Local Government Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)

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

It is very disappointing the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, is not present. We have been waiting for this Bill for 12 months. It was heralded as a major reform of local government but neither the Minister nor a Minister of State is present, which is disgraceful. The Opposition is trying to put forward its views on the Bill but neither the Minister nor a Minister of State has come to the House to hear those views. The document, Putting People First, was launched with much fanfare in Dublin Castle 12 months ago. We finally get to see the Bill, which promised to be the most radical reform of local government in 100 years, but neither the Minister nor a Minister of State in the Department has turned up to discuss it with us.

The Bill certainly contains some positives but to say it is radical or even reforming is a gross exaggeration. Consecutive Governments have continued to undermine and under-fund local government in the name of reform. With each passing decade, local government has lost powers and budgets. There are some positives in the Bill and in the spirit of constructive opposition, I welcome those positives. It gives a commitment to holding a plebiscite on a directly elected mayor for Dublin, for example. However, the Bill goes on to state that the Minister, if the vote supports a directly elected mayor, will not act on the outcome for two years. This is far too long. The Minister should act within 12 months of the outcome of the plebiscite. I must emphasise that Sinn Féin wants to see a mayoral office established with real powers.

The proposal to establish economic development strategic policy groups in all local authorities is welcome. It will allow local authorities provide practical support to local enterprises. The reporting mechanism for councillors to provide information on a quarterly basis on their attendance at meetings, conferences and seminars will give the public a better insight into the work of the people they elect to local councils. Sinn Féin also welcomes the introduction of a register of payments made to elected members in respect of attendance at conferences and seminars. It is public money and the public has a right to know how these expenses are being spent.

The Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland and the Local Authority Members Association have done good work over the years representing councillors' views and providing practical support. I am glad to see a commitment from the Minister to meet them on an annual basis but we suggest the Minister meet those organisations, whether merged or not, twice yearly, in September in the lead-up to the budget and in the spring. We also welcome the initiative to ensure local authorities' draft budgets are made available to the public by early October. Will the Minister take this a step further and ensure that councils have public events to engage the electorate in the process?

The post of city and county manager will be replaced by a chief executive, which is a very welcome move. It is something about which we have complained for years. There will be a rebalancing of power between the executive and the elected councillors. Hopefully, that will follow through in the various regulations flowing from the Bill. That has been very much lacking in local government. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, and the officials to relay that to the Minister.

The powers granted to the elected representatives are very limited. Nowhere in Putting People First do the words "power" and "councillor" appear in the same sentence. Having read the Bill, the explanatory memorandum and, in particular, appendix 3, it only serves to confirm there is a lot of hype but little substance. No powers are devolved from any Department and no extra decision-making powers are given to councillors, although extra functions are given to local authorities. A total of 27 reserved functions will be performed by municipal district members but this is a smokescreen because the municipal structure is a new one, so powers have to be moved over to it in the same way as an area committee would have made decisions. That is happening by default.

Of the 105 functions outlined in the Bill, which may be performed by the local authorities, there is a very limited number of new ones. These range from extending the period of permitted absence from attendance at local authority meetings to adopting a proposal for the alteration of the number of members of certain local authorities through to deciding on which days to hold special meetings. That is already common practice and none of this is ground-breaking. Allowing councils to adopt an annual report or to decide to hold or to cease to hold membership of an association of local authorities is not radical or historic. All of this is already being done by local authorities.

There are no proposals in the Bill to tackle the housing crisis or waste management issues, to provide education supports or to improve fire services. The only reference to planning is to curtail councillors' powers through the removal of section 140 as it relates to planning. No additional powers are being granted to councillors and no powers are being devolved by central government to local authorities.

Sinn Féin would like to see a more radical approach. Having waited 12 months for the Local Government Bill 2013, I was hoping for a far more radical, progressive and reforming Bill.

