Local Government Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)

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

I am glad the Minister is present because, in the first instance, I wish to ask a question of him. On 30 October 2013, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe issued a report on local democracy in Ireland. While the congress report welcomed commitments and some progress made in the area since it had last drawn up a report in 2001, it noted that constitutional protection of local government is rather weak, that local governments only manage a modest amount of public affairs and that the administrative supervision of their activities behind the central level remains high. The report also drew attention to the highly limited powers of local authorities to levy taxes or set rates within the limits of the law. In another point of relevance to this legislation, the report also "recommended to the Irish authorities that they revise their legislation in order to ensure that the subsidiarity principle is better enshrined and protected in the law". The report also made a recommendation that the Irish authorities should "sign and ratify the Additional Protocol to the European Charter of Local Self-Government on the right to participate in the affairs of a local authority".

In respect of that report, I have to hand correspondence from Westport Town Council, which made a submission to the congress. It was highlighting to members the contents of that report from the Council of Europe. In its letter, however, the town council stated that the chair of the monitoring committee of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe had specifically asked the Government not to pass the legislation until adequate consultations had taken place with the local authorities.

If the Minister intends to respond in the course of the Second Stage debate, I would appreciate it were he to address this point. First, what is his response to the calls from the Council of Europe that the legislation be revised? Second, how does he respond to the call of the chair of the aforementioned monitoring committee that the Government should not pass the legislation until adequate consultation has taken place with local authorities?

As I noted, Westport Town Council is one of a number of town councils that has made submissions to the Council of Europe. Moreover, I understand the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, AMAI, also has done so, in which it has been constructively critical. It is not as though the association is entirely critical of the Bill but it has criticisms of it. I noticed a paper given recently by Dr. Aodh Quinlivan to the AMAI, in which he pointed out there is much evidence on the efficiency and autonomy of town councils, that is, they are the most efficient and autonomous units of Irish local government at present. I accept the point that there was an inequality in this regard, as town councils only cover approximately 15% of the population. Consequently, there was a need for reform to provide a unit of government equivalent to the town council throughout the rest of the country. While I accept the municipal district is a step in this direction, that unit is a lot weaker than the town council with regard to its powers pertaining to money in particular. For example, in an article published recently in The Irish Times, Willie Callaghan, who is president of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, stated that town councils currently have the power to determine local charges, such as commercial rates or parking fees, and to decide how these moneys should be spent within their towns. This power is being taken away. Consequently, we are losing something by the abolition with regard to the extent of the town councils' powers.

Another point is that while I welcome the idea of municipal districts and welcome the provision under the reforms of additional councillors for the Dublin area, I am greatly disappointed that municipal districts will not apply in Dublin. I simply cannot see the logic of that. If the idea is to bring in a unit of local government that would apply across the board and across the nation, it should also apply in Dublin. I do not see any argument against that proposition and am sure it would work. I represent a Dublin constituency that includes the towns of Lucan and Clondalkin and, as Dublin has towns and villages, the concept of the municipal district could apply just as easily to Dublin. I do not understand this decision and note that Dublin is not really getting anything new in respect of structural reforms under this legislation.

As for the main point I wish to make to the Minister, Members were provided with a very good paper by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, which deals with the Government's proposals on local government. One issue examined is the size, structure and level of representation of Ireland compared with other countries and the point is made that a body of opinion exists, with which I agree, to the effect that size is a good indicator of citizens' access to representation and the responsiveness of local government to the population. Ireland is greatly under-represented and the entire argument about representation in Ireland is completely wrong-footed and misinformed. I refer to the supposition that Ireland has too many politicians. In fact, Ireland is not over-represented at national level and is greatly under-represented at local level. It has very few regional governments, although I would not argue for them as I believe the levels in Ireland that are important are national and local government level. After the next local government elections when the number of councillors will have been cut from 1,650 to 950, Sweden will have 20 times more elected representatives than Ireland, even though it only has twice the population. In other words, following the next local elections, Sweden will be 20 times more represented than Ireland at local government level. While Sweden has devolved more powers at local government level, the point pertains to the size, where there is a huge difference. Similarly, the Taoiseach made a big thing about comparing Ireland with Finland and Sweden and so on during the Seanad referendum campaign. After the next local elections, when cuts have been made to the number of councillors, Finland will have ten times the number of local elected representatives per head of population than Ireland and, as the Minister will be aware, Finland has a population of similar size to Ireland.

