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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 13 Nov 2013

Vol. 820 No. 4

Local Government Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)

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

The next speaking slot is shared by Deputies Joe Carey and Eoghan Murphy. There are 20 minutes in this speaking slot. Anyone who is not participating in the debate should leave the Chamber. I call on Deputy Joe Carey.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. The "Putting People First - Action Programme for Effective Local Government" was published in October 2012 by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. It sets out a wide range of actions, to deliver reform across key areas of local government in order to address weaknesses, to enhance effectiveness and accountability, and to improve performance across the entire system. This Bill gives legislative effect to those proposals.

Reform of local government is a difficult, complex issue and there is no shortage of opinion on how it should be tackled. The current Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government must be congratulated on bringing this and other reforming pieces of legislation before the House.

This Bill represents an important step towards a more streamlined and sustainable model of local government. The most significant change arising from the Bill is the reduction in the number of councillors from 1,627 to 949.

I want to acknowledge the work over many year of town councillors and town councils on behalf of their areas and constituents. Like many in this House, I have been made aware in no uncertain terms of their displeasure with the Bill. However, this legislation ensures and delivers a more coherent and involved system for any geographical area with the new municipal districts being fully representative of the population.

For many years, the business community has shouldered responsibility for funding local services through the rates system. Concern has been expressed about the differential between the rate of the old town council and that of the corresponding county council. I am pleased that, in drafting the Bill, this concern has been explicitly addressed with a standardised commercial rate across each county to be introduced over ten years.

I have received a number of representations on the Bill's provision to introduce a 50% rate on unused commercial buildings. I ask the Minister to change this provision, as such a measure would place a huge financial burden on business people at a time when they are stretched to the limit. Business people have informed me that this provision will lead to commercial buildings being knocked to the ground or their roofs being removed. Some have said they would hand back the keys of their buildings to the county managers. I, therefore, ask the Minister either to remove this element of the Bill or to come up with another option to exempt unused commercial buildings from the rates system.

In essence, the Bill deals with local authority functions, structures, funding, performance and governance. As regards functions and structures, I am pleased that future appointments to the office of county manager - henceforth to be known as the chief executive - will be subject to the positive approval of elected members.

The Bill spells out in detail all 160 functions that are reserved by law to elected members. They are now explicit and form a cornerstone of the legislative framework in how our councils will work, which is to be welcomed. If we are to have effective local government we need a rebalancing of the relationship between councillors and the executive.

This Bill provides for the realignment of local development companies which administer the Leader programme in the local government system. This specific issue should be teased out more substantially on Committee Stage. The Leader programme and its administrative bodies have, in the main, served rural Ireland well in the past 25 years. I would not like their experience and abilities to be lost or subsumed. Even though times are now vastly different, it must be remembered that these groups emerged from the voluntary sector and in many instances this ethos is still strong in their board structure.

The issue of fiscal power and funding in local government is an old chestnut about which councillors have complained since the abolition of rates in 1977. With the discretion from 2015 to vary the rate of local property tax, elected members will have more say in how the affairs of their counties are run. This can be only regarded as a significant improvement or enhancement of local government.

The adage "follow the money" in seeking an answer will now mean that in the mid-west region one will travel to Ennis, Limerick or Nenagh, rather than to the Custom House in Dublin. The Bill fundamentally changes for the better the relationship between people and their local government. I welcome the Bill as a major reform measure which will enhance the local government system and determine how it operates throughout this century.

I welcome Bill and the reform it envisages. Local government is one of the most important areas of reform because of the democratic deficit that exists there. Local elections will be held next year. People elect councillors to represent them in their local areas but once people are elected they often do not have the necessary powers to deal appropriately with local issues. This is evident in cases where an executive manager takes on many of the functions that one would expect a councillor to have. Councillors, therefore, are not able to act accordingly on behalf of citizens. That is what I mean by having a democratic deficit.

When the dual mandate was abolished, TDs were no longer allowed to serve as councillors. What that is a welcome development, we did not give councillors enough powers when we made that separation. We did not remove TDs far enough from the work of local councils.

A great deal more reform is needed to make that separation true and proper. In terms of the democratic deficit, I will give an example. No elected person in my constituency supports the Poolbeg incinerator project yet the city manager, for more than a decade, has presided over the spending of €90 million on that project with nothing yet built. A recent judgment from Europe states that one of the contracts in respect of that project, which is over-spent by more than 300%, is an illegal contract. This project cannot be stopped even though it is the mandate of the locally elected representatives to do so. Their voices are not heard because they do not have sufficient powers which, in effect, is a democratic deficit. The constituents do not want the project to go ahead and neither do local representatives or the city council but the city manager does and, therefore, it is going ahead. In this case, the city manager is not accountable to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. We do not know to whom that person is accountable. It appears he is not accountable to anybody, including to the people he is supposed to represent.

This is not just a local issue but one that should be addressed by the Committee of Public Accounts in terms of Government spending. When we try to investigate these areas of Government spending we are faced with another problem in that we cannot appropriately investigate how Government money, which amounts to more than €5 million per annum, is spent by local government. If we are to ensure proper oversight of how public money is being spent and to ensure value for money, we need to provide the Comptroller and Auditor General's office with sufficient powers to investigate this spend.