I notice that the two speakers from the other Opposition party took contradictory positions on the town council issue yesterday evening. The first Deputy to speak said he was in favour of the retention of town councils for towns with populations of more than 7,500. The second speaker from that party, Deputy Ó Cuív, said he does not want any town councils. We see towns and their hinterlands as the hub of local democracy. We hope the new municipal districts will grow in a way that will result in them being seen as strong units of local government. We have been let down so far, unfortunately. What we have seen has fallen short of reform by any measure. This Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, like its predecessor which was led by Fianna Fáil, is taking powers away from councils in order to centralise them, mainly in the Custom House. In contrast to what the Government has presented us with, Sinn Féin wants the maximum amount of power to be devolved from central government to local authority level. We are in favour of a shift in powers from city and county managers to elected representatives. As I said earlier, I welcome the indication in the Bill that this will happen. We will certainly push for that to be followed through.

We are in favour of the transfer to local level of powers in areas like economic planning, waste management, water and sewerage and housing. The stranglehold of various Departments, particularly the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, needs to be broken. The current local government structures are not fit for purpose. I am not sure this Bill will do enough to change that. Our view is that any reform of local government must ensure local government services are delivered in an efficient and cost-effective manner, that local government structures are fit for purpose and that democratic accountability is at the core of the local government system. This legislation does none of this. Local government continues to be starved of funding as a consequence of the introduction of the regressive local property tax. There will be huge pressure on local authorities to cut back on this double taxation, and the Minister should make no mistake about it. People will continue to pay the same income tax while being hit with this extra tax, and without receiving the extra services they deserve. This is happening at a time when householders are paying separately for an increasing number of services. They pay separately for waste collection. People in all counties are paying for the local fire service. They will have to pay for water from the last quarter of 2014, when the local elections are out of the way.

Sinn Féin rejects the Government's reform proposal that involves cutting the number of councillors to 949. This drastic decrease will leave the State with one of the lowest number of councillors per head of population of any European country or OECD member state. If the officials check the figures, they will see I am correct in this assertion. We propose that there should be a minimum of 1,165 councillors, or 216 more than the Government is proposing. This would be in line with the reform of public administration in the Six Counties. Councils are stifled by limited powers and a lack of funding. The current local government structures should be maintained until real reform-based devolution of power from central government takes place. In recent years, the powers of councillors have been eroded, particularly in areas like housing, transport, roads and waste management. Unfortunately, responsibility for water services is about to be taken from local authorities as well. This trend must be reversed. Waste management, water, sewerage, planning and local transport must be among the reserved functions of local councils.

If local government is to be democratic and accountable and is to deliver, Sinn Féin believes significant and far-reaching reforms, rather than the window-dressing we see in this Bill, are needed. The reforms we propose will lead to local authorities being fit for purpose. The functions and powers of local authorities are central to their ability to plan, deliver, respond, provide good local services and, most important, be accountable to the public they serve. These functions should not be undermined by departmental policies, especially cuts to funding or the privatisation of services. The key services of local authorities should be housing, planning, environmental services, waste management, water and sanitary services, economic development, roads and policing. We welcome the move towards giving local authorities a role in economic development. Sinn Féin sees a number of other services as of central importance, such as recreation, youth services, arts and culture, community development and social services. For the sake of time, I will focus on highlighting our priorities.

Our local authorities must once more have a central role in the provision of housing. We have seen a shift to the voluntary and private sectors. This was started by the previous Government when it allowed local authorities to lease private houses and enter into long-term liabilities. Local authorities could build, preserve and provide an adequate supply of housing that is maintained and owned by councils at an affordable rent to the public. Under our stimulus package, Sinn Féin proposes and is committed to building 9,000 homes in 18 months. There are 112,000 people on housing lists across the 34 local authorities. There are 33,000 empty homes in unfinished estates. NAMA has identified 3,500 homes that are ready for allocation to social and voluntary housing. The Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, has admitted that by the end of 2013, just 500 of those houses will be taken into social housing. This is far too little and is unacceptable. If this crisis is to be addressed, all 3,500 homes that have been identified must be taken into social housing and allocated as a matter of urgency. As part of our economic stimulus programme, Sinn Féin is proposing that grants be made available from central government to local authorities to buy quality homes in unfinished estates at discount prices and rent them out as social houses. The local authorities would receive rent and, at the end of a ten year, 20 year or 30 year period, they would have a valuable asset to sell to the tenant. Most important, the tenant would have a permanent home. That is the key point. There is a precedent in this regard. In past decades, the Land Commission took control of unused or under-used land and leased it to small farmers who were in desperate need of land. The same principle could be applied in this case.

