is the last thing we need. Local government needs to be brought back to the people. We need real civic involvement by the community in policy making and real accountability from public representatives and, particularly, powerful senior officials such as county managers. Local communities should be able to decide the priorities for big capital projects and services.

None of this is included in the Bill.

What about the elected members? Have they no say?

The Deputy will have his chance. There is nothing in the Bill concerning managers' large salaries. Dublin County Council's manager, its new CEO, gets €190,000 per year. What will we do about the junket culture in which people get thousands of euro every year to attend conferences, most of which provide no benefit to local authorities or communities?

If the Bill is to be in any way meaningful, binding requirements must be placed on local authorities to provide permanent - not leased - social housing within a specified time.

I am afraid that the Deputy's time has concluded.

There must be binding requirements to the effect that housing, community facilities and so on must be maintained to certain prescribed standards. There must be civic involvement through popular assemblies, directly elected senior officials and so on. These measures would bring real reform, but none is in the Bill.

Deputies Coffey, Connaughton, Lawlor and McLoughlin are sharing time, with five minutes each.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this debate on local government reform and this comprehensive Bill. Before I begin, I wish to convey my sympathies on the sudden death yesterday of a councillor, Mr. Gary Wyse, of Fianna Fáil in Waterford city. Gary was a deeply committed and passionate public representative and will be a loss to the local authority and the public.

We must ask the question of whether local authorities are fit for purpose, are sustainable under current funding models and serve the communities in the best way possible. If we were all honest, the answer would be "No". The last serious attempt at reform was Better Local Government in 1999 under a previous Government. I was a councillor for almost eight years. In that time, I witnessed the duplication of management in unnecessary layers. Deputy Boyd Barrett might be right in a sense, in that the system was top heavy. There was also a lack of connectivity with communities. The remaining link to communities is the democratically elected councillor. We need to give credit where it is due. Councillors stand before their communities every five years and are elected to do a job.

The problem with Better Local Government was the limiting or removal of councillors' powers. It remains the fundamental problem with the development of local government. Continuing with the present regime is not an option. Local authorities are unsustainable and do not deliver the services that our communities need. Either we reform or local authorities will perish. For this reason, I welcome the Bill.

We inherited our system from British rule. Some councils represent towns with small populations. While I acknowledge the good work that town councils have done down the years, there is no equality between them. Lismore in County Waterford is a relatively small town, yet the county has two or three larger towns that have no councils. Where is the equality in this? The Bill goes a long way towards addressing that inequality by setting up new municipal districts and, in larger urban centres, metropolitan areas.

Challenges remain. In my area, there will be an amalgamation between the Waterford city and county authorities. There are genuine concerns about this proposal. I hope that, as the Bill is debated, the Minister will reassure people and show them that this reform will enhance Waterford city and not undermine it, as some people claim. A critical mass will be created through the inclusion of the adjacent towns of Tramore and Dunmore East. The metropolitan area's population will increase to more than 65,000, the generally recognised population for a city. As the gateway city for the south east, Waterford and its new mayor should lead the way for development in the region.

We can address the challenges facing us and reform in a positive and significant way that will deliver services for our communities. However, responsibility comes with reform. I remember my time on the council. To be straight, most of the decisions that we made were on adopting county development plans and annual budgets. For the rest of the year, one was simply deciding on increasing the cost of a recycling bag. This is not real power for democratically elected local government members.

Under this legislation, local authority members will have the power to increase or decrease revenue from the local property tax by 15%, allowing them to decide investment priorities in their districts. They will also have additional powers of oversight and audit, in that a special committee will be set up under this Bill to ensure that spending is better managed within local authorities. The Bill will create efficiencies and allow local community groups to give their views in a more democratically accountable way.

Many agencies have been operating at arm's length from citizens for many years, including the county and city enterprise boards, CEBs, and Leader partnership boards. Some of these have been operating well, but they are not as accountable to local citizens as they should be.

I wish to raise a specific issue with the Minister of State.

I am afraid that the Deputy has run out of time.

I will conclude on the rates issue. Now that we are reforming local authorities, there is an opportunity to modernise the rates system. I accept that-----

The Deputy has gone into other people's time.

I will conclude. We accept that there are harmonisation issues, but the Valuation Office needs to be revised. Will the Minister of State do so?

I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to contribute on this Bill. When the structures of local government were established in the closing years of the 19th century, few would have envisaged the change that would be wrought in the next century. The Bill establishes a local government model that is fit for purpose in 21st century Ireland. Large leaps forward in terms of travel and transport, communications and community must be reflected in local government structures. This Bill tackles the changes necessary in territorial structures and in the institutions of local government.

Good government is lean government. The Bill seeks to create a much leaner and more streamlined system. Creating a much leaner local government structure cannot be done without causing a significant measure of difficulty for those enmeshed in the current structure, but this legislation will reap financial rewards in the years to come in terms of a reduced cost to local government and an increased focus on where local government spend is most needed.

However, I would sound a note of caution about the difference between streamlining the system, which I welcome, and reducing representation, about which I would have concerns. A substantial part of the savings arising from the Bill come from the abolition of urban district councils and town councils but it must be remembered that they have provided a valuable local voice across the country for many years. They have initiated many valuable measures and provided a voice for urban residents that simply would not have been heard otherwise. The fact that these urban councils provided a forum for the voicing of local grievances was also reflected in the remit of county councils and the issues raised therein, which were often of a more regional nature.

Prior to the boom years of the Celtic tiger, urban and town councils were operated on a shoestring budget. It was the increased running costs amassed during the boom years that eventually led to their downfall, as the cost could no longer be justified in the current economic climate. Cuts needed to be made to every conceivable area of expenditure, including to the cost of politicians at local and national level. However, had the very low pre-boom costs been maintained, a much better case would have been made for the retention of such councils. The same applies to county councils and the reduction in the number of councillors resulting from this Bill from 1,627 to 949, which reflects the abolition of the urban and town council regimes.

The Bill contains other welcome provisions, including the bringing together under one umbrella of both Tipperary county councils. Undoubtedly, this will save on the expense of duplicated offices such as human resources.

The change in the role of the county manager will hopefully result in a reduction of the tension that has bedevilled many county councils across the country for many years in terms of clashes between the unelected executives and the elected local representatives. I also welcome the introduction of the national oversight and audit commission, which is a commonsensical measure aimed at ensuring that money is spent wisely, but I hope that the bureaucratic burden placed on county councils will not be too great, as it would otherwise be counter-productive.

By improving the equality of representation throughout the country, the Bill will play an important part in creating a more effective and representative local government. However, there is no point in having a vibrant and robust local government system if power is not devolved to local level.

Much work remains to be done in devolving power to local level in Ireland. We have much to learn from our counterparts in continental Europe in this respect. On that point, I would like to take up something that Deputy Coffey mentioned concerning rates. We must do an awful lot more on rates from the perspective of small businesses. As a county councillor, for too long I saw businesses going to the wall due to the rates issue. The current valuation system does not work. When one hears that a town may be evaluated again, it is almost a poisoned chalice because rates may rise or fall. It does not take into account the business one is doing. Given that we are trying to get more businesses into smaller towns, and these will always be small or medium-sized enterprises, we must take into account the level of business they are doing and their turnover rather than the size of the building they are using. That is an unfair and archaic system which needs to be re-examined.

This Bill is an important step towards putting structures in place which will allow us to plan towards devolving further powers to local government in the years to come. This will result in a streamlined service which will be suitable for the delivery of the necessary services in 21st century Ireland.

I am fascinated that some speakers are totally opposed to the Bill. Deputy Stanley said that the Bill proposes to cull the number of councillors in the South. I do not know what term I would use for the reduction of councillors in the North of Ireland. Maybe castration is too strong a word but that appears to be what is happening there. The neighbouring constituency to Deputy Adams's north of the Border is losing 23 councillors. Sinn Féin is like a two-headed monster because what its members say down here is at variance with what they say in the North of Ireland.

It is 23 compared with 400.

As a former county councillor, I welcome the Bill. I was in office when Better Local Government was brought in. It was not about councillors but about local officials, which created a layer of bureaucracy. It suited the Fianna Fáil Government at the time to centralise power in the hands of a few. I am thoroughly delighted that something as radical as this Bill has been introduced.

I refer to page 73 of the Bill which deals with the financial procedures and audit. When I joined the county council, we used to spend three days on the budget. Nowadays, because councillors do not have as much power as they used to, they spend half a day rushing through the budget. When I started off in 1997 and 1998 it was a big event. We scrutinised the budget for three days to ensure that whatever money was being made available and collected on behalf of ratepayers was being spent properly.

The Minister said that regulations will show the amount necessary for the functional programmes of the authority, but will this be done annually? If so, does the Minister need to make regulations to cover that properly? This is one of the key parts of the legislation. Municipal district authorities will operate as in the North of Ireland, but members of such authorities must be given more power than at present. As part of their function, I would like to see them discussing municipal budgets beforehand. When does the Minister expect council budgets to take place? Nowadays, most council budgets occur in December. Based on this Bill, however, I would see them taking place in October like the national budget. Some regulation needs to be put in place to that effect in order that the members who are contributing to the debate on local authority budgets can have adequate time to consider the matter and make a decision. Such local authority budgets should therefore coincide with the national budget in October or, at least, be concluded before the end of the month.

One of the most important terms used in the Bill is "reserve function". Local authority members should recognise how powerful that term is. The making of amendments by municipal district council members is a reserve function. The fact that we are giving more powers to members is the key to this legislation.

The Minister of State might have a view on the membership of audit committees. Most county councils now have internal value for money committees. It is vital that new local authority members should be included as part of such committees. In that way, they will be able to give a fair assessment of the audit.

Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to training courses. The Minister has said that local authorities will have to establish audit committees. Members of such committees should have some sort of relevant knowledge, so some training should be provided to them in that regard. Audit committees will form a very important part of the whole structure. I have no faith in auditors because they are part of the reason the country was brought to ruin. I ask the Minister of State to take on board some of these points. I have been quite specific in what I am seeking, and I hope he will comment on them later.

When I entered local government in 1974, the system was already 75 years old. It is only now, in 2013, that any government has had the courage to propose a fundamental review and reform of our local government structure. I commend the Minister, Deputy Hogan, for his courage and conviction in bringing forward this Bill. Many previous Ministers spoke of reform, including John Gormley, Dick Roche and Noel Dempsey but it was the current Minister, Deputy Hogan, who brought about these fundamental changes.

The Bill's provisions deal with every area from the abolition of local town councils to the restructuring of local authorities as the centrepiece of local enterprise. I would like to dwell on some key proposals. The Minister has signalled that the main focus for local authorities in future will be as the drivers of economic activity within their county or other jurisdiction. I welcome this proposal. Like many others, I have heard the frustrations of people who want to start a business. They complain they must go in several directions before they meet the relevant agency or group to get the necessary assistance or advice.

This Bill will address these anomalies in many ways. The local enterprise offices, or LEOs, will centrally address the lack of joined-up thinking between our local enterprise support agencies. This will see the abolition of the county enterprise boards and their alignment with local councils.

I am a little disappointed that the Minister has excluded local authority members from the LEOs' oversight or boards. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, who is anxious to see elected members at the coalface, should discuss this matter with his ministerial colleague, Deputy Bruton, who is the lead Minister on the LEO set-up.

In the 2001 Local Government Bill, the then Minister, Noel Dempsey, introduced the concept of strategic policy committees, SPCs, in local government. There is much debate within local government and within the Executive on whether these SPCs work well. As a former member and chair of an SPC, I believe they have value but in many ways they require extensive reform of their structures. In addition, they require the provision of set targets or benchmarks in terms of a five-year plan and a shorter plan for the duration of a local authority term.

Section 40 provides that an SPC is established in each of the 31 councils to deal with economic development. This is to enable the elected council to set strategic policy for the local authority’s enhanced role in social and economic development. It provides that the SPC may request the attendance of a public authority at a meeting. Such a public body must provide an explanation to the full local authority if it refuses to attend. This is certainly a worthwhile proposal.

Since 2001, county development boards have been ineffectual in delivering what they should do, which is simply to develop the county or local authority area. Part 6 inserts a new section 49A into the 2001 Act. This new section provides for the dissolution of city and county development boards, and the establishment of local community development committees which are within, rather than outside, the local authority.

It provides that such committees prepare five-year local and community plans for local and community development in their areas and requires that plans be consistent with the core strategy and objectives of development as set out in the planning and development Acts.