I will turn to the information provided by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. If one goes by average population of local authorities and average ratio of councillor per head of population, Ireland's current councillor per head of population ratio is 1:5,196, whereas in France, the ratio is 1:120. Ireland simply does not compare, and with the exception of Britain, one simply cannot compare Ireland with any other country, as it is so under-represented at local government level. Incidentally, Ireland is set to become less represented than Britain after the reforms of the Minister take effect. Even when taking into account the municipal districts, Ireland still will be greatly under-represented after the reforms because at that stage, one will be talking about a ratio of councillors to population of 1:4,212. That is not per head of population. That is when one goes down to the local authority unit. If one compares local authorities in other countries and the average ratio of local authorities and population, Ireland will still be greatly under-represented when compared with other countries in the European Union. In fact, we are about to become the least represented country at local government level.

Moreover, size is important because what is important at local government level is not simply the powers that local government wields. The actual closeness of the people to the representatives is very important. If people wonder what is the reason constituents contact Deputies about local issues, it is because they are so under-represented at local government level by councillors. The obvious thing is that if one has an issue, one will go to one's local representative and if that is the Deputy down the road and there is no councillor in the vicinity, one will approach the Deputy.

The main criticism I have of the Bill in terms of reforms - it is more the reforms than the Bill that are at stake here - is that we will be left too under-represented at local government level to have a proper system of local government. That is a mistake by the Minister. I believe it is something we will regret down the line. I welcome the municipal districts in the sense that such units will be in place throughout the country with the exception of Dublin, of which I am critical, but the municipal districts will not have anything near the power the town councils have had. There are no real reforms in terms of the power of the manager. They will only be rubber-stamping the appointment of the new chief executive. A decision will be made and all they will be able to do is to rubber-stamp it or not to do so but they will not be able to amend or change a proposal regarding the appointment of a chief executive. There are no profound reforms in the Bill and the reforms provided for are welcome up to a point but I believe we will regret the cutting of the number of councillors.

There is no doubt that our system of local government needed overhauling and we would not argue otherwise. Local government is one of the most important of any type of democracy and if it was properly reformed it would have a good deal to offer. Successive Governments have talked about the need for reform and then used that concept to cut the heart and soul out of the system. There has been a cynical, snide suggestion that town and county councillors were made up of elected representatives of the Ballymagash variety but that is an insult to the men and women who have given tremendous service in their lifetime to represent the people, some of them having done so for many years. They do not deserve such commentary.

This is not to say that Sinn Féin does not agree that reform is needed, but that reform should not involve further centralisation as that would be a step backwards and result in a cut in funding to local authorities. The continued trend of the erosion of the powers of council in planning, housing, transport, roads, waste management and water has to stop. It does not have to be that way. Unelected county managers cannot have power and be unaccountable to those elected by the local people, but that is what is happening. I assume the Minister served on a council at one stage. Many of the powers held by county managers go against the grain of what local communities require. There was a time when such posts were filled by local people with a commitment to their area and while a high standard of professionalism is to be welcomed, the parachuting of powerful unelected county managers from one place to another, taking decisions divorced from the democratic process, must be challenged. Local authorities must be accountable to the public for their actions. Local services must represent best value for money and be accessible to those who need them. Planning is an area for local involvement and accountability to local people.