Local authorities must become priority creditors where developers have gone bankrupt and bonds have expired, which has happened in many counties. This approach could be used by local authorities to acquire some housing units. I appreciate that many thousands of units would not be acquired in this way. I know of cases where there are no bonds and local authorities are left to finish off estates without any funding. If the local authority was classed as a priority creditor, some of those units could be transferred to the authority in lieu of the cost of finishing the estate and the bonds that are not in place. The rest of our housing needs can be met by implementing a public housing building programme. We need to initiate a social housing building programme of at least 5,000 houses in the first year, with a further 4,000 houses in the first half of the second year. We need to accelerate the regeneration programmes in Limerick and Dublin and complete them over a four year period. Funding for a new building programme and the regeneration programme can be made available to local authorities by establishing housing trusts, which would be able to receive grants from the State and borrow from the European Investment Bank, for example. The establishment of trusts is necessary because when local authorities borrow from the financial markets or institutions, it is added to the national debt. This would not be the case with housing trusts.

Sinn Féin proposes that essential environmental and waste management services, including waste collection and management, should remain under local authority control. Waste reduction and recycling programmes need to be vigorously implemented by local councils. Councils should be the regulators of domestic waste collection services in their local areas. Councils should draft, vote on and implement waste management plans. They are not doing this at the moment. When Noel Dempsey was Minister for the Environment and Local Government in the early part of the last decade, the power of local elected representatives to make waste management plans was taken from them. The current situation, whereby city and county managers have the power to impose such plans, even if they provide for incinerators, is unacceptable and undemocratic. The adoption of waste management plans must be the reserve function of council members. Council policies need to be policy-proofed to ensure they are in line with the climate strategy. We will be discussing the national climate change Bill soon. Local authorities should draft and implement climate change action plans which are based on that Bill. They should set specific local targets, based on national and international targets, for the reduction of emissions from energy use, transport, housing and waste management. These targets will be developed following a consultation process with relevant experts and stakeholders.

Planning affects many aspects of our lives, including where we live, where we work and where our local schools are.

It affects everything, even where we socialise and how we travel. We propose that local authorities have a stronger role in the planning process, with citizen participation, to plan for sustainable economic and social development that values the insights and knowledge of local communities and local community groups. Years of planning scandals and corruption have allowed the planning process to be brought into disrepute. Rather than reform the planning process and make it more accountable, consecutive governments have stripped away the powers of elected councillors. Planning decisions are made by unaccountable bureaucrats and are more and more centralised. The Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006 takes power away from local councils, and local county development plans are swept to one side at the behest of multinational companies to clear the way for their needs.

The planning process must be accountable, democratic and open. We aim to create a more meaningful role for communities in planning and decision-making. We want to ensure that there is real community involvement in drawing up the local development plans. The Bill refers to local development plans but we want to see real civic participation at local level. This can have a positive social, economic and environmental impact.

Water is a big topic at the moment. It is a huge resource that we all need. We have long called for a co-ordinated all-Ireland approach to water services. We call for reformed local authorities to continue to own, maintain and develop the public water system to provide water to householders free at the point of delivery. We feel very strongly that local authorities should continue to own it, to ensure democratic control of the resource. We oppose the Government's plan to use public funds to install domestic water meters and to introduce water charges. Local authorities need to keep water services. The establishment of Irish Water will do nothing to improve the distribution of water. As it moves to be a subsidiary of Bord Gáis Éireann, large parts of which the Government has said it will privatise, there is great concern that Uisce Éireann will also be shifted to that category.