I am a supporter of the local development companies. In my constituency, delivery by Leader and the Leitrim development companies has been second to none. Led from the bottom-up, with boards selected from the local authorities, communities and agencies their financial performance, leadership and decision-making has made a great impact on the communities in both counties. In my view, this delivery was provided with minimal administration costs and compares well with that provided by the local authorities.

Section 128D of New Section 49A in the 2001 Act provides that membership of the new committee must include elected members of the local authorities, a chief executive or someone appointed by the chief executive, representatives of public authorities which provide services locally, representatives of local community interests and of publicly-funded or supported local development bodies, private individuals representing the local community and other persons as the Minister may appoint. Concerns have been expressed by community activists and the companies that this realignment will lead to a politicisation of funding. However, I do not agree with that view. Projects are assessed by a committee under strict criteria and recommendations are then forwarded to a board.

Concern has been also expressed about a possible loss of expertise and the ability of the local authorities to deliver maximum funding at minimum cost.

Under the Bill the powers of the audit committees will be enhanced to allow for a review of financial and budgetary reporting practices and procedures in the local authority and to foster best practice in this regard. This is one of the most important committees considering the difficulties being experienced by Sligo County Council. According to the annual financial statement for Sligo County Council, its debt increased by almost €2.5 million in 2012. Councillors were asked to authorise over-expenditure at their annual budget meeting. This debt from 2012 brings the revenue deficit to €7.9 million and leaves the county council with a total revenue-capital debt of in excess of €80 million. Water and waste water infrastructural investment which had to be match-funded alongside some ambitious projects with perhaps lack of prudence has led to this situation.

The next speaker is Deputy Sean Fleming, who I understand is sharing time with Deputy Dara Calleary.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Local Government Bill 2013, which is an attack on local democracy. While some Members will say the Bill includes several provisions which provide benefits, people will see it for what it is, namely, an attack on local democracy. This legislation seeks the abolition of town councils throughout Ireland which up to now have served a useful purpose at local level. I acknowledge that they are not perfect and should be reformed. The Bill also proposes a reduction in the number of elected councillors countrywide. At a time when people are saying there is a democratic deficit in the country, the Government's response is to reduce the number of elected members thereby increasing that deficit and removing from people access to local representatives.

Of concern is the proposal to abolish the regional authorities. Under this Bill, town councils and regional authorities will be abolished and the number of county councillors is to be reduced. It is possible for Government to do this because it has a majority in this House. The Government tried to abolish the Seanad but the people of Ireland stopped it in its tracks. I believe that if the people were asked to vote on this legislation they would respond similarly. Essentially, the people do not trust this Government when it comes to political reform.

Also of concern is Part 9, which provides the Minister with the power to dissolve existing regional authorities. The power to establish regional assemblies is being given not to the Government, the Dáil or the people of Ireland but to the Minister. It is proposed to establish three regional assemblies, one in the eastern midlands area and two others in Connaught-Ulster and the southern region. There are currently eight regional authorities in existence. It is proposed all will be abolished. The cumulative effect of abolishing local direct democracy and regional authorities, to which local councillors are elected, is a further erosion of the link between people and their elected representatives. This legislation was drafted by bureaucrats and officials and is an official's dream. The Bill also proposes that county managers will be renamed chief executive officers, who will be less accountable in the future.

The Minister referred to the establishment of the municipal districts, which will have only minor powers such as the ability to rename the Cathaoirleach and so on. They will have no real power, no budget and no fund-raising authority. It is clear from the briefing we received that under this Bill while municipal districts will also have the reserve function of establishing a community fund, their financial authority will be less than that currently held by a rating town council. As stated, some town councils are small. The proposed new municipal districts will be substantially larger but will have less financial autonomy. The Minister has stated this will bring democracy down to a local level. However, it will also remove the financial autonomy in this area.

I believe this legislation is a manger's dream because the municipal districts will be like beefed up area committees. There will be more meetings on a monthly basis and, as time goes on, fewer full meetings of the local county councils and local county managers will be less answerable to the local county council elected members. I can foresee a situation whereby meetings will be held only quarterly with a decision being taken to conduct all business at municipal district meetings. Municipal district meetings will be akin to area committee meetings. Democracy only works if there is transparency and the people know what is happening. We all know that local media is stretched in terms of even attending council meetings once a month. They do not have the resources to do any more because they are dependent on advertising and sales revenue. This will result in less reporting on what is happening at meetings on the radio and in print media and less reporting on local authority activities. I can foresee a situation whereby less will be discussed at monthly council meetings because everything will be up for discussion at the municipal district meeting. This means the public will not know what is going on.

I am seeking clarification on a number of issues, including where the local development plans will fit into these new sub-county structures. Will they be a reserved function of municipal districts or will local area committees have an input into them? While some local area committees cross several towns, Kilkenny city is split down the middle and it would make no sense for the municipal district to have a say in such a situation. Another issue of concern is that of policing committees. Up to now town councils included policing committees. As some town councils are to be abolished, will this result in a further erosion of the liaison between the policing committees and local communities? I take it counties that had two or three policing committees will in future have only one. I do not believe it will be practical for the Gardaí to service the municipal districts. There are not sufficient numbers of superintendents in the Garda Síochána to do so and someone below the rank of superintendent would not have the authority to speak on behalf of the superintendent at those meetings. This will result in difficult situations in this area also.

I would like now to speak about financial accountability. Schedule 3 deals with the power of local authorities to vary the rate of the local property tax. That one local authority can decide to increase its rate at the same time as another decides to reduce the rate in its area will lead to difficulties and an unfair situation for many people. People are being told this Bill will provide additional powers for local government.

In fact, it will be used in some cases to the disadvantage of local government. Central government will eventually tell local government politicians and officials that if they want more money, they can increase the rate of their property tax. That will put an unfair burden on certain parts of the country which do not have the same base as other counties.

The funding issue is wrong. There was an opportunity for the role of the local government auditor to be amalgamated with the Comptroller and Auditor General. It is wrong in every respect to enhance that role in this Bill, especially in a situation where the Government spends about €50 billion per annum yet uses a completely separate structure to deal with the local government fund that funds local authorities, which is only in the order of €1 billion per annum, or perhaps €2 billion if we include funding for roads as well. Why should we have a Comptroller and Auditor General auditing all Government expenditure, while 2% to 5% of that is set aside for a local government auditor? There should be one auditor to set the standards. I know people have complaints about the role of auditors, but there is less transparency with the local government audit than with the annual reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the latter's office would have greater standing.

A new committee is being set up which will lead to more bureaucracy for more officials in the Department. Who is the local government auditor at the moment? I do not wish to know the name of the person, but I presume it is an official in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. They are not independent of local government. They are not independent of the Minister. They are officials of the Department and work under the Secretary General. The auditing of local authorities should be removed from persons below the rank of Secretary General in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. This is another example of where officialdom in the Custom House won the day. This is more power, more procedures and more committees. The Minister has spoken about setting up some national audit committee to deal with all these issues, which I believe will be called the national oversight and audit commission. We do not need such a commission to deal with 5% of Government expenditure. The local government auditor should be subsumed and I have made my point clearly about that.

There is nothing in this Bill about the real functions of local authorities. On 1 January, all powers in respect of water, sewerage and waste water services will be transferring to Irish Water. We have seen a diminution in the authority of local authorities. We have seen the increasing role of the National Roads Authority, not just in respect of the motorways, but also regional roads and even national secondary roads, in determining maintenance programmes. A local authority cannot even move a bend off a regional road nowadays without an inspector from the NRA coming down to state whether it is right or not. We have systematically reduced the power of local authorities and their ability to respond at local level.

I will hand over to Deputy Calleary. This is well dressed up as a reform of local government, but it is no more than an attack on local democracy.

I cannot rise to speak about local government without paying tribute to Councillor Gary Wyse, a party colleague of ours who died very suddenly yesterday. He was an outstanding public servant, an outstanding councillor and a very proud Waterford man. I extend my sympathies and those of Deputy Fleming and our party to his family, his friends and his colleagues in Waterford.

I support everything Deputy Fleming has said. There are good elements to this Bill which can be welcomed and which have potential, but for me the glaring part of this Bill is an assault on local democracy. Rather than putting people first, it seems people are being left behind by this Bill. For me, that is represented in the abolition of town councils and the absolute ignorance of those in the Department and those who drafted the legislation of the invaluable role that a good, performing town council can play as an economic development unit and as a unit for citizen participation. It is represented in the fact that this will be lost in these new bizarre structures, particularly in rural constituencies.

There is a complete inconsistency and incoherence in the Bill which allows the people of Dublin, rightfully so, to have a plebiscite about the kind of mayor they want, and yet those of us who live in a town or borough council area will lose our mayor and our councillors without any consultation, but with the weight of the Government majority. One would have hoped that the lessons of a campaign run by Fine Gael a few weeks ago to reduce the number of politicians would have been learned, and that cognisance would have been taken of the fact that people will not be bought by that populist nonsense. Unfortunately, we have that campaign encapsulated in Government legislation on the abolition of town councils, as well as in other provisions that will undermine local participation and local democracy.

I never served on a local authority. I did not have the privilege of serving on either a town council or a county council, but I have seen very good town councils and very poor town councils in action over the years in my previous job, and as a citizen. Unfortunately, this Bill throws the whole lot out due to the underperformance of a minority of councils. When the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1999 was brought in to define a town council and upgrade urban district councils, it was ridiculous not to give them any extra power at the time. I know it was done by a party colleague, but the issue should have been grasped then. In my county, we have three town councils in Castlebar, Westport and my own town of Ballina. In the past 15 years, Ballina Town Council has been responsible for pioneering many fine developments, both physically and within the spirit of the town. It has acted as a foundation upon which many groups have built and have used council funds to support their own initiative. The councillors, who generally leave their party jerseys outside the door, and the very good officials have a shared ambition for the town. They implemented that ambition and we now have a very different town than we had. It is noteworthy that in a time of very high attrition among local government politicians, all the outgoing members of Ballina Town Council who put themselves forward for re-election in 2004 and 2009 were re-elected. That shows the regard and the respect the people of Ballina have for them and for what they have done. They challenged them, but at least they saw fit to challenge them. Under these new proposals, we will be luckier to see a dodo than a councillor in some parts of the country.

The other big example of a successful town council is Westport, and this example is used right around the country. Westport did not just happen. Westport today is a town we all admire as a tourism centre, a centre for world class industry and a model of community participation through things like Tidy Towns-----

Deputy Michael Ring.

-----and so on. That happened because of the actions of the town council back in the 1970s. Deputy Ring was a member of that council and he was on occasion able to leave the party jersey outside the door. He himself would admit that he got his grounding in politics on the town council. What he has brought to the party in the last two years is built on the initiative of a town council that worked together, but now that is gone.

What will this be replaced by? It will be replaced by a municipal district. There are currently nine town councillors in Westport, but there will be seven councillors in the municipal district, extending from Leenane in the west to Belderrig in the north, which is a distance of 150 km. These people will be drawn from all different areas, with a broad range of focus and no sense of direction or commitment to the town. Their time will be spread over a very large area and we will lose that really important link to local authority, local government and democracy in general. Apparently, this is putting people first.

People do not get a sense of this at the moment, but in two years when they find that rates bills are increasing, when local organisations find out that the community fund, as defined in the legislation, is spread over hundreds of miles rather than in the town, and they cannot get the small bit of funding for festivals or local competitions and so on, they will then know the difference. It is not a case of getting rid of politicians; it is a case of taking away a layer of government that we will eventually put back in. Some Minister will come before this House in ten years or so to put the town council structure back into the system, because this is not going to work.

If it is good enough for the people of Dublin to have a direct say in what their future local government will look like, then I think we should have the same say. The Minister of State should have that say in Sligo, Deputy Deasy should have that say in Dungarvan, and so on, about what they want in their towns and counties. There is a specific part of the Bill which provides for a plebiscite for Dublin and if the Minister believes that this Bill is putting people first and he still wants to take away the introductory layer of government from people, then he should put it to a plebiscite in the towns that are affected so he can test his case. I know the Government is probably referendum shy at the moment, but he should have a go at this one.

Section 6 deals with the community and local development companies. Just over 20 years ago they were set up to fill a gap that local authorities were not filling at the time. It was ground-up development involving small projects and using the Leader money that was identified at the time in a visionary move by the then Commissioner, Mr. Ray MacSharry - it was typical of him to see that. Those companies have flourished. While I accept there have been difficulties with some of them, just because a few have difficulties we should not throw out the whole lot.