An integrated and holistic approach to planning by people who know an area intimately and know the history of its infrastructure and the needs of its people is clearly in the interests of citizens. Decades of bad planning decisions have had a devastating effect on parts of this State. I remember visiting Carlow, which is in the Minister's constituency, a few years ago when it was flooded. We had to travel on a tractor and trailer to get through parts of it. Parts of the area outside Newbridge were also flooded. That was all due to irresponsible decisions and bad planning by planners and so forth.

Far from localising and democratising the process, there is now an attempt to further distant it from elected councillors. This is not the proper way to go about it. Provision in respect of planning needs to be adequately resourced to meet the needs of those applying for planning and the requirements in respect of policies and laws. Many complaints by the public go uninvestigated because there are not enough local authority personnel to process them. The public service embargo needs to be lifted to allow local authorities to employ a sufficient number of officers. One can see where local authorities are understaffed across the spectrum throughout the country. That has a knock-on effect in terms of roads, drains and the waste collection in areas where there is still such a public service.

In recent years we have seen the effects of a combination of bad planning decisions and global warming which has caused flooding in places where it was unheard-of for generations. Planning decisions have been made which are not even in line with the councils' own climate change policies. The old section 140 - I know it was abused in my own country - gave power to councillors on planning decisions and consideration should be given to reinstating that. Responsibility comes with good elected councillors doing their job, and the vast majority of councillors do that.

In the Minister's 200 page Bill, nowhere do the words "councillor" and "power" appear in the same sentence. It has nothing to do with local government. It is an attempt I argue to centralise power in the Custom House and disempower councillors.

Part 6 contains provisions relating to the alignment of the local and community development sector with local government. The Bill provides for the establishment of local community development committees as committees of the local authority in each local government area. The local community development committees are to prepare five-year plans for their respective areas and they are to be piloted in ten areas, including Limerick. The Bill provides for staffing of these committees made up of various local interests and members of the local authority among others.

With regard to Leader companies, I think everybody has been in touch with their respective area. Their staff, the trade unions and the community are all concerned about local authorities having powers to decide how funding is allocated instead of the Leader companies. This represents a more centralised, streamed-down form of local authorities and they have the power to determine that. The Leader companies have recognised interested internationally as representing best practice. I understand all Members have been lobbied by the people who work with Leader companies.

There is a concern that Leader companies will lose their independence which has been an essential ingredient of our success. It seems that at best the Leader companies will have service level agreements with the local community development companies or even worse. Will we have a situation where Leader companies will have to tender in competition with the private sector? That is a major concern.

Those of us who came through the political chain from town council to county council, and some of us ended up here, see the value of the work that local authorities at town council level can do in their respective communities. Sinn Féin had a councillor in Listowel, Tony Curtin, who passed away earlier in the year. He was nearly 80 years old. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, would have known him personally and he would have been related to him. When I attended his funeral in Listowel I met a great number of people who spoke of the work he did for his community. I heard of the personal connection he had with people in the more deprived areas in the housing estates and so forth and the work he did on their behalf was recognised across the political divide in those areas. He left an outstanding legacy in term of his work ethic, honesty and integrity. I could say the same about most of the councillors I know. Taking away their power and the loss of the local connection where people have been on first name terms with local councillors is a step backwards. It is a step that will erode the democracy that was there and which has served us well.

In terms of local democracy, the connection between local councillor and local communities, people knowing councillors on first name terms and knowing their problems, good councillors in most areas have done the right thing. Good councillors have always been re-elected because of their work ethic and what they have done for their areas.

Sinn Féin has argued consistently that there was a need for reform but this type of slash and cut is certainly not reform. It is taking power away from local communities in local areas and centralising it more and more. That cannot be a step in the right direction. It is a negative step and it will not help people access their needs and entitlements.