It is important in seeking to reform local government that we devolve powers. According to various polls and recent referenda results, trust in Government is at a low level. If we are to ensure greater trust in local government, it is important that we devolve more powers to our councillors and local authorities. We must also devolve revenue raising powers. That the Government has rowed back on its commitment that 80% of the property tax raised locally would be spent locally is a mistake. It is imperative that funding is put in place for 2015 and that 80% of the money raised in local areas, be it in Dublin or any other part of the country, is retained locally to be spent on local services. That is what we told the people we would do and the Government should honour that promise.

On the revenue raising abilities of councils, we need to look again at the issue of commercial rates with which businesses have been burdened for so long. In introducing a new revenue stream, such as the local property tax ,we should be helping businesses in terms of rates. I agree with Deputy Carey that the section of the Bill that deals with this issue needs to be improved to ensure we do not damage businesses at a time when we need them to survive and to thrive if the domestic economy is to pick up and move into growth next year, as it needs to if all the other assumptions underlying our budget correction are to be true.

I would like also to comment on the Part of the Bill that deals with the size of a local electoral area, which proposal has been brought forward in previous Bills. I believe a local electoral area that comprises eight seats, of which there is one in my constituency, is too big. I do not believe there is anything local about that type of politics. If we want local people to represent their localities and communities then size in terms of geography does not work in the best interests of local government. This is an issue we will need to look at again in the future.

Dublin needs a directly elected mayor. One of the good things about the reform being introduced is that, along with the local elections next year, we will hold a plebiscite of people in the Dublin regions on the issue of a directly elected mayor, hopefully along the line adopted in London. London is the economic engine for the UK and Dublin is the economic engine for Ireland. We need a strongly elected person with a mandate to move on issues such as planning, transport, waste infrastructure and so on in order that we can have a competitive city, one in which people want to live. The Government's proposal to move to a directly elected mayor for Dublin is a positive one.

I congratulate the Dublin Chamber of Commerce on its good work in promoting Dublin as a region for the country and on trying to bring in those aspects of political accountability that are necessary in a capital city.

I question the Minister's commitment to local government as he was so out of touch he could not understand the furore in Kilkenny in regard to the definition of cities in Schedule 5 of the Bill. How could he be so out of touch in regard to the pride, status, symbolism and heritage enshrined in the corporations of Kilkenny, Sligo, Clonmel, Wexford and Drogheda? I compliment the five mayors who waged a major campaign to force the Minister to give a commitment to retain the status of these corporations in the Bill. Perhaps he will indicate if an amendment will be introduced on Committee Stage to ensure the commitment given by him and the Taoiseach will be upheld.

Kilkenny was established as a town in 1230 and granted city status by King James in 1609. I acknowledge that in Cromwell's aftermath, the status of many places, including Kilkenny, was uncertain. However, Kilkenny received a second city charter in 1687 from King James. A royal charter signed by Queen Victoria in 1862 refers to the city of Kilkenny. In 2001, Deputy Hogan, now Minister for the Environment, Community and local Government, stated, "I want the status of the city of Kilkenny acknowledged by the Government on Second Stage tonight." At that time, he was telling the people of his county that he would stand up for what he believed in. He spoke about the public institutions, traditions and civic ceremonies of Kilkenny but this was before he was elected. Since then, he has changed his spots. He is now proposing major changes in local government, which he assures the people of Ireland will put people first. In terms of what he said in 2001 and the promises he is now making, why should the people believe him? If he misled his county in what he said in the Dáil in the debate of 2001 and burned the black and amber in the process, the promises he is now making in terms of putting local government first and having a better democratic representation at local level cannot be believed. Of course, breaking promises is nothing new in the context of this Government. There is little difference between the Labour Party's red kettle and Fine Gael's blue pot. Both are emitting huge clouds of obfuscatory steam while the people of Ireland are roasted on bonfires of taxes, indifference and political ineptitude.

In terms of the argument put forward in 2001 by Deputy Hogan, now Minister, this Bill completely ignores all of the commitment and time served by people who have gone before him, including people like Kieran Crotty who chaired Fine Gael's parliamentary party and Paul Cuddihy, mentioned by Deputy Hogan in 2001 as having made a sound contribution to the defence of city status and local democracy. Was he genuine about that defence? I do not believe he was. The cock that crowed three times for Peter must certainly be hoarse in relation to the Minister, Deputy Hogan.

To show how far since 2001 the Minister has moved from his beliefs, roots, history, community and defence of all that was good in local government, corporations and mayors, in answer yesterday to a parliamentary question from my colleague, Deputy Tom Fleming, he stated, "The Local Government Bill 2013 does not provide a special exemption for Kilkenny in relation to the position of its mayor." He has offered no defence for the city he represents or in relation to the comments he made in 2001 which are not reflected in this Bill. The title of "mayor" is one that can be adopted by anybody. It makes no difference, they are six a penny so we should ignore history, what was handed down to us and local democracy.

Westport town council and other councils throughout the country have made submissions which, by and large, have been ignored. Submissions have been made on a cross-party basis to defend local democracy and its job in representing people. The Minister has, by and large, ignored all of this.

Debate adjourned.