The Bill provides for a local government and central government takeover over of the local development sector. The employees and CEOs who do great work will now become local authority employees responsible to the local authority. There is a sense that because there is the usual provision that certain individuals from various groups will be appointed to the boards it will be fine. It is claimed that that is local government but it is not. That is local development being hijacked by central government through the guise of local government and local democracy. That will do considerable damage and we will again need to return to put that structure back in. It was set up in that way because there was a need for a bottom-up approach to local development, whereas what we have here is a top-down approach.

Not even Sir Humphrey could have come up with the wording for the process for rate equalisation in the Bill. It is a ten-year period but the authority can decide differently if it wants. That is not how business works. Over the years many town councils have managed to keep the rate base low while the county councils have a higher base. Many businesses in towns are already being hammered by this bizarre revaluation process. I met a businessperson today who must pay 40% more in rates next year because of this revaluation process. That business will need to get a 3% increase in turnover to pay the rates alone. Yet this legislation provides for an increase in rates, which is what will happen in most town council areas. Even though there is some deliberately woolly phrasing in the Bill about it being over ten years, I envisage it happening much quicker than that and that needs to be amended on Committee Stage.

It is not possible to put people first by taking away the tier of government closest to them. It is not possible to put people first by taking away the direct interaction that an elected body has with its community and community organisations. At a time when there is such low regard for elected politicians, town councils allow elected politicians to be a fulcrum of development and something positive. This is destroying that development and destroying that spirit. We cannot support it.

I wish to share time with Deputy Deasy.

It is an honour to speak on the Second Stage of the Local Government Bill. I was a member of Cork County Council from 1999 to 2011. I served as a member of the Southern Health Board until its dissolution. I served on the South West Regional Authority and also chaired that body. While I accept much of what Deputy Calleary has said, it is predicated on the idea that local government existed. We never had local government - whether it was a town council, an urban council, a county council, a regional assembly or a regional authority. We had local administration, rubberstamped by elected members in too many chambers throughout the country. The only real power any local elected representative had was at budget time and at the discussion and deliberation on county and local development plans. Apart from that there was nothing and we were entirely dependent on information and resolutions coming from the executive and the county managers, as well as circulars and policies from central government. It just did not exist.

Every argument that has been made about keeping government at the lowest level and closest to the people through the town and local authorities is ridiculous and always has been. Regrettably there have been many missed opportunities for reform. The greatest change that significantly impacted local government was the abolition of rates in 1977 and the decapitation of what was a quasi-local government resulting in the inability thereafter to fund themselves adequately.

While the Bill might not go far enough, it contains some welcome provisions. The merger of the six councils in Waterford, Tipperary and Limerick is seen as a positive move by citizens in those areas. While it is not provided for in the Bill, I would go further in making a proposal that deserves consideration. We should consider merging Cork City Council and Cork County Council in future. This would offer a real counterbalance to the east coast as a single economic and political unit to serve the citizens of Cork city and county more effectively. I say that perhaps in the teeth of opposition from local politicians in the area. It might be given consideration when we see how the mergers in Waterford, Tipperary and Limerick fare out.

In west County Cork we will lose the five town councils in Bantry, Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Bandon and Kinsale, comprising 45 councillors. We will also losing four county councillors in the area. The number of local public representatives in west County Cork will go from 57 to eight. While that is extraordinary, they will have to live with it. Those county councillors need real power. More power needs to be vested in the elected representatives than in the executive. Then perhaps we might see more effective local government. I would prefer to see eight elected members in a region who have some say and power over decisions that affect the citizens rather than 57 who do not.

The European funding is very much focused on regions. The Irish experience in regions through the regional authorities has by and large been positive. However, those regional authorities also come under the excessive influence of county and city managers, engineers and staff. They do not have adequate reserved functions to serve those regional structures to match the European commitment that provides for them.

Deputy Calleary spoke of the huge difficulty with community development programmes, addressed in section 6. Why did the funding for such rural development need to be vested in companies limited by guarantee? Some of them work well. I served on one, Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann, which served the western offshore islands. It came up with curious anomalies where for different reasons a project half a mile away on an island can be approved by one company and the exact same project on the mainland cannot be approved by a different company. It throws up some anomalies with respect to governance, transparency and information being provided to the public. There are reservations over how that funding would be managed when they are incorporated back into the local authority structure. However, if we are serious about giving political accountability and responsibility to the people nearest the ground, it makes sense for that to be within the local authority structure. They are not being wiped out; they report to an elected body, which is a welcome provision.

There are opaque references to the audit functions of local authorities. There is an issue of understanding among local councillors now because they believe they are powerless and they simply accept audits. This has been my experience in Cork County Council. A councillor will examine reports from the local government auditor and the comptrollers and accept them, but he cannot do much about them. If the auditor draw attention to something, the councillor can discuss it at council and ask questions and get some answers. It is in the public domain and the media but there are rarely any resolutions. That is a major issue and I hope future councillors and elected members of local authorities in local chambers will take it up far more vigorously.

We hear references to saving money. I hope there will be a far more efficient whistleblowing system within local authorities, whereby staff members who know that there are inefficiencies or wasted resources can report them through the management, councils or through the chamber without fear of recrimination. I strongly urge that this should be considered.

There is reference in the legislation to amending section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001, which replaced section 4 of the City and County Management (Amendment) Act. I have always held the view that these were particularly difficult sections within the local government system and I am pleased to note that in the 12 years I was a member of Cork County Council I do not recall a single incident when a section 140 provision was proposed, never mind passed. I gather there was one case in 1997 or 1988 relating to extending power lines over Cork Harbour and that became a major issue but that was the only time. Other local authorities use section 140 provisions as if they are questions to the manager and hold up a vast amounts of resources on proposals that are, frankly, sinister or part of a sinister agenda.

This is a welcome step in the reform of local government but it is only a step. Anyone serious about reform would be the first to recognise that when one introduces an item of reform it does not stop there. It cannot because the nature of reform is ongoing. I am keen to see a situation whereby the local government system moves on from being a public administration rubber-stamp chamber to a system that effectively and really deals with issues such as local education, health, policing, child care and welfare. It should provide for services as near to the people as possible and should integrate those services in terms of local planning and development. Why is it, for example, that one can plan for a school locally but one must provide for it nationally? These issues are relevant and I am keen to see them addressed in future. I imagine there will be further legislation anon and all of these issues will be addressed to give real power back to local authorities and chambers.

I wish to deal with Part 5, a large portion of which is concerned with commercial rates. During the past three or four months we have been dealing with this matter at the Committee of Public Accounts, along with the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform, Finance, the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Valuation Office. As a result, myself and Deputy Robert Dowds intend to jointly table amendments to the section dealing with commercial rates. We held a series of public meetings and private meetings with officials. We hope to explain, beginning today, what changes we believe need to be made in the commercial rates section of the Bill.

In May this year I raised the issue of commercial rates under a Topical Issues debate with the Minister. At the time, the Minister referred to the harmonisation of annual rates and valuation between different local authorities. He said that his approach to harmonisation would ensure that it would not lead to any increase in commercial rates in any local authority. He stated: "There should be no increase in commercial rates in Dungarvan arising from the merger of both local authorities. If it is the will of the councillors to do otherwise, that will run contrary to my policy". Some confusion has arisen from that statement. Section 29 provides that in order to ease the transition for ratepayers to a standardised rate while avoiding a negative impact on overall local authority revenue, the harmonisation of rates will take place over a maximum of ten years. I and local authority officials and councillors realise this is a provision to spread out the negative effect of an increase in rates to avoid excessive damage to businesses. It is an explicit acknowledgement that there will be increases in the annual rate on valuation, ARV, charge between local authorities. Therefore, there is a contradiction between what has been said on the floor and what is in the legislation and that needs to be explained. Beyond clarifying that situation, the question is how the Minister intends to ensure that councillors do not act contrary to his policy, and, if they do, what steps will he take to ensure that no increases occur.

The second issue has to do with revaluations. New valuations are being placed on commercial premises through the country. In many cases businesses will be unable to absorb the increases. This has been raised again and again in the past four or five months. One of the amendments Deputy Dowds and myself intend to table would allow a local authority to spread out any increase in commercial rates over several years. My understanding is that such a provision is in place in the United Kingdom and we believe it should be given consideration in this legislation. It is clearly germane to the legislation.

As I mentioned earlier, someone in the Department had the foresight to spread out the impact of harmonisation by allowing for a ten-year period of harmonisation between local authorities. However, no one has considered the impact of the new valuations, that is, one payment with one cheque in one year. It seems like an obvious step to allow local authorities to determine this themselves and, as the Minister said yesterday, to avoid any shocks to businesses. Clearly, when spreading out the increases in commercial rates to avoid a shortfall in revenue to a local authority, it would necessarily mean a spreading out of the reductions on the other side, but I reckon that would be understood by those businesses in receipt of those reductions. Put simply, this legislation cannot, on the one hand, provide a specific solution to ease the burden on a business because of a rates increase resulting from amalgamations of local authorities, while, on the other, ignoring completely the impact revaluations would have on the same businesses. Someone in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government thought this through when it came to the first circumstance but the second circumstance must be dealt with in this Bill. Not to do so would not make any sense. We hope the Minister can accept our wording when we table our amendments.

Yesterday, when the Minister introduced Part 5, he made extensive reference to section 31 which would standardise vacancy refunds throughout the country. The Minister finished by stating:

I am considering further how this provision will work in practice to ensure consequences other than those I intend are not realised. I will revert to this matter again as the Bill makes its way through the Houses.

That is fair enough. I am keen to know what is intended because, as it is written, it makes absolutely no sense. I and others are grappling with the rationale behind this.

At the moment in Cork, Dublin and Galway a company gets a 50% reduction in rates if the property is vacant. However, for the rest of the country it is a 100% reduction; effectively the rates are entirely written off. If this provision was written into law, it would be unworkable. I offer one example. The former Waterford Crystal factory in Dungarvan has been lying idle for approximately six years. The rates on the premises would be approximately €150,000 per year. Who exactly would be expected to pay the €75,000 rates Bill under this legislation? Is it the receiver? I doubt it, and I do not believe the local authority would get the payment in any case. If the rationale behind this is to force landlords to find tenants, then the logic is faulty. Most of the premises that are vacant in my constituency are vacant for the one reason that tenants cannot be found at any rental price since consumer spending has slumped. To be honest, it is a bizarre time to introduce something like this. It smacks of something that an official from Dublin thought up without any understanding that there is a two-tier economy in existence in the country. The wording of the provision should be deleted or changed radically to reflect reality. To reinforce my point, last week Waterford City Council announced a scheme to incentivise new tenants to occupy premises by giving them a rates holiday for several years. That approach is completely at odds with what the Department has come up with on the same issue. It is something one would expect to see in a boom period not something one would expect to see during an economic crisis.

The highest vacancy rate of 28.2% occurs in Ballybofey, County Donegal, while the lowest vacancy rate of 3.5% can be found in Greystones, County Wicklow. This is a huge difference.

I wish to make a general point above the Government's approach to commercial rates over the past six months as having dealt with it for a lengthy period, disappointingly there is a lack of appreciation of what businesses are going through, particularly in respect of all these measures and how they might affect the retail sector on high streets nationwide. I will provide an example. I have spoken repeatedly to retailers who have shut down or who are under the threat of shutting down because they are competing with online businesses. Last year, 57% of Irish Internet users made a web purchase. Recent studies indicate that online shopping has become a substantive threat to store profitability. In 2012, online shoppers in Ireland spent €3.7 billion across a range of product and service categories and this trend is growing. According to EUROSTAT, 26% of Irish Internet users have bought clothes and shoes online in the past 12 months, compared with 11% in 2008. Moreover, 43% bought travel and holiday accommodation in 2012, which was an increase from the comparable figure of 32% in 2008. The percentage of people purchasing books, magazines and e-learning materials online has increased by one third between 2000 and 2012. The percentage of people buying food and groceries online during this period has doubled. Do online businesses pay commercial rates? No, they do not. How does one expect a local betting shop, for example, to survive when it is paying increased commercial rates to the local authority while its online competitors pay nothing?

I am afraid this Bill does not take these trends into consideration and it is a case of diminishing returns because these businesses will not survive unless a different approach is taken by the Government as a whole when it comes to commercial rates. Unfortunately, the commercial rate section, as written, is inconsistent with the realities of what is happening on high streets nationwide and notwithstanding the ten-year adjustment mechanism for harmonisation that shows appreciation for the potential impact of rate increases, the commercial rates section must be completely rewritten. Although Deputy Calleary mentioned one increase, potentially there are three increases, as well as one added element, in this regard. Potentially, it is a quadruple whammy. First, there are changes to the rates refund scheme. Second, there is harmonisation of annual rates on valuation, ARVs, in some cases upward. Third, there are new upward valuations with no spreading out of the payment period and fourth, there are trends towards online shopping increasing each year. Businesses will not survive unless the Government takes all these factors into account.