Waste management services are managed by local authorities but this may be taken from them in most areas. The local authorities ran a waiver system which was of assistance to old age pensioners and those in need. It was a fantastic affordable service which has been privatised and as a consequence people who live in the most vulnerable and disadvantaged areas and elderly people who depended on the waiver, have nothing. It means the people who most need the services are not in a position to pay or else they are cutting back on food and heating expenditure or some other necessity in order to meet the payments. Privatisation has not worked and when it was introduced the enticement was that the service level would remain as was and at an affordable rate. However, it has gone the other way. That reasonableness and affordability has gone. In all areas where services have been privatised, costs have risen. Isolated areas which formerly had local authority collections are now deemed to be unviable and the collections have been discontinued. This is an example of what happens when power is taken away from local democracies.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Mitchell O'Connor, Neville and Walsh.

I welcome this opportunity to speak on Second Stage of the Local Government Bill 2013. This is an historic day for Ireland and her people as we exit the bailout programme. This Bill is the most radical reform of local government in over a century and it provides for a major change to the functions of local authorities, structures, funding and governance to ensure that local councils deliver better services for citizens.

In October 2012 the Government published the action programme entitled Putting People First which outlined a range of reforms of local government which will be implemented under the four categories of reform of the structures; reform of funding accountability and governance arrangements; local government involvement in economic development and job creation - job creation is badly needed and I have thought for a long time that local authorities should have a major role in this area; and reforms to ensure efficiency in service delivery. There is often duplication and waste in services and the Bill will streamline the provision of services.

The purpose of the Bill is to give legislative effect to proposals set out in Putting People First. This legislation boils down to the policy issue of addressing weaknesses in local government. The Local Government Act 2001, defines county and city as the primary units of local government and the cornerstone of the fresh local democratic system. There was a view on this side of the House that local authorities are well positioned to boost economic recovery in their respective communities. This Government has established local enterprise offices within county councils to provide a resource for small business-owners looking to establish or expand enterprises at local level. I have always recommended emphatically that the fullest range of local services should be assigned to the county councils as they are ideally placed for further devolution of functions from central Government.

The functions are more restricted than in most democratic states in Europe and the world. The structures have failed to keep pace with the changing needs of communities. Councils have very few revenue-raising powers which curtails their responsibility and powers. I served on a council for 18 to 19 years. Councillors represent the voice of the people. They are elected by the people to serve and to implement the will of the people in their respective areas or counties. Their aim is to keep the best interest of the community at heart by making cost-effective and environmentally sound decisions.

One of the main provisions in the Bill is to reduce the number of local authorities from 114 to 31 with a reduction in the number of elected councillors from 1,627 to 949. This is the downside of this legislation. For example, the midlands and the west will lose out because they will have less clout and fewer representatives. For example, there will be a reduction in the number of councillors in Longford from 39 to 18 and in Westmeath from 41 to 20. I would be concerned that this also reduces the voice of local people, leaving them unable to avail of the one-to-one service that a local councillor would provide. The capacity of the county council as the primary unit of local government is the cornerstone of Irish local democracy. Longford and Westmeath county councils are part of this essential framework which will give form and substance to our reformed local government.

The strength and independence of local government can be judged by the extent to which it is independently funded, rather than relying on transfers from central government. Local government in Ireland has been historically weak in this respect. Councils in the west and midlands have a very low rates base and they will be at a disadvantage. I ask the Minister to address this problem. Dublin has a high rates base compared to Longford or Leitrim which derive only a small amount of their income from rates. This issue needs to be addressed.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. This Bill will provide the first comprehensive reform of local government in over a century. The Bill provides for change to local authority functions, structures, funding, performance and governance. It will modernise and review the delivery of local services. This is an important change from the point of view of economic and community development. Local government in other European countries plays a key role in economic development and this Bill will allow for local authorities in Ireland to do the same. Community development is a small section of the work of local authorities as currently constituted. This work will be enhanced and will allow for a varied level of community involvement and experience. Over the years, power has been removed from local authorities to various unelected bodies.

They are sincere and they do good work but they are not accountable to the people. They are not judged by the electorate and because of that the trust and status of local government has been reduced and the abolition of responsibility for raising its own finances had a severe effect on the powers and decision-making of councils. Many councils were allowed to pass the buck to central government regarding decisions made in the thrust of debate within them. Control became more centralised but this will change and enable electors to better judge the performance of councillors. An evaluation should be carried out on the operation of the new structures in three or four years because there will be snags and improvements can be made.