The Government has failed to develop a coherent island or State-wide spatial plan for economic development and failed to reach the targets of 50% of foreign direct investment, FDI, outside Cork and Dublin. The FDI figures for the midland counties are paltry. It is not happening. Local representatives need to have a greater input into making areas more attractive for FDI. We propose that local authorities plan for economic development that benefits the entire community. We believe the key is to address economic recovery and growth at all levels. Local councils should play a leading role, in conjunction with the Government, in promoting economic growth and jobs at a local level.

Local authorities should have local plans for this type of development. We believe in economic development that is built on sustainability which fosters local native industry but also attracts IDA investment into an area. Local authorities - some already do - should provide incubation units for start-ups. That is having some success. That too must be rolled out across the local authorities. We need to develop an economic spatial plan in full consultation with local authorities, working alongside State agencies such as the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and Tourism Ireland.

We need to return the power for roads and transport where it belongs, with democratically elected local councillors working in consultation with local engineers. I was surprised as a councillor by the amount of micro-management of local roads by the Departments responsible for the environment and transport. Local engineers told us they could not do this, that or the other for fear that when the inspector came down and drove around the roads of Trumra or Rosskelton or any other little townland, which they would find only by using Google maps, they might not be happy with what the engineers had done. Local councillors working with the local area engineer should be given the discretion to use the money that is collected locally from car tax. At the moment it is micro-managed in a fanatical way. The way it works on the ground is ridiculous. The local engineers and councillors must have more discretion.

Transport must focus on the movement of people and goods, rather than on the efficient movement of cars. This can be done by increasing the availability of public transport, particularly rural transport. Central to this must be local planning that makes it affordable and accessible. In cities traffic congestion frustrates people and pollutes our environment. Councillors and the public they represent know this only too well. Local authorities are best placed to draft and implement the solutions to this problem. For far too long local transport planning has been a central government function. I have seen it become more centralised, which is very regrettable. We must move away from the micro-management to which I referred earlier. Roads and transport are an integral part of local, regional and national planning. Roads and transport link people and their communities to where they work and to markets, schools and other facilities.

Policing is not mentioned in the Bill but many residents of urban and rural areas feel a sense of powerlessness when it comes to policing and crime prevention. Anti-social behaviour and low level crime pose serious challenges in our communities. These challenges are made more difficult by government cuts in gardaí numbers and the public service employment embargo. Local authorities must become central to accountable policing and crime prevention. This includes combining traditional aspects of law enforcement with community-based prevention measures, problem-solving, community engagement and community partnerships.

Progress has been made with the introduction of the Garda Act 2004, which laid the foundation for the joint policing committees, JPCs, and local policing fora. We supported that at the time. There is more work to be done. I attend those meetings but they have become a talking shop. They are toothless and have little influence over policy or practice. Compared with other jurisdictions, we could have much more effective JPCs. These need to be reformed and to become more like the district policing partnerships in the North. The Minister for Justice and Equality often refers me to the North. I would refer him, if he were here, to the North on this point. There are councillors and community representatives on the district policing partnerships in the North. They have a direct input into local policing plans and strategies. I say this in a very constructive way. We must be able to hold the gardaí to account at local level and to oversee the implementation of these local policing plans. It would be good for the gardaí and for communities. The JPCs must also align with the new district municipal authorities, not the county structure. They need to have the power to draft and implement policing and community safety strategies; to establish local neighbourhood watch and community alert schemes; and to introduce crime prevention measures, including restorative justice programmes. These can be linked to community benefit.

I ask the Minister of State and his officials to take this proposal on board. From a local authority point of view, the community would gain from restorative justice through which people would pay the community back. We would like to see a link made between people taking responsibility and local ownership and long-term solutions put in place. We need to do that to ensure that residents and councillors can influence policy at local level. At central level we must also establish a central Garda board, the membership of which would include councillors, Deputies, the Garda Commissioner, representatives of the Departments of the Taoiseach and of Education and Skills, Environment, Community and Local Government, the probation services and so on. The board should have an independent chairperson. It should be established on a statutory footing and have the power to draft and implement State-wide policing and community safety strategies and hold the local JPCs to account.