I understand the next speaker, Deputy McLellan, who has 20 minutes, intends to share time.

That is correct.

Is it agreed that Deputy McLellan shall have ten minutes and her two colleagues each shall have five minutes? Agreed.

A few weeks ago, a referendum was held on whether to keep the Seanad and whatever one thinks of the outcome, it is fair to state the various issues which surrounded Seanad abolition and Seanad reform got a fair airing.

However, while that debate was under way, I could not help but think it was a shame no such debate had been held on the complete and utter undermining of local government over recent years. I also regret that so many of the political figures and opinion formers who spoke at such length about the need for a Seanad have not now or any time recently seen fit to speak on the urgent need for reform of local government and its protection. While it seems as though it is not the most fashionable of causes, it still is no less worthy for all that. No area of Irish democracy has taken such a hammering as has local government over the past ten to 15 years. Our system of local democracy is hopelessly underdeveloped and weak. The present Minister had a tremendous opportunity to do something about that, to give local authorities a proper role and to bring power back down to the local level. However, that opportunity has been well and truly squandered. More than that, the Minister has gone further and has taken the axe to local government in this State.

The Government appears to have a warped sense of what political reform means. Political reform is necessary and important. The people wanted political reform because after the economic collapse in 2010 and 2011, there was a sense that the entire system had failed. The political process was at once seen to be asleep at the wheel and too close to the interests of big business and the banks, which have caused so much difficulty and brought ruin to the economy. As a result, there was of course a demand for change in order that the people would feel the political system was better fit for purpose and more accountable to them. However, the Minister’s changes do not make the system more accountable and nor do they make it more fit for purpose. If anything, they bring the system further away from the people. It follows in the same vein as most of the rest of the Government’s supposed commitment to political reform such as the reduction in the number of Deputies or the cosmetic moving around of Standing Orders, which in effect are window-dressing. For the Government, political reform is not about better politics but is just about less politics and fewer politicians. Such a cynical approach is reprehensible and is not what the people want.

Certainly, they did not vote for an entire tier of local government to be wiped away, as will happen next summer. I spent several years on local authorities, namely, on Youghal Town Council since 2004 and on Cork County Council from 2009. I was very proud to have served as Mayor of Youghal from 2009 to 2010, which was a great honour and privilege for me. I always have thought the role carried out by town councils is worthwhile even in spite of their reduced responsibilities in recent times. People feel a great sense of ownership of the town councils. They are represented by people they know personally, to whom they have access and who, regardless of whether they agree with them personally, they believe can be trusted because they have the best interests of the town at heart. This is what local democracy is about, namely, local people doing their best to represent their local community.

The Minister produced his Putting People First document on local government, in which one of the local electoral areas in County Cork has a population of 71,000 people. There is nothing even remotely local about an electoral area that size and in Britain, there are areas with that population that form parliamentary constituencies. It is absurd and clearly the reduction in representation will have repercussions for people’s sense of ownership of, and access to, the system. My constituency of Cork East will take a huge hit in respect of local representation and will lose five town councils from the larger towns in east Cork, that is, Fermoy, Youghal, Mallow, Cobh and Midleton. This will amount to 45 fewer local representatives in my constituency. As people have become used to dealing with their town councillors and town councils, the change will be serious and frankly, the burden will fall on too few local representatives. Large parts of the county probably will not have anyone they truly can call local and there may be no elected person from their community representing them.

Town councils were not perfect, far from it, as I knew well from my own service as a councillor. While there are many things I would like to have seen done differently, abolition certainly is not the answer. The Government insists on saying that Ireland has too many councillors and is greatly out of kilter with European norms. However, this clearly is not the case as aside from Britain, there are very few places in Europe where there is a higher proportion of electors to councillors or local representatives. Ratios in other countries vary from 1:120 in France to 1:1,200 in Denmark. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, wishes to introduce a ratio of councillors to people of 1:4,830. This is not truly local and I believe that people, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalised in communities, will suffer from such lack of access to their local representatives. The ratio is far out of kilter and Sinn Féin has proposed the ratio should be set at 1:3,936. This would both allow for better representation and would fit in with an all-Ireland approach, as this is the ratio that has been adopted for the review of public administration in the North. Clearly, in this time of cross-Border co-operation and alignment, there is a need for this to be taken in to account.

This Bill is a missed opportunity as there was potential for real reform in this regard. I take this opportunity to make the point that a significant job performed by local representatives relates to joint policing committees. The joint policing committees often are closely aligned with town council areas, as is the case in my constituency.

This is a way in which local representatives can have a real input into how gardaí respond to the needs of their local communities. However, there is no basis in primary legislation for the committees. Has the Minister ever considered putting in place such a legislative basis? I ask him to ensure that all committees are properly answerable to the public.

In addition, there are numerous ways in which the system of local government needs to be improved. In the first instance, far too many powers have gradually been taken from councils and transferred to central government, in particular, those related to functions planning, housing, transport, roads, waste management and now water services. The Minister’s Bill, for all his talk, does not even remotely reverse that agenda. His Putting People First document was a masterclass in bluff and bluster. It is elegantly worded and well presented but totally lacking in any substance, and I believe this was noted by the Council of Europe which recognised the lack of substance.

Real reform would mean more powers being decentralised from national Government to local level. Real reform would mean that local communities would be properly represented. Real reform would mean that the powers which reside with the councils are in the hands of the elected representatives, rather than the officials. This is an important point with which anyone who has served on local authorities would be familiar.

We have seen a significant deal of centralising of power in the hands of the county manager and his or her officials. Our councillors are under-resourced and face a tough battle in taking on county and city managers with the resources and staff that a manager has at his or her disposal. This point is not considered often enough. The county manager very often gets his or her way because information can often be power. That needs to be tackled.

The Minister has failed entirely to tackle that and instead of doing so and giving local government a meaningful role in our political system, he has decided to simply go for the short-sighted approach of cutting numbers. The Government has recently recognised that this approach does not work in the public sector, as it has belatedly decided to take on new teachers, nurses and gardaí which were badly needed. It will soon learn that it will not work with local government either.

Like most of the so-called reform produced by this Government, the Bill is a missed opportunity to bring about real change to how local authorities operate in order to improve their ability to respond to the needs of their areas. My main focus in this regard is housing. I am tired of reiterating the stark figures around housing demand and the shortfall of supply in this State but it must be said again and again until people are willing to really listen and to start to address the issue. There are 112,000 or so people on the housing waiting lists across this State. A large percentage of those people are centred around the major urban bases of population such as Dublin, Cork, Limerick and other cities but there is strong demand for social housing across the State in every local authority. It is likely that every Member of this House is inundated with issues relating to housing need.

There are nearly 100,000 people in receipt of rent supplement and roughly 30,000 participate in the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, in this State. This costs the State more than €0.5 billion a year. That money is given to private landlords, some of whom provide substandard accommodation at exorbitant prices and with little or no management. The Government's solution to this issue is not to fund or encourage local authorities to provide this basic need of people but to throw money at the private market in the hope it will solve the problem or at least that people will forget that housing was ever a responsibility of the State at local or national level.

The reality is that for local authorities housing can and should be an integral part of the services they provide. It is also possible that with proper application of an ethos of public housing this could be made to pay for itself by a mixture of people renting from low, middle and higher income brackets as is seen in other countries. Differential rents provide the potential for affordable rates at all levels, while still meeting costs.

One proposal that Sinn Féin puts forward, along with noted academics in the field of housing, is the idea of allowing local authorities to set up housing trusts to commence a State­wide building programme. This would ensure power is devolved to local level and homes would be built to meet the needs of the 112,000 on the housing waiting lists. It would also tackle many problems that have been pointed out in terms of sourcing funds to build social housing. Money borrowed by these trusts would not be added to the national debt. Housing can be shown to be a worthwhile investment outside of the damaging public private partnership, PPP, model which prioritises profit over real social value. There has never been a better time to make this investment.

The real problem in terms of housing though is political will. This Government does not want powerful, democratic local authorities any more than it wants to take on any responsibility for housing people. If it had massive funds at its disposal it would not be inclined towards social housing investment. Local authorities know the needs of the people in their areas and are less ideologically driven against public housing provision than are the Government and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

Reform is needed to improve local authorities in terms of providing housing for people. To ensure councils are fully held to account, Sinn Féin proposes that local authorities should be held to account by the Private Residential Tenancies Board. Adequate resources should be provided for inspections to include local authority housing.

Those on the housing lists should be able to access all relevant information on their application on the Internet using a personalised code. Local authorities who fail to draw down appropriate funds such as in the case recently of Traveller accommodation funding should be sanctioned for this. Those measures would enhance the potential for local authorities to be first-rate providers of housing. It is already the case that local authorities are accountable to the public in a way that voluntary housing associations are not. Councils meet on a monthly basis. It is open to members of the public to attend those meetings and to have issues raised though their councillors. This is not the case for the voluntary housing sector.

The voluntary sector does excellent and crucial work but it cannot solve the crisis in social housing in the way that local authorities can. Despite a cut of €620 million from social housing since 2010 and a cut of €15 million from local authority housing in this budget, local authorities still provide the bulk of social housing. With a funding allocation of €70 million in 2014, they will provide housing and services for many thousands of people across the State. This cannot be ignored and the potential for local authorities to house people well and in larger numbers is clear from the work they do every day.

It is a shame local authorities will not continue to deliver water services and that this change has resulted in the removal of the resources and the manpower by the Minister with the setting up of Irish Water. This is a diminution of the role of local authorities. The transfer of responsibility to local authorities for dealing with rental supplement in the near future is welcome but what resources will be provided? The Minister needs to make that clear. It always made sense for the local authorities to deal with the bulk of housing issues and enhancing that position. I served for 12 years on the Dublin City Council and the managers had far too much power and could override the decisions of councillors.

This Bill is not about local government reform, it is a culling of councils and of councillors and a window-dressing exercise to pretend that more powers are being given to the councils, which is not the case. At the turn of the century the then Fianna Fáil Government held a referendum to recognise local government in the Constitution for the first time while at the same time taking more powers away from democratically elected councils. This Bill carries out a similar exercise dressed up as a reform. It is the same old centralisation of power in the Custom House. No one is arguing that current structures of local government should be left untouched - far from it. We in Sinn Féin have long argued for local government restructuring and for real reform through the empowerment of local democracy but this Bill is not about democratic empowerment, it is about numbers. The Minister's approach is both crude and simplistic, reducing the number of councils and the number of councillors and claiming that local government will be reformed. That is never the case. We reject the proposal to cull the number of councillors to 949. This is a very significant decrease and leaves this State with one of the lowest number of councillors per head of population of any of the OECD countries. We propose that there should be a minimum, and I emphasise a minimum of 1,165 councillors. This is in line with the reform of public administration in the Six Counties.

Clearly, there needs to be a realignment in terms of the size and composition of councils. For example, there are large towns with no councils while far smaller towns for historic reasons, and I emphasise to their credit, do have councils. This also needs to be addressed, but the approach of the Minister, Deputy Hogan, is not realignment and better representation; it is to wield the axe and abolish town councils.

In my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan we will see a significant loss of local elected voices. Across the constituency we will see the demise of a total of eight town councils that are made up of nine members each. That is a phenomenal impact. Eight multiplied by nine is 72 and when the further cull of nine county councillors across the two county council constituency of Cavan and Monaghan is added, we are losing a total of 81, and a Deputy to boot come the next general election. That is a loss of 82 elected voices across that constituency. The consequence of all of that is that access to elected representatives will suffer. Accountability of local authorities, State agencies and Government itself will suffer, and the democratic process will suffer with fewer people directly involved. The Minister should make no mistake about it. The loss of those 81 council seats is the loss of 81 people directly involved in political life in her party, in Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Independent voices together representing the various strands of opinion within our respective communities. The by-product of all of that is not only the loss of their likely direct involvement in political life but all of those who would and have come with them in terms of family support, friends' support and others attracted because of their friendship, knowledge and involvement with that individual councillor or candidate - a much greater number again. Political life and the democratic process will undoubtedly suffer significantly as a result.

That said, far more important than the number of councils and councillors is the empowerment of local democracy. We have the least empowered local government and the most centralised State in Europe. Power after power has been taken away from democratically elected councillors and we in Sinn Féin want to see maximum power devolved from central Government to local authorities. These powers include economic planning, waste management, water and sewage and housing. Any reform of local government must ensure the efficient and cost-effective delivery of services, of structures fit for purpose and of democratic accountability at its core.

The Minister, Deputy Hogan's so-called reforms come side by side with more cuts to local government funding imposed in budget 2014. The cuts to the local authority housing budget, surely of great concern to the Minister of State present, are especially regressive given the dire shortage of social and affordable housing and the growing levels of homelessness. This is the real substance of local government service delivery and it is being savagely cut by this Minister and by his Cabinet colleagues.

Sinn Féin would establish local district councils. We would put in place local authority housing trusts to commence a State-wide building programme and develop economic spatial plans. This would ensure power is devolved to the local level, that homes would be built to meet the needs of the 112,000 on the housing waiting lists, and that councils could plan for economic development that would benefit the entire community.

I believe that while there will be sympathy for the Minister's approach among some in the media and indeed some in wider society, there has been a huge demand for less and less in terms of people involved in political life. The overwhelming number of these who will go have given that service for no personal return. They have given it out of a sense of wanting to contribute to the betterment of where they live. That has not been tested fully and properly and we will all be losers as a consequence. It will certainly occur after a short time to those who have clamoured for it because they will realise very soon after the error of their choice.

The next speaker is Deputy Kevin Humphreys who I believe is sharing time with Deputy Tom Barry.

I am, ten minutes each.

I welcome the move to reform local government in Ireland. It is long overdue. I would have gone much further but it is a start. The reorganisation that is taking place and the streamlining into municipal districts will prove to be a success. There is some fear of that but when we see the way local area committees work in urban areas, I believe these municipal districts in local town areas will work very well.

I welcome that the Bill devolves responsibility for the preparation of the municipal budgets. That is very important because the true power is controlling the budget. I am a little concerned about the manner in which the county or city budgets will be formed and the influence the new chief executive will have. The budget must be prepared at the direction of the elected councils, and I ask the Minister to look at that aspect of the legislation.

I am disappointed that these structures will not be delivered in Dublin for at least seven years. I welcome the setting up of a working group chaired by Fr. Sean Healy to work on how we can connect citizens into the decision making process at local government. That announcement by the Minister last night is very worthwhile and I believe it will prove to be a success.

The most important powers councillors will gain is the way they can vary the local property tax up or down. That is a real power because they have to make monetary decisions and it will be up to local politicians to take on that power. Those against the property tax have never outlined fully how they would fund local government while giving councillors fiscal powers.

There is one area, however, about which I am very disappointed, namely, the decision not to introduce in 2014 the retention of the 80% of property tax revenue in local authorities where it is sourced. That was a key promise made to people when it was brought in last year. The Minister announced in his Budget Statement on Wednesday, 16 October that the 80% will not be retained at source until 2015. However, as late as 19 September it was Department policy as indicated in a response to a parliamentary question which stated that 80% retention would come into force in 2014; I can supply that parliamentary question to the Minister. The Minister needs to review that.

Many changes have taken place in local authorities in terms of mergers but it would be a down payment on the commitment to reform. I would point out that those type of changes are not happening within the greater Dublin area, and the vast majority of property tax is being collected in the greater Dublin area. That is crucial if the local property tax is to have any credibility.

The Dublin local authorities are not changing and therefore there is no administrative reason the people of Dublin should not receive into their councils the 80% of the property tax collected in their areas in 2014. There is no logical reason the local authorities in the greater Dublin area, or in Galway, cannot receive the local property tax take next year. The Minister said there is a number of reasons for that, including Tipperary councils coming together or the other reforms that are happening outside urban areas, but this is not happening in Dublin. The property tax take is enormous in Dublin. A commitment was given that it would be paid to the local authorities in 2014 but from what we heard in the Budget Statement and from the Minister, Deputy Hogan, that will not happen. I ask for that to be reviewed and rectified.

Another interesting aspect of the Bill is the amount of power the Minister will retain or exercise over the way local government functions. I will deal with a number of sections. Under section 35, councillors would have a very strong role in the appointment of community development boards and the power of approval. That power should not be with the manager or CEO, as he or she is called. I ask the Minister to amend section 35 and enhance the powers of the councillors in that area.

On the appointment of a chief executive manager in Part 7, I welcome the power of veto by local councillors over the appointment of the manager. It will take brave councillors to exercise it.

It is important councillors have a veto in appointing new managers as it will pay dividends in the long run. However, we will need strong and brave councillors to do that. I would like to see the powers of councillors to hold the chief executive officer to account strengthened, with specific powers of enforcement over policy decisions. Something more than a report, which the legislation states, is needed. I also welcome the changes to the planning powers under section 140 as a result of what came out of the tribunals.

I am a Dublin Deputy and, like Deputy Ellis, I spent many years on Dublin City Council. This legislation says that Dublin can wait. We will not get a plebiscite until the local elections and if the people decide to have an elected mayor, we have been promised legislation two years later but we will not have a directly elected mayor for the greater Dublin area until the following local elections. We will not see real change in our capital city for seven years, which is too long. It is not only too long for Dublin but for the country.

Dublin is not in competition with the rest of Ireland but is in competition with cities like Paris, London, Birmingham and Madrid for foreign direct investment. We need a strong champion to champion the needs of Dublin people and to deliver jobs to the Dublin area. If we get that leadership, or that figurehead, we can attract foreign direct investment to the Dublin region, which will increase the taxation take and will help many parts of Ireland.

We need to move away from this anti-Dublin attitude, which arises in this House at times but which is certainly prevalent around the country. Like it or not, the greater Dublin area stretches from Arklow to Drogheda and out to Mullingar and Portlaoise. It is the only large city on this island. When major foreign companies decide where to locate their corporate headquarters, they look at our large urban areas.

We need reform in Dublin and a mayor of the greater Dublin area. We need him or her to champion Dublin and to attract investment, which would benefit the whole country. As this legislation is framed, one is asking Dublin to wait for seven years. It is always said Labour must wait but Dublin and Ireland cannot wait. Dublin is our only major city and this is an opportunity to sell our capital city for foreign direct investment, more jobs, more income and more taxation, which will take us out of this recession. I urge the Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, to talk to the Minister, Deputy Hogan, about accelerating the speed of change for Dublin. This needs to be done now and not in seven years.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which is not before time and puts a structure on local governance. Like many others in this House, I spent a period of time on a local council and it was quite enlightening. The amalgamation of the city and county councils of Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford should be extended possibly to my own county of Cork. There are so many connections between the city and county council, it does not seem practical to have two separate authorities.

I welcome the establishment of the economic development special policy committees to support business. This really is a change because much of the criticism of local authorities was that they had no business acumen at all. The local enterprise offices, LEOs, are to be established and they will draw and build on the success of the county enterprise board model which supports up to 33,000 throughout the country, 900 projects per annum and approximately 25,000 training participants. For the first time, the LEOs will bring together, in a structured and coherent manner, the skills expertise and resources of Enterprise Ireland, the county and city enterprise boards and the local authorities for micro and small business. This is a real challenge and I hope it will work. Small business people like myself require local help rather than hindrance.

Many of us have reservations about the abolition of town councils. There is a challenge here because there are towns, such as Mitchelstown in my constituency, which never had a town council. One could argue that Mitchelstown should have had one, that it was at a disadvantage by not having one and that population changes occurred along the way. However, this is a challenge not only for the local representatives but also for communities. When selecting and voting for candidates, people will have to figure out whether they will get representation in their areas.

Something about which I feel strongly and which is a little controversial is that we should pay councillors a proper wage, especially as we will have a lower number. The situation is haphazard currently. Most councillors must hold down a day job if they want to survive because they are currently paid approximately €17,000 per year. If this is the principal and only income coming into the household, it would seem the councillor would qualify for family income supplement. If one has two children, the FIS threshold is €602 per week but the councillor's income is only €326 per week. This is not good enough. I know everybody gives out about the pay of politicians but we need to recognise these people will be doing a very important job. As much as people want to serve their country, they must survive as well.

I remember from my time on the council that one was snowed under by meetings and one went from one meeting to another. Sometimes there is so much going on that it is very hard to get around to the office, or the executive, side of the work. If these councillors have a huge workload, they should get office assistance. I am not sure how much is available. It is fine to go to meetings but one must follow up on them and that takes the time and the skills of a secretarial assistant. If most Deputies lost their personal assistants and secretaries, one can imagine the conundrum they would face. Perhaps there should be a sharing of resources between councillors and Deputies and possibly the specialisation of councillors. We need to balance the resources given to the executive with those being given to councillors.

When committees are being formed, account should be given to one's skills and not how long one has been a councillor. There is no point leaving new councillors off committees for which they are imminently qualified and putting people who have been councillors longer on them. Time does not always educate. Another issue is training for committees. If people get on to committees, they should be trained. A few years ago, there was a big skit about councillors getting training on how to use Facebook. That was not such a bad idea because the social media is becoming incredibly powerful and we need to know about these things.

We need to educate councillors but, more importantly, we need to educate councillors in the areas in which they will make decisions. I sat for a while on an audit committee. I heard one of the Opposition parties give out about how local government will not function but I was the only council member on that audit committee for a year and a half because the other member decided not turn up at all. One cannot have it both ways. One cannot complain and then not have councillors sit on an audit committee which is engaged in oversight. Section 54(3)(a) refers to membership. If somebody cannot turn up, he or she should nominate a substitute in his or her place so that there is proper oversight in the audit sections.

It has also been provided for that one will cease to be a member of the national oversight and audit committee if one does not attend six meetings. The audit situation, which is important, can be overlooked at times. Now is an important time to look at it.

We need to look more closely at the reserved and executive functions of councils. There may have been a tendency for the executive to railroad certain items. There was a breakdown when this happened. Councillors were sometimes, perhaps wrongly, seen to be getting in the way. I must admit I was particularly annoyed at times when certain items were railroaded through under the guise of health and safety. It was not good enough. When we put people in charge of the new councils, it is important for the new members to receive sufficient recognition. In an ideal world, there would be mutual respect between the two groups. This needs to be monitored really closely.

I accept that until now, the only time councillors had much of a say was when budgets and development plans were being agreed. I remember getting a budget document late in the day. I read through it as best I could. I found it difficult to get through all of it. The members of the council did not receive the assistance of an on-site accountant. We were unlucky at the time because none of the members was an accountant. This played into the hands of the executive that was pushing the budget through. We had to take the budget on trust. We need to empower our councillors properly by giving them the correct information and making sure they have the staff they need at their fingertips. This is necessary to ensure the decisions made on behalf of the public are in the public interest. It is a basic requirement.

While I accept that these changes present a challenge, I welcome the emphasis on the reform of local government. I am glad the need to help local business has finally been recognised. The local enterprise offices will have great potential if they are managed properly. I am sure there will be problems and failings along the way. If we get this right, small businesses will be able to create an enormous number of jobs throughout the country. Many schemes, such as the internship programme and the JobsPlus scheme, have resulted from the jobs initiative. One of our biggest issues is that we are not communicating all the new incentives that are out there. Many people involved in small business have told me they did not avail of certain schemes because they did not realise they were available.

It is incumbent on us to try to make local councils welcoming places for those who want to start or expand businesses and are looking for help. Proper assistance needs to be available. Up to now, many people involved in business have felt they will be fine as long as the council stays away from them. That is not the way forward. I welcome this Bill. I look forward to seeing it in action after it has been passed. It is a major step in the right direction.

I would like to share time with Deputies Finian McGrath and John Halligan.

It is a little frightening to listen to the disconnect between some of the contributions being made in this Chamber and the reality of what is in the Bill. Everybody knows we have one of the most centralised systems of governance in Europe, if not the world. We will not be much better off in that respect after this much-discussed Bill has been passed. It will not reverse the trend of stripping assets and decision-making from local authorities. It will probably accelerate that process by abolishing town and borough councils. I imagine that the idea of axing councils and reducing the number of councillors, thereby striking a better balance between the population of this country and the number of councillors nationally, would be viewed as a popular vote-getting measure. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, seems to have peddled it in that way. I think it would appeal to most people because they believe councillors are useless and do nothing. Having spent 13 years as a councillor, I do not believe councillors do nothing, although a few of them might be useless. We do not have time for that aspect of the debate.

What about Damien O'Farrell?

The problem is not that they do nothing - it is what they do and what they are allowed to do. It was ludicrous for the Deputy who spoke before me to argue that councillors should be paid a full-time wage, while at the same time making the case for a system that has stripped away the decision-making powers of councillors. In my experience, many councillors spend their time annoying council officials by looking for information that is in the public domain anyway. Rather than participating in governance and decision-making, they look for letters to promote themselves. The nub of this issue is that local councillors are not empowered to make decisions on small or large items, which means that the public is similarly disenfranchised.