We want to see a fully integrated and standardised approach to policing and community safety. There should be an assistant commissioner whose responsibility will be to work with local authorities and oversee agreed strategies.

We welcome reform of local government. The Bill has some positive aspects which we will work to maximise. We welcome any moves in a positive direction. Unfortunately, the Bill does not contain the type of powers that need to be devolved to local level. I do not see them in it. The current structures are not fit for purpose.

The regional authorities will be turned into three regional assemblies. The provision is for two representatives from each council who will attend on behalf of the council. That means that there will be no Sinn Féin or independent representative. In many county councils, the representatives will be from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Perhaps they will sign a pledge otherwise. It will be Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael representatives who go to the regional assemblies and none from the other parties. Labour, Sinn Féin and Independents might not get a look in and will depend on goodwill. That should not happen. We need to have a better system of divvying up those positions to ensure that all parties are represented on them

The current structures are not fit for purpose. We do not see the Bill as the solution because it does not go anywhere near far enough. We will be seeking to maximise the positive aspects in it and to develop a better system of local government in the State. We ask the Minister to revisit the Bill and bring forward strong amendments.

The next speaking slot is shared by Deputies Catherine Murphy and Richard Boyd Barrett. Deputy Murphy has 20 minutes.

It is very disappointing that the Minister is not here but most of us were here last night to hear his contribution. He stated last night that this is the most comprehensive programme of local government reform ever undertaken in the history of the State.

He said that this was to be the most comprehensive programme of local Government reform ever undertaken in the history of the State. The same was said about the reforms of the late 1990s which introduced county development boards, strategic policy committees and area committees. The fact that we are now making the same claim shows the reform then was not radical enough. There is no doubt that this is certainly a reform package, however, the question is whether it is the right package of reforms and whether it will be about returning power to the people, as it claims.

Like many Members of this House, I have some practical experience of serving at both town and county council level. I served on both for over 20 years and my experience of both could not have been more different. The Minister referred to the often negative context of engagement between the citizen and local government, referring to such matters as complaints, payments for a service or dependency-based roles. That was what I experienced at county council level but not at town council level where there was a much more inclusive and positive engagement with citizens and where the experience was far more positive. The town council on which I served, which was the most recent one established and one of only four established in the history of the State, had very limited powers but had a critical impact on the social development and physical appearance of the town. The county council was a complex and complicated organ that citizens found very difficult to understand and navigate. It also mainly delivered hard essential services like water and wastewater that did not require citizen engagement unless something went wrong.

One of the central features of this legislation is the abolition of 80 town councils. While I would not argue for the retention of all of them the abolition of many of the larger or more effective ones will make a huge difference and will be noticed almost immediately. The Minister has established a working group chaired by Fr. Sean Healy that will consider a stronger role for the citizen. The Minister could do worse than take one of the functioning town councils and use that as a case study.

If political reform is to bear fruit we need to look at the whole set of political institutions rather than take a piecemeal approach. In doing this, we must work to our strengths. As a people, we have been capable of designing and building such great organisations and institutions such as the GAA, the credit union movement, the Tidy Towns associations and the Carers Association. All of these associations were a response to a need and capture values such as solidarity, volunteerism and care. Each association also functions within a defined geographic space with which people identify. Imagine if we were to build such elements into a reformed local government system that is designed in such a way that allows the kind of flexibility to foster initiative that is obvious at local level rather than sterile institutions that often stifle that flexibility. It is a system that works in harmony with its people rather than grates against them and is community rather than institution-focused. If they are successful, such institutions will foster a culture that is outwardly focused rather than process-driven.

Some elements of the reform thinking in Putting People First are about achieving a town or municipal focus. While there is universal cover achieved in the reforms proposed, what has not occurred is that these municipalities will exist as independent entities. There seems to be a continuing resistance to cutting the umbilical cord between the Department, the Minister and the county council. While the county manager position will be changed to that of a CEO, the all-powerful County and City Managers Association will continue to exist and will continue to be the primary connection between the councils and the Customs House.