I will mention a simple example of the problem I am talking about. When the county manager and the officials in Fingal County Council were grappling with a large number of retiring librarians in the context of the recruitment embargo and the opening of a new library, they decided to axe library hours at lunchtime and in the evenings at a number of libraries. The councillors and the public were up in arms - motions were passed unanimously at council meetings - but the cuts went ahead nonetheless. That example has been repeated in every county regarding many other issues. Powers were removed from councillors to disenfranchise the public.

When I listened to the debates that took place in advance of the recent Seanad referendum, I found it ironic to hear Michael McDowell casting himself as a great liberator and defender of democracy as part of the campaign to maintain the elitist Seanad. He was a member of the Cabinet that ensured decision-making powers were removed from councillors, one after the other. He showed some neck, given that his Government removed from councillors the power to set or levy council rents, water charges or bin charges or to locate landfills or sewerage plants in certain areas. The only power that councillors still have is the power to make decisions on development plans and zoning matters. Even then, their hands are tied in many instances by the regulations and guidelines set by the Government at national level. If the Government was really serious about local authority reform, Deputies would be asked to consider more than a simple mathematical sum that will reduce the number of councillors. We would be asked to consider the delegation of power and to examine how councils are funded. The Bill does not do those things.

I have a serious problem with town councils as they stand. I do not mean any disrespect to any town council members when I say there is no question about the fact that they are an absolute joke. They are talking shops because they have no powers. There are based in certain areas but not in others without there being rhyme or reason to it. There are many town councils in areas outside Dublin, but there is just one town council in the Fingal County Council area. The area controlled by the town council in question is confined to the old part of Balbriggan, based on historic boundaries, which means all of the new population could not vote in town council elections. I would certainly be surprised if anybody tried to defend town councils are they currently constituted.

People at local level must be empowered through the empowerment of local councils. The best decisions are those made locally by those who live in the relevant area and who know what is best for it. If one takes a trip to any part of Europe, one will see that such an approach is being implemented and is working incredibly effectively. We are taking the opposite approach by moving in the direction of outsourcing, privatisation and the removal of powers and assets from local authorities lock, stock and barrel. We are stripping funding from councils at national level and replacing it with the proceeds of the hated home tax, the implementation of which they are having to grapple with. The money that is coming from this source will not undo the damage caused by the funding cuts.

I remind the House that the programme for Government states:

We will abolish the position of County Manager and replace it with that of Chief Executive, with a limited range of executive functions. The primary function of the Chief Executive will be to facilitate the implementation of democratically decided policy.

That sounds good. It would be great to strip power from county managers, but that will not happen under the Bill.

Under section 49, amendment to chapter 2 of part 14 (4) of the principal Act, "Any function which immediately before the date of the commencement of section 49 of the Local Government Act 2013 ... shall, on and from that date, continue to ... be a function of the chief executive.". In other words, no change. We change the name of the county manager to chief executive but all of the decision-making rests with central government with the county and city managers and unelected quangos. That is not reform that is the continuation and acceleration of an undemocratic process. This is not even window-dressing, it is an insult and a serious lost opportunity. I am completely opposed to it as being nothing positive whatsoever.

I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak on the Local Government Bill 2013. At the last election all candidates, whether independents or those from political parties, promised reform and change. We need to stick to that agenda if we are ever to change anything this country. I fully agree with aspects of this legislation and I will deal with these later.

I also have concerns about democracy and our people's respect for democratic values in this country. Our people are calling for quality and efficient local government. Reform involves accountability, transparency and good quality local government. It should not, however, use this as a front to bash or damage the integrity of democratic politics. It is trendy in some quarters to slag off politicians and politics in general and lately, even local councillors. The recent referendum on the Seanad was a case in point. The so-called "Yes" campaign left a lot to be desired. The argument for fewer politicians and the misleading figure of €20 million saved in the cost of the Seanad, have damaged politics and democracy. We can all whinge about Deputies, Senators and councillors but if there is a fairer and better way, call me and let me know about it.

I was a councillor in Dublin City Council and enjoyed my stint in City Hall, working at local and community level. I commend and thank the majority of councillors for their dedication, commitment and duty to public service. Most try to do their best for their local communities. Any corrupt councillors should be driven out of politics or be locked up. This legislation should attend to and support the silent majority. That is why I want to make sure that their voices are heard in this debate. Abolishing them or telling them to get lost is not good for local democracy, it distances people further from local politicians. This worries me because already, 30% to 40% of people are disconnected or are not engaged with politicians and democratic politics. In my area, Dublin Bay North, there is usually a good turnout, in the region of 65%. That was the case even in the recent referendum. While many think that 65% is a good turnout, I have major concerns that 30% to 35% in my constituency either stay at home or do not vote. I worry about this from a democratic point of view, particularly for those in the poorest and most disadvantaged areas.

Overall, the legislation deals with reform. I welcome that aspect of the Bill. The Bill provides the necessary legislative basis to give effect to many of the reform measures set out by the Government. It contains 65 sections in 10 Parts and five Schedules. Its detail includes reorganisation of the structure of local government at county, sub county and regional levels, involving the merger of six city and county councils into three and the dissolution of all 80 town councils. It also puts in place a comprehensive modern system of municipal governance with an integrated county and sub-county organisation and appropriate reserved functions and powers assigned to elected members at county and district levels, and appropriate financial arrangements. The revised council membership is in line with the local areas drawn up in May 2013. There is wider provision for devolution of functions from central to local government. These are all positive steps and I welcome them. It is very easy to be critical when you are in opposition but when change is happening we must look at the serious options on the table and say "Yes".

I warmly welcome the provision for community and local development, including the establishment of local community development committees within the local government system and dissolution of the county development boards. This has huge potential for the future. I also welcome the provision for a plebiscite on the possible establishment of the office of the directly elected mayor for the Dublin metropolitan area and related governance options because it gives the people of Dublin city and Dublin county the opportunity to consider different options. Having considered the detail I am going for option one, the directly elected Lord Mayor with a cabinet. Let him or her serve five or six years, do the business and then be accountable to the people of Dublin. That section involves accountability, transparency and efficiency. Above all, it means that if the candidate does not deliver after five years he or she can be booted out by the people. That is what democracy is all about.

The legislation contains amendments, repeals and recommendations arising from the reorganisation of local government structures. The post of manager will be replaced by that of chief executive, providing a statutory expression of the duty of the chief executive to assist in the formation of policy by the elected council to comply with the council's policy. That is another positive aspect of the Bill.

I have concerns about section 23, which provides for the dissolution of town councils. I have a problem with this because I believe it is important to listen to town councillors. I have many friends who have served on local town councils and have done excellent work. Many members of this House served on town councils.

Part 6 deals with the alignment of the local community development sector with local governance. Section 128B in the new chapter 2, amending the principal Act, provides for the function of the local government development bodies. That is a positive statement. Section 128F(1) in the same chapter, provides that the Minister can make regulations for the purpose of the chapter generally, in respect of local development committees and may issue general policy guidelines with which the committees must comply. That is a strong section.

I have concerns about aspects of this legislation, particularly town councils but overall I welcome it because we were elected on a platform of reform and change. Damage was done over the past six or seven years. Now those of us who have the honour to have been elected and have another chance must come forward in support of reform. The positive elements of this legislation should be supported.

I have argued from the outset that the sweeping reduction in the number of elected representatives as set out in the Bill has the potential to create a damaging distance between voters and local government. Having served as a councillor for many years I know all too well the importance people place on knowing an elected representative in their community and on having personal contact with that representative. At a time when it should be promoting and developing active citizenship the Government is instead putting in place a policy that will further detach many citizens from the elected representatives. I have read the Bill carefully and I agree with some of its aspects. It would be naive of me, having been a councillor for 14 years, to say that significant reform is not needed. I am not saying that every village or main street in the country requires a town council but the fact that large towns, such as Tramore in my own constituency, Waterford, which has a population of 10,000 are to be left without political representation is a step too far. The closure of area offices in well-populated rural areas such as Kilmacthomas in County Waterford will undoubtedly cause difficulties particularly for older people. I am disappointed that as with the campaign to abolish the Seanad, the Government has no interest in proposing reform.

Slash and burn appears to be the order of the day.

It is incomprehensible that legislation to provide for the election of mayors is not already in place given that the mayor is an important figure in any city and is still elected by a pact system. I must admit that I was elected through this system. That is wrong. The vast majority of people do not accept that and want to be able to vote for their mayors, yet we have not even put in place proper legislation as to when we will elect a mayor in Dublin. Perhaps I am wrong on this. Anybody who served on a council will know that the committees were always divvied out depending on the party that had most seats on the council. That was wrong. Very competent councillors were excluded because they were not members of the main parties. I suppose all parties were affected by this depending on whether Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or Labour had the power on the council. That was fundamentally wrong. I always found that the committees that were money-spinners inevitably went to people on the pact who were in Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or Labour. That was wrong. Even the budgets were entirely economically controlled. One would say they were not but they were controlled apart from car parking charges and small issues. They were almost entirely controlled by the central government. I am disappointed that there is no reform along those lines.

It is being claimed that the changes proposed in this Bill will allow for savings of between €40 million and €45 million. That is overly simplistic. It is an assumption that larger local authorities serving larger populations will automatically be cost-effective. That has not been the case across Europe. If one studies Europe and even town councils in the US and Canada, one can see that this is not the case. A large body of research suggests that there is a weak link between size and efficiency in local authority mergers with little or no effect on savings in most services. One can get these statistics anywhere one likes. Extensive international research on local authority amalgamations suggests that one-off transitional costs can hugely limit the potential savings that may arise from mergers. Again, these are all studies that have been carried out in central Europe. In particular, we should look at the system in France. I accept that there are certain areas where economics of scale may exist such as sharing IT and back office services but surely a shared service arrangement would have been a more practical solution.

I would have liked far more time in which to speak but I would like the Minister to clarify why these costs are still not available. We are told that the Waterford city manager has estimated that it will be an up-front cost of about €2 million excluding the cost to the State of staff members who are made redundant as a result of the merger. The question of whether the savings will outweigh the costs has not been answered adequately. This question needs to be answered. We certainly have not been told what improvements to services will come about as a result of mergers. How much time have I left?

The Deputy's time is almost up.

Surely the returns on these mergers will be felt by the community at large rather than just the State purse. There is nothing in the Bill that shows that the actual council as it performs - elected mayors, committees, pacts and budgets - will be reformed. Ideally, that is what the people who elect councillors wanted to see in this Bill. They wanted to see reforms in how councils perform.

I call Deputy Fitzpatrick who is sharing time with Deputies Martin Heydon, Áine Collins and Seán Kyne. Deputy Fitzpatrick has five minutes.

The Bill dissolves 80 town councils which together account for 744 councillors and provides for the establishment by ministerial order of municipal districts to cover the entire territory of the State bar Dublin. This has the effect of reducing the overall number of councillors in the State from 1,627 to 949 while increasing the number of county councillors from 883 to 949. Section 15 sets out the number of seats for local electoral areas in each local authority. It provides that the Minister may, by order, disband regional authorities and replace them with regional assemblies composed of existing councillors. The immediate impact of the structural changes are that 31 city and county councils will replace 34 county councils and 80 town councils and that there will be a district level tier to cover the full territory of the State bar Dublin. There is a significant reduction in representation for the 14% of the population who live in areas with town councils. On the other hand, in places which had no town councils, the effect of creating municipal districts whose councils together act on behalf of the district would seem to improve the quality of representation. The effect of the changes on the quality of representation depends very much on how the municipal districts function and on the extent of their autonomy and power. The Bill sets aside specific functions which are to be performed at the district level, including that the district members contribute to the drafting of the district budget and the annual schedule of works for the municipal district and may amend the chief executive's final draft of both. The county council may, by resolution, delegate other tasks to the district level. However, the county council is legally responsible for decisions taken at the municipal level. The municipal district is not a separate legal entity but a formation of the council.

As part of a policy to enhance the role of elected councillors in local government, the position of county manager is replaced by that of chief executive who has more statutory obligations toward elected members. The chief executive remains a central Government appointee appointed by the Public Appointments Service and subsequently by a formal resolution of the council. The Bill gives the local council the power to veto such an appointment after which the recruitment process begins again. The Bill restricts the power of local councils to use section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001 in respect of planning. It provides that each of the 31 councils will establish a strategic policy committee on social and economic development to function as other strategic policy committees as per the Local Government Act 2001. It dissolves county and city development boards and provides that all councils will have local community development committees. The policy objective is to align local community and economic development with local government.

On 16 October 2012, the Government published an action programme for effective local government entitled Putting People First as part of its commitment in the programme for Government to reform local government. The action programme outlined a range of possible reforms to local government before presenting the reforms which the Government is to implement under four categories: reform of structure; reforms of funding, accountability and government arrangement, including balance of power between the executive and elected council; local government involvement in economic development and job creation; and reforms to ensure efficiency in service delivery. An independent boundary committee established by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in November 2012 in accordance with the 2001 Act made recommendations for the division of each county council area into local electoral areas and on the number of councils seats to be assigned to each local electoral area. The committee was asked to make its recommendations in the policy context set out in the action programme and to be cognisant that as far as possible, the local electoral areas were to coincide with the new municipal districts. Its terms of reference also required that it improve balance and consistency in representational status throughout the county and take into account the location of towns and their hinterland in the creation of new local electoral areas and that each municipal district will constitute a single electoral area with a membership of between six and ten councillors except in exceptional circumstances.

There are four local authorities in Louth - Louth County Council, Dundalk Town Council, Drogheda Borough Council and Ardee Town Council. There are 47 elected councillors representing the four elected councils in 11 electoral areas. That will change to 29 elected councillors covering four electoral areas - two six-seaters, one seven-seater and one ten-seater. The reforms introduced by the Bill will result in gratuity payments for town, city and county councillors for losing their seats. Under current rules, following the replacement of town councils with a system of municipal districts, members who do not go to be re-elected to city or county councils will be entitled to pay-outs for losing their positions. According to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, amounts are expected to average almost €4,000 for town councillors but exact compensation payments will depend on number of years served and position. The limit is €16,000 for 20 years' service. The overall cost of the payout has been estimated at €45 million.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Local Government Bill 2013, which introduces some of the biggest reforms we will see during the term of this Government. The abolition of town councils is a positive development. Rather than being a diminution of local government, as some would suggest, it will empower local government and make it more efficient. Whereas the number of councillors will be reduced by 600 overall, my county, Kildare, will get a significant increase from 25 to 40 councillors due to the increase in our population.

I will draw on my experience of being a member of Kildare County Council and, in particular, a member of the Athy area committee from 2009 until the general election in 2011 because I saw at first hand how inefficient the system was. I was elected to the council with 1,980 votes but, even though the last seat on Athy Town Council was taken with 67 first preference votes, as a member of the area committee I was not allowed to ask any questions regarding planning or housing matters in the Athy Town Council area. Those in Athy who voted for me were not getting good value because power was not divided equally across the councils. It has been suggested that towns like Athy and Newbridge will lose representation but it is clear that the municipal areas of these towns are being expanded into parts of the hinterland that were not previously part of the town council. Residents in Athgarvan and Milltown should be treated no differently to those of Newbridge and the people of Kilkee and Castlemitchell should be treated the same as the residents of Athy. That is what the municipal areas will do. The two urban district councils in the county, Naas and Athy, existed for historic reasons but in moving towards a one county authority we should be mindful of the potential for disparities in the rates that businesses pay in these councils. I understand the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is aware of this issue.

I was a member of the finance committee of Kildare County Council. We held interesting meetings in advance of the annual budgets to discuss the issues arising. I went into my first meeting with excitement at the prospect of influencing the budget only to find out that more than 80% of the budget was non-discretionary. When I asked what areas of expenditure were discretionary, areas like the fire service, which we obviously were not going to cut, were mentioned. This meant we ended up with little influence over the budget. The variation on the local property tax from 2015 onwards, as announced in this Bill, changes that somewhat because we know from the mistakes made in abolishing rates in 1977 that there is an inextricable link between power and money. If a local authority cannot collect rates it does not have the same amount of power. Councillors will be more responsible in exercising that power because if, for example, they decide to reduce the property tax rate they will have to defend the reduction in services, whereas if they increase it they will have to be able to point to greater service provision. That, in turn, will impact on accountability among officials because the local councillor will not be able to blame central government or anybody else for inefficiency.

The strengthening of SPCs is welcome and the local enterprise offices will ensure that resources go directly to local businesses. I commend this Bill to the House as a reforming piece of legislation.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Local Government Bill 2013. We all know that every sector of government, both national and local, must achieve more with fewer resources. Waste and duplication of services must be eliminated and every penny of taxpayers' money must be spent carefully and effectively. This Government is committed to reforming local government at all levels. County and city councils, enterprise boards and local development companies must use funds from central government in a co-ordinated manner to ensure the best delivery of services. To this end, the Bill sets out major structural reforms. The number of local authorities will be reduce from 114 to 31 and the number of elected members will decrease from 1,627 to 949. Each councillor will represent his or constituents and community at municipal district and county council level. The dual mandate of membership of town council and county council will end.

The reforms provide for the alignment of the local community development sectors with local government. Local community development committees will be established to bring strategic co-ordination to the millions of euro spent annually on local and community development initiatives. Each county will be required to establish an economic development SPC. The SPC in County Cork has been in operation for a number of years and has engaged business organisations, third level institutions, local development companies and enterprise boards in a co-operative effort to establish new business ventures. The new economic development SPCs will also provide direct planning oversight and accountability for the new local enterprise offices.

The Minister, Deputy Hogan, has emphasised the importance he attaches to local democracy. Services must be delivered through the democratic structures that are closest to the people and their communities. To this end, the Bill provides that in future no separate structures for delivering public services will be established outside of local government. This Bill will strengthen the role of councils and provide platform for their further expansion. Provision is made in the Bill for the devolution of functions to include those of State bodies generally. However, with increased power comes increased responsibility. From 2015, councillors will be able to vary the rate of the local property tax by 15% upwards or downwards. They will also have control over many other charges and fees. Citizens will have better engagement with local councillors in regard to how their money is spent and, therefore, will be able to judge how well their council performs compared to other councils.

The Bill will introduce a new era for local governance. Many challenges lie ahead of us but I am confident the Bill lays the basis for a new, exciting and effective future for local government and community development and I commend it to the House.

Like many Deputies, I am a former member of a local authority, having served on Galway County Council for seven years. As a representative of the Connemara local electoral area, I felt the system worked quite well. Local government is currently overseen by the Local Government Act 2001, which consolidated previous legislation on local government. The Putting People First document, which was published in October 2012, sets out a well-drafted action plan for effective local government. It represents a culmination of time, energy and effort invested in designing a more effective system of local government. It outlines a range of possible reforms in the following four broad strands: reforming structures; reforming funding, accountability and governance; involving local government in economic development and job creation; and maximising the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery.

The Local Government Bill 2013 builds on these strands to introduce the necessary changes to enhance functions, performance and structures of local authorities, with the overarching aim of providing the highest level of public service. The localism of our politics and national Parliament is the subject of much debate. In many ways, this has detracted from our system of local government. The differing experiences of councillors across the country should be added to this. It is fair to say that councillors in urban areas can get more attention than their rural counterparts, particularly in respect of media attention. The recent RTE documentary focusing on the constituency work of Deputies demonstrated the close interaction between local citizens and the national Parliament. It is interesting to note the range of commentary regarding the hands-on approach that Deputies take to politics. Some commentators have decried the system and argued that the role of Deputies' should be confined to the national stage. The question arises, however, of how we reconcile the apparently low representation per voter in respect of the number of constituents required to elect an individual to a local authority. The ratio is much lower in many other countries than in Ireland. That is not the public perception.

The disparity is compounded by the uneven spread of town councils across the country. These are historical in nature and reflect a long since changed Ireland. The electoral area of Connemara in which I was elected in 2004 has a voting population of approximately 30,000, yet it has no town councils. There was no town council at all in the Galway West constituency, which stretches from Annaghdown to Athenry and Clarinbridge. Galway city has its own city council.

A further 80 locations have town councils of various sizes and with various powers. Some have revenue raising powers, in that they can set local rates, but day-to-day functions are by and large enacted by their county-based authorities.

Of particular note is the new chief executive role in the new municipal district category. The relationship between county managers and elected council members can often provide media outlets with much material. That county and city managers are appointed by central government and are, in effect, responsible to the Minister are undoubtedly factors. This can disempower the elected public representatives to a certain degree and sometimes create an unhelpful tension and adversarial atmosphere. The Bill contains a number of provisions to address these issues, not least by enhancing the policy making role of councillors. It is appropriate to increase the accountability and obligations of the chief executive and the heads of services to elected councillors.

As the Putting People First document states, municipal districts will be the first level of governance and democratic representation. The independent boundary committee has declared that each municipal district will constitute a single electoral area with a membership of six to ten councillors and that each county will have three to four such districts. Section 21 of the Bill inserts a new section in the Local Government Act 2001, outlining the new functions of councillors at municipal district level, including issues pertaining to property, dwellings, monuments, business, trading, the environment, litter, roads, parking, local improvement works and a fund for community works.

I referred to my position as a councillor in the Connemara electoral area. That system worked well and is the model for the roll-out of municipal areas to the rest of the country. A municipal area is a confined area, as we were at the time, with seven councillors - increasing to nine - who elect a chairman and run the affairs of that area as best they can. The councillors with whom I worked and who are still there have been able to perform these functions well. I am sure they will continue to do so. I am delighted that this local area model of governance is being enhanced and extended via municipal districts, as the people are the ultimate beneficiaries of such an approach.

The re-alignment of the community sector has raised some concerns, although those have settled down somewhat. Connemara has bodies such as FORUM in Letterfrack that provide valuable services for their local communities. These communities believe that any re-alignment or provision of power to local authorities will disempower them because they are more than one hour away from County Buildings in Galway city. This is a genuine concern, as those bodies provide a good service and people are able to approach them and their workers on the ground with proposals for job creation and various other initiatives. It is important that this bottom-up approach continue. The Minister has advocated that it will not change.

I wish to address an issue that has arisen and that will be a focus in terms of councillors' increased powers. Deputy Heydon also mentioned it. It is difficult to believe that there are seven fire stations in east Galway whereas there is only one in Clifden, Connemara. South Connemara's large population has no fire service. This issue was raised in the council chamber last week, when all councillors were in agreement on the need for such a service. I can see from the Minister's gestures that he is fully in support of this proposal. Local councillors must debate this issue. Within the constraints on the country and their local electorates, councillors must make difficult decisions on what to do with the property tax so as to ensure that necessary and deserved services like a fire station in south Connemara are provided.

I commend the Minister on this reforming Bill. I am sure the roll-out of the municipal districts will work well.

Next are Deputies Timmins, Terence Flanagan, Keaveney, Broughan and Tóibín, with four minutes per Deputy.

The Minister will hear many contributions on Second Stage. Most, mine included, will be tailored to our own areas and experiences. Probably more than any other Deputy, the Minister has experience of local authorities and councillors. I do not say this lightly. I commend him on introducing this Bill. Notwithstanding broad-ranging Second Stage speeches, he knows that how the Bill is handled on Committee Stage will define whether the reform of local government works. The Bill has many good aspects and there are aspects with which I do not agree for personal and policy reasons. The Minister will ensure that Committee Stage gets the time it deserves, as this is the first time in 100 years that real reform is being introduced.

It is good that the Minister does not court publicity or popularity. In this regard, he is unique in politics. He does what he believes is right. I am not patronising him or seeking an amendment to the Bill. As a political entity, we have continuously handed power to other bodies in recent years because we could not trust ourselves. What I am about to ask the Minister for will be difficult for him to do. It is called the postman concept. At one time, the curate, the public health nurse and the postman knew where everyone in a community was. Given how often the register has gone wrong, I am an advocate of letting the postman work on the boundary commission. Notwithstanding the fact that, by and large, the broad sweep is correct, some communities have been divided by electoral boundaries. I do not know the Kilkenny situation, but two boxes in Thomastown might be in the north Kilkenny district while two might be in the south. This does not make sense. The overemphasis on getting the population factor right has divided communities. I do not know whether the Minister has the remit to revise the boundaries. It would be unpopular and we could be accused of interfering, but it does not matter to me whether people are placed in this or that district. Dividing a local electoral district, LED, does not make sense.

I have mixed views on the membership of the local community development committee. It is important that councillors are the driving force behind everything, as they are responsible to their local electoral areas. I am a great advocate of people each having one, two, three or however many jobs, but two people having one job can create difficulties.