This Bill is littered with lines like "The Minister specifies by order" or "The Minister shall issue guidelines". This highlights the unhealthy level of centralisation in evidence. Without dealing with that, we will continue to clutter national politics with things that should more properly be done at local level. I fully understand that cannot be achieved overnight and the stated intention is to make a start with some functions but to further devolve functions and powers over time. Will there be an ongoing commitment to devolve more functions if the reform programmes are not seen to deliver anything additional, particularly given that the property tax will be in the funding mix. Will local government or Departments bear new costs if further functions from other Departments are allocated to local government?

The Bill provides for the establishment of the municipal tier, which looks like the renaming of area committees. It is a fancy European name but I do not see much that is different in what is proposed. Some of these municipal districts contain nothing but a collection of rural areas. Identity is a key issue to the success of municipal district council. While the county is identified with for Gaelic games, particularly in September of each year, I am not convinced it is a good administrative unit or identifier. Counties are not uniquely Irish. They were established between the 12th and 17th centuries and were designed to be a means of control by the Crown. That culture of control has, unfortunately, continued and is an impediment to unleashing the ability that is evident in every community across this country. In terms of identity, I have referred in the past to the New Urban Living project carried by NUI Maynooth which identified four key elements to identity. The study found that the attachment to place of local residents was influenced by four main factors: the built and natural environment; the cultural character and life of the area; the quality of informal associational life, which is really at town or community level; and elective belonging, which refers to the reasons why people had chosen to live in their place of residence.

I am convinced we need to re-fashion our local government system in a way that allows people to govern themselves in a place they actually identify with and have elected to live in. I also believe we need to decide what it is that local government should do and at what levels. Sir Michael Lyons carried out a study in the UK and concluded that place shaping and the creative use of powers and influence to promote the general well-being of a community and its citizens should be the primary purpose of local government. When we think of community, we tend to think of it at a much lower level than county level. Indeed the organisations to which I referred earlier - the GAA, the credit union movement and Tidy Towns - all have their foundation based well below county level.

As public representatives we have unique insights into how our citizens and communities function and we all have impressive stories to tell about the get up and go that is visible at a local level. Unfortunately, we have a mediocre political system that lets down what happens at that level. The paradox in Putting People First is that it acknowledges the role county government plays as an inherent part of Irish identity but, according to Seán Ó Riordáin's critique for the AMAI, "[I]n one of the most radical proposals in regard to public service reform generally the focus of local government is towards the municipal level". My big concern is that while the focus is towards the municipal, the identity and resources are at the county level. I hope I am proved wrong but it appears to be the opposite of what is required.

If you want to know where the real power lies it is important to see how the budget will be handled. Under Part 8 of the Bill, for example, the CEO of the county or city council shall consult the municipal district members. The words "shall consult" could mean anything. It certainly shows that the municipal districts will not be autonomous. Another possible clue is the schedule of municipal district works provided for in section 103A(1), as follows: “Following the adoption of the local authority budget, but before the start of each local financial year, a schedule of proposed works of maintenance and repair to be carried out during the financial year in each municipal district shall be prepared under the direction of the chief executive, having regard to the availability of resources." This provision deals solely with hard services such as roads, footpaths and lighting. Town councils do not appear to have a role in community building.

The Minister referred in his opening statement to new reserved functions for municipal districts but the sting in the tail was his comment that they will have a role in making charges on amenities, facilities or services provided by the local authorities within their districts. These community charges were available throughout the Celtic tiger years but they were never imposed. Given that they would be additional to the property tax, they simply are not going to happen.

The Bill proposes one local community development committee per county except where the Minister allows more. This provision mistakenly assumes that "local" means "county". Community building does not generally occur at county level but I do not see where it is provided for at municipal level. The county enterprise boards worked well but it is far from certain that their amalgamation into the business support units will work. As the micro-enterprise sector is critical to creating new jobs in the small enterprise sector, this amalgamation gives rise to risks.

I object strongly to the provision in section 44(c) whereby the leader of each registered political party is automatically included in the corporate policy group. Subsections (c)(i) and (ii) should be deleted. The d’Hondt system provides for a mathematical allocation based on what the citizens decide in an election. The sections providing greater transparency on conferences and expenses and the move to training at a more local level are welcome developments.

Schedule 7 Sets out the number of councillors per authority. Where there is a low population base a seat bonus is provided to make it possible to cover large areas with small populations. The Minister stated that the revised council membership numbers will ensure more equitable representation and better proportionality, and outlined the figures in this regard. Clearly, the equality is not perfect but, while it need not be perfect, it will have an impact on Seanad elections in that the in-built rural bias is retained. In the absence of universal suffrage that needs to be addressed in any reform of how the Seanad is elected.

The Bill provides for a number of amalgamations at county and city level and between county and town councils that were also rating authorities. Section 29 allows for the harmonisation of commercial rates between towns and counties, with a maximum of ten years to comply. The Minister argued this will allow elected members the discretion to link adjustments where possible to savings as they arise. Is it intended to adjust rates upwards or downwards and will two or more rates bills issue for the same area? How will this work in practice and will it lead to conflict where one part of a county or city feels it is subsidising another?

Section 31 Is a very significant change in regard to vacant properties. While rates refunds for vacant properties outside of Dublin, Cork and Limerick cities are currently allowed at 100%, the Bill provides for the 50% refund applicable in these cities to be extended elsewhere. This provision will cause serious hardship in areas that have lost a significant portion of their population or where spending power has decreased significantly. The Minister indicated that he may revisit this matter as the Bill makes it way through the Houses. It most certainly will be revisited and I will be putting down an amendment to seek a change to the matter.

Schedule 4 provides that all assets of the dissolved authorities will be transferred to the successor authority. Town councils that had been prudent in putting funds towards projects in the future will see the funds transfer to the county council or the municipality - it is not clear which body will receive them. In the case of Leixlip, for example, this would involve in excess of €300,000, the loss of which could create real resentment among residents even before the new municipal council is established. As other town councils will have liabilities, it is not clear whether the municipal district the county will be required to absorb them.

The changes to section 140 in respect of planning are welcome and were recommended by the Mahon tribunal. However, I question the wording in section 40 which places an obligation on an SPC to have regard to the spatial and economic strategy to regional assembly. The phrase "have regard" should be replaced with “to be consistent with” because the former phrase has long since been discredited. The repeal of the legal provision to surcharge either officials or councillors is also welcome. I have seen councillors threatened with surcharges if they did not adopt policies presented by officials.

Part 9 provides for the creation of three regional assemblies to replace the regional authorities. The regional and district council tiers should be more powerful because bigger regions would eliminate duplication of service across counties by amalgamating and centralising functions such as licensing and human resources. They would also have greater purchasing powers. Regional assemblies should be directly elected and made responsible for everything from transport to policing.

In practice, however, funding and human resources will determine what can be done, particularly in respect of discretionary funding. Costs for salaries and council properties will, of course, absorb much of a council's income. If funds are to be transferred from the council to the municipality, the key to enabling the work to proceed is to give councillors discretion over them. The general purpose fund, which is largely made up from motor tax receipts, is collected locally before being centralised and redistributed based on the needs and resources model. There are many flaws in that model and it particularly discriminates against growing areas. In this regard, 2008 was the year the general purposes grant stood at almost €1 billion but by 2013 it had decreased to €640 million. Since 2007 the other local authority income streams have also substantially declined.

When the property tax legislation was rammed through, one area that was not highlighted was that the money that was taken this year was entirely absorbed into the Central Fund. We were told that it was a necessary measure aimed at the reduction of the national debt. The Minister has stated that the local property tax is essential to renewing the relationship between local authorities and the citizens they serve. I challenge his assertion at a time when local government is being stripped of the ability to deliver any additional services. He also suggested that the changes would produce a stronger funding base.

Will he outline how he can justify that claim, given how much has been removed from the local government fund? There is a high level of compliance with the property tax, primarily because the Revenue Commissioners can dip into people's pockets. The increases in motor taxation have been wholly absorbed, affecting the general purpose grant.