Fr. Seán Healy is in charge of the working group on citizen engagement with local government. The legislation has a shortcoming from the LED down. As with countries such as France, there can be an unpaid system of forums. Blessington is a classic example of a non-statutory forum elected by the people. I will send the details to the Minister's Department. This forum works. The town experienced considerable difficulties when new people moved there, with conflicts over developments etc. but the forum was set up and defused everything. It is working in an harmonious manner. Currently, it is following up on the issue of the Glending estate, which the Minister knows needs a radical overhaul.

Will the Minister ensure that area councils where there have been no town councils heretofore will set up offices that are staffed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days per week or whatever? It should not be the case that a county manager would try to run a north Kilkenny or Castlecomer district from the town hall in Kilkenny. There should be an office in Castlecomer, Tullaroan etc.

As a member of the reform alliance, I welcome the Bill. All steps towards reform are welcome. The local government system is clearly in urgent need of reform. The Minister's description of the proposed reforms as the most radical reform of local government in more than a century is true. He is to be commended in that regard.

I am concerned that we did not move towards a system with more local authorities, such as in France which has a local authority for every 1,500 inhabitants. In addition, a local mayor is elected in every French town and village. People there feel that they are part of a community with shared values. That system has worked very well in France as many Irish people will have seen during visits there over the years.

The Minister will be judged on what differences this Bill will make to customers and consumers. Will a quality service be provided for all citizens? Under the new measures councils will have a greater say in local enterprise, jobs and economic development.

There are many provisions in the Bill but I wish to focus on two areas in particular. One concerns directly elected city mayors and I welcome that plan for Dublin. As previous speakers have said, they wish to see someone elected who will have a strong voice and be seen as a figurehead with real power and responsibility. That is long overdue. It is a good move, but when does the Minister see this being rolled out? A previous speaker expressed concern that it may take up to seven years for directly elected mayors to become a practical reality. Dublin's citizens want to see the city run as efficiently and effectively as possible. We have seen the great success of directly elected mayors in London who have full executive powers to deal with housing, culture, transport, economic development, regeneration, planning and environmental issues.

The Bill also gives councils power to increase or decrease property tax by 15%. It is crucial that citizens should perceive changes within their communities before any property tax increases are introduced. The Minister is aware of how people feel on the issue, particularly with regard to seeing benefits in their local areas as a consequence of paying such a tax. People are concerned that local authorities should not see this as a method to grab cash through increasing property tax by 15%. Residents are also concerned by the length of time it takes to repair roads and footpaths, in addition to other local authority works.

How much will it cost to abolish town councils? The Bill does not provide for measures to devolve more power to local government from central government. Perhaps the Minister could address those points in his reply.

I wish to acknowledge the work of all local authority staff and thank them for their dedication and commitment to delivering public services in our communities. Local government reform is one of those topics that can often secure broad agreement across the Chamber, but I have some reservations about the Bill. Nevertheless, I welcome the fact the Minister has introduced the legislation which, I agree, represents a substantial overhaul of our local government system.

The Bill encompasses many facets and I will focus on a few specific areas. Properly functioning local government should represent the first comprehensive link between citizens and the State, but that has not been the citizens' experience since the inception of the State. I would argue that has been the case, in particular, since the abolition of rates in 1977 by the government of former Taoiseach Jack Lynch. That move is now understood to have been a policy mistake.

While I would quibble about the form in which the recently imposed property tax has been presented to the public, it represents the forging of a powerful link between the people and local government. Local taxes to fund local government services will only be accepted if they are seen as just. In addition, such scarce resources must be spent transparently.

I will not expand on my objections to the format of delivering the local property tax. However, I call on the Minister to examine how we can secure accountability. The Bill's provisions should ensure that every citizen will be given a clear annual statement on how their property tax is spent in that municipal area. When I canvass in my local community, many people say they are prepared to co-operate but they want to know where that property tax is being spent in their area.

Municipal councils must have an appropriate spending power so that councillors can work in close co-operation with executives, communities and citizens to determine how those resources are spent. Such expenditure can only be supported where it is transparent. When money is spent on behalf of citizens it is important for them to have an annual statement on how such an investment has been made.

One of the key points of grievance in my county - as I suspect the Minister is well aware - concerns the property charge on people who live in unfinished estates. The Minister has taken a special interest in that regard. Many people are rightly unhappy at having to pay a charge while living in such estates and waiting for a developer and the council to sort out legal issues, including outstanding bonds. I have been working with several residents' groups across east Galway in an effort to resolve this issue. We need to see far greater activity from central government encouraging our county managers to take up this issue. To the Galway county manager's credit, this process has been kept well in train to date. It is, however, essential for all local authorities to address this matter specifically.

Some previous speakers spoke about the customer's relationship with the local authority. There is a unique opportunity to underpin the property tax policy by giving a relationship to citizens allowing them to demand customer services from their local authority.

I will support the Bill and its proposed reforms. Large tranches of this legislation need to be introduced as soon as possible. Our citizens expect this type of reform. This is a unique opportunity and I welcome the fact that the Minister has brought these significant changes before the House in the form of this Bill.

I join with my colleague Deputy Keaveney in commending the work of all our local government officials around the country. In my own case, these are the officials of Fingal County Council and Dublin City Council. However, we need a dynamic elected leadership at all the major levels of local government. One of the most positive aspects of the Bill, which I strongly welcome, is contained in Part 10 which allows for a plebiscite to take place on the option of introducing a directly elected mayor of Dublin.

Having led the Labour Party on Dublin City Council, in the Civic Alliance, I was in the happy position whereby the Labour Party was the biggest party in the coalition. We were able to lead that coalition for many years. I have long advocated that Dublin City should have an elected mayor, so it is welcome to see that provision in section 61(2).

It is a pity that we could not have had the first such election next year. If so, all the potential candidates - including the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar - could have gone before the people of the four Dublin counties.

The Deputy might go himself.

Yes, I might consider going all right.

A Deputy

You would not want to embarrass Leo.

Or Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

Yes, or Councillor Dermot Lacey who has had a great interest in this matter for many years. Vincent Browne used to refer to the lord mayors as "toy town mayors".

Maybe Vincent should stand as well.

He thought of standing for Fine Gael in my constituency, but when push came to shove he did not do it. As I said, Vincent Browne used to refer to mayors and lord mayors as "Toy town mayors" because they only had a year in office with limited powers. My preferred model was to have a mayor with strong executive powers for all of the Dublin area.

I hope that what will emerge is a mayor directly elected and answerable to a small cabinet of key councillors and experts. I believe the mayor and his or her assembly should be responsible for and decide all the key traditional local government functions. We could go further and provide that areas such as transport provision and, perhaps, education and security would come within the remit of the mayor. As stated by Deputy Terence Flanagan and others, great cities like London, Paris, Rome, New York and others have benefited from having a strong elected leader.

One of the ironies of this Bill is that local government has been steadily losing powers, including in respect of waste management and housing. The Government proposes to remove the powers of local government in respect of water and drainage. It is important to note that while this Bill proposes to give additional powers to local government, it also removes vast powers from it.

The Deputy must conclude.

Concern has been expressed about the proposed reform under Part 5 in regard to the financing of local authorities. Radical reform of the property tax to facilitate this is not provided for in the Bill. While it provides that local authorities may vary the tax by 15%, it does not address how many local authorities will sustainably fund themselves. I heard what the Minister had to say last night in regard to Sligo.

I welcome section 47 which amends section 140 of the 2001 Act in relation to the removal of functions from councillors to influence the independence of officials in the planning process. This should at least begin to address the incredible corruption of the planning process that took place in recent decades, as highlighted by the Mahon tribunal.

There are two important rules that should determine the direction of local government. First, decisions and the decision-makers should be as close as possible to the citizens they affect. The closer they are, the better the decision. This is because people are offered an opportunity to become the decision-makers and also ensures decision-makers are accessible to citizens. This close proximity allows for far better oversight by the citizens. Conversely, if one distances the decisions from citizens, this has the effect of making the decisions unrepresentative and lacks necessary oversight. We see this happening all the time when citizens become frustrated and disengage from the political process.

The second rule is that the deeper the democracy, the better for the quality of the decision. When one reduces the number of representatives in a democracy, this makes the democracy shallower and reduces the voice of the citizen. The EU as currently constituted is the great dysfunctional example of this. This Bill breaks both rules. It creates a distance between the citizen and the decision and reduces the voice of the decision-maker.

The wholesale destruction of the town council model is a mistake. Critical to large cities and towns in the context of spatial development are specific resources and a political centre of gravity. They need a council. The absence of a city council in certain areas and town councils in larger towns will create a significant challenge for those areas in competing against larger resource-rich and strategy-rich cities. The difference is clear in my county. While there is a town council in Navan, there is none in Ashbourne, which is the second largest town in the county. Strategic development, resources and funds have historically gone to Navan, with none going to towns such as Ashbourne.

That money needs to be saved is not contested. I believe representation levels should remain but that councillors' salaries and expenses should be significantly reduced.

Sinn Féin is doing the opposite in the North.

While I welcome the new powers being given to councillors, the Minister did not go far enough in this regard. It is important to note that decisions without resources are a nonsense. Without the resources to implement decisions, councils will be only talking shops. Local authorities are cash starved. Funding for the repair of roads in my county has been radically reduced over recent years. There are currently 3,300 people on the local authority housing list in my area. Last year, the council there made only three acquisitions in the whole year. The recently introduced budget identified 500 new local authority housing builds. This equates to three additional houses in each of the six local electoral areas, LEAs, in Meath. In the context of a housing waiting list of 3,300, an additional three houses for each of the six LEAs is ridiculous. On a human level, the local authority crisis in County Meath and other counties is a disaster.

This type of reform is a sham if the Government continues to reduce necessary budgets. There is much confusion around the proposed new municipal districts. Some councillors to whom I have spoken, including from the Fine Gael and Labour parties, believe that the municipal districts will have power, autonomy, headquarters and budgets. As I understand it, they will not. Rather, municipal districts, which often will have replaced a town council, will be able to make decisions with a cost implication independent of the remainder of the council and, most importantly, without a budget. In that scenario, who will make the decision? Will the county manager become the referee?

As somebody who started off in political life as a member of Meath County Council from 1999 to 2004, it gives me great pleasure to contribute to the debate on the Local Government Bill 2013.

There have been calls for reform of politics, in particular local politics, since the late 1990s and, perhaps, before then. The fall-out from the tribunals in regard to planning corruption dominated that period and continued up to recent years. The drip-drip effect of these tribunals since then has rightly angered the voting and tax-paying public. It was this anger, coupled with a desire for change and a better way of doing things, that, along with a great deal of persuasion from a local teacher and others, encouraged me in 1999, at 21 years of age, to include my name on the ballot paper for election to Meath County Council and Navan Town Council. Much of what frustrated me as a young councillor is addressed in this Bill and the overall reforms introduced by the Minister, Deputy Hogan.

Local government now has its own tax which it can alter as the need arises. While more should be done in the area of commercial rates, that is an issue for another day. I know the Minister has plans to tackle that issue. The establishment of local community development committees will make local government a one-stop-shop for all aspects of community, EU and other funding sources. This is to be welcomed as it will lead to a much more joined-up and strategic approach to investment in our communities. The enhancement of the role of local government in enterprise is also to be welcomed. I hope it will lead to a renewed push for home grown jobs in SMEs, which will be the key to our nation's continued recovery. I am aware that some business organisations are concerned about how all of this will pan out. I think this measure is a real positive and an opportunity for local government and local business to work well together. Up to now, the perception in local government has been that businesses can afford to carry all the costs. They cannot. There is a need for a much greater understanding between the two, which can only be good. This will be the effect of the local enterprise offices, LEOs. I look forward to seeing how this develops. It is a positive move that should be welcomed and encouraged, including through the policies of Enterprise Ireland. The Bill also provides for a greater role for strategic policy committees, SPCs, in the auditing of spending throughout the year. This is another welcome change that will enhance local government and the role of the local councillor.

Returning to 1999, while I was elected to Meath County Council, despite needing fewer votes, I was unsuccessful in getting elected to Navan Town Council. I did not feel at a huge loss in not being elected as a member of that body, in part because a good friend, colleague and mentor, Councillor Jim Holloway, had been elected to both bodies at that time. We have worked well together since then. There are many elected representatives in Navan, Kells and Trim, of all parties and none, who have committed their time to represent the people of their respective towns on town councils. Each must be recognised and thanked for their work and efforts on behalf of their constituents and communities. I acknowledge the staff and former staff of the three town councils in Meath and their families who supported them in their work. They have rendered great civic and public service to the people of Kells, Trim and Navan. Many aspects of life in these times are much better because of their presence and work.

Debate adjourned.