Staffing resources vary widely across the country. We are all aware that an embargo is, and is likely to remain, in place. In Meath, there are 620 staff for a population of 184,135, yet Kerry has 1,166 staff, 546 more, for 40,000 fewer people. Kildare has 835 staff for 210,000 people while Mayo has more than 1,000 staff for 90,000 fewer people. It is clear the areas that will cope better with the changes are the ones with greater resources. This will lead to difficulties at municipal level. Housing administration, planning control, finance and human resources will absorb staff, rendering counties unable to deliver services.

Undoubtedly, Putting People First provides for discretion to decide what happens at municipal level. Without dealing with the issue of resources, however, there will be a serious problem. I echo Deputy Stanley's point about nominations to regional authorities, in that they will be significant negatives.

Municipal councils will be nothing more than area committees. They are nothing more than a box-ticking exercise in the abolition of town councils and relate to the Government's claim that it has dumped a load of local politicians. This development will be badly exposed. I am not confident it will deliver the kind of local government reform we need and deserve.

Following on from that last sentiment, I equally have little confidence that the Bill will deal with this matter. People from all sides of the political spectrum repeatedly state they want improvements in local government. Undoubtedly, this sentiment is shared by the majority of citizens. Sometimes, people spit the word "council" in the same way they spit the word "politician" because of their frustration and anger with the failure of councils, much like the failure of the Government, to deliver what people want and expect from them.

When one seeks to address people's appetite for better local government, one must start with the basic question of what local government is for. If one does not set out to develop legislation and policy based on an accurate assessment of what local government is for and what people expect from it, one will not get far.

One needs to start with the brass tacks. What people want from local government is apparent to me on a weekly basis, namely, the availability of affordable housing, the maintenance of roads and parks, support for the local economy, the local community, youth projects and sporting activities, the provision of playgrounds, decent local public transport and amenities, and the protection of the environment. They want proper planning and development that is transparent, in which they have a say and is rational as opposed to the irrational, anarchic and developer-driven economic and planning development we saw during the Celtic tiger period and that played such a critical role in crashing this economy.

If these are the service priorities that people believe local government should have - I should add basic elements such as decent water infrastructure and proper waste, recycling and environmental policies and services - they also want some say in setting those priorities. They want real influence, not pretend influence or fake consultation, on a weekly and monthly basis. This seems to be what the starting point should be.

The way for a Bill to address this matter - generally, Bills do not do this - is to provide resources. Without resources, activities cannot be undertaken. It is evident that the Bill will fail, as we are doing the opposite of providing resources. We are slashing the funding and the number of front-line staff needed to deliver these services. This slashing has been intensified and accelerated by the financial crash, the economic crisis and the austerity imposed by the previous and current Governments, but it is worth saying that there has been a long-term process of robbing local authorities of the resources they need to provide the services that people expect. Year on year, people in my locality and I have watched the steady decline in the number of individuals employed by the council to perform basic functions, for example, cleaning streets, maintaining houses, and so forth. Councils used to perform these functions, but they no longer do because they have no one to do them. People are driven around the twist by seeing council houses boarded up for months or years. Does the Minister of State know how angry that makes people who have been on a housing list for ten or 12 years? Not a week goes by in which people do not say this to me. They are driven demented by it. In many cases, they are the very tradespeople who could fix those houses. They wonder why they cannot be employed to do the work. Thousands of unemployed tradespeople in the area are just sitting around and would love to do that work. They would also love to provide local services and to maintain, protect and develop the local environment and its amenities. They do not understand why this is not being done.

We are moving in the opposite direction. This Government imposed a 9% cut in the local government fund in 2011 and another 9% cut in 2012. In 2013, the figure will be 2% against the laughable background of the introduction of a property tax and the big lie that it would improve the level of resourcing to local government when it was really just going to be absorbed by paying off bankers' debts.

I ask the Deputy to adjourn the debate. He will have three minutes to speak when we resume.

I was just in full flow.

I regret having to interrupt the Deputy.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.