I welcome the amalgamation of Limerick city and county councils into a single local authority. I commend the people who organised that, especially the chairman, Denis Brosnan, who brought his highly skilled experience in many fields to bear on the decision. It was a comprehensive decision to bring two large local authorities together but there will be better synergy and it will be to the benefit of the city and the county. It will also address the long-standing debate about the expansion of the city and the oversight of its environs, which up to now came under the remit in the country council. Limerick city will be the capital of the county and there is concern that the funding for services in peripheral areas might be sucked into the city for regeneration. It must be ensured the new unified authority does not interfere with services in the county. There will not be individual budgets for both the city and the county and while everyone wants the city to develop and expand, there is a concern that this should not happen at the expense of any part of the county.

I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward this substantial Bill. We have a strong record of local administration but not a strong record of local government. The legislation contains a number of welcome provisions but I am concerned about others. It is a good start given it is the first time in a long period that an effort has been made to substantially examine local government legislation.

I would like to deal with three issues - the replacement of town councils by municipal districts; section 31, which deals with rates liability on vacant properties; and the role envisaged for local authorities in rural development via Leader and partnership groups. Ireland is a small country with finite resources. We have concluded a deal with Europe regarding rural development funding via the next tranche of structural funding and the amount is lower than was previously the case. The challenge is to make sure the maximum funding is available to front-line applicants rather than lose funding in administration. It is inevitable, therefore, that there will be fewer groups if we want to maximise the funds available to applicants to drive local economies, create jobs, etc. There has to be a realistic acknowledgement of that fact.

One of the weaknesses in the current regime is the lack of interaction between these groups and local authorities and public accountability. They are not subject to freedom of information legislation, for example, something that has been exercising Members in recent days. Substantial public funds are expended by these bodies and, therefore, administrative costs need to be examined. While we need to acknowledge what has been achieved by these groups, the Government needs to point that out less funds are available and resources are finite and administrative overheads need to be reduced. Perhaps heads need to be knocked together. There should be fewer bodies and they should come under the aegis of local authorities. That should not threaten anybody. Local authorities are locally accountable and how we achieve the end game rather than the objective is what is important.

I refer to the abolition of town councils. I am fortunate to represent a town, which has a council with a long and distinguished track record of service. I am reminded of the John Donne poem which opens with the lines:

No man is an island

Entire of itself,

The flaw in the construction of town councils is they were set up as if they could operate independently of their hinterland. As the bell tolls for them, one wonders whether what is to be put in place is the correct structure to replace them. The term "municipal districts" should be dropped from the legislation. We should refer to town and district councils which encompass towns and their natural hinterland. In many respects, the constructs that are being put in place are not ideal. Some are good but many are bad. For example, the Beara Peninsula is enormous and is centred around Castletownbere. It should have a town and district council of its own. The municipal district envisaged for my area encompasses Macroom, a market town, and its hinterland, and Blarney, which has a strong identity as a tourism destination but which also has a strong commuter connection with Cork city. It is probably out of place in that district. However, the legislation is a start and we will need to revisit the municipal district structure. I prefer town and districts and areas are homogenous, unlike many of the proposed districts. I acknowledge the role played by town councillors of all parties and none who have given tremendous service but it is important that towns are connected to their natural hinterland. That is what the Government is trying to achieve but it may not have succeeded entirely.

Economic recovery has been patchy and section 31 proposes to extend the 50% burden on all vacant properties, which is unfortunate. I ask the Minister to examine this again because rural Ireland will be penalised by this. He should not be prescriptive in this regard. It should be left to local authorities to determine. Will the Minister urgently reconsider that section, which should be deleted?

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Over the coming months, there will be a gradual transfer of powers from the town councils in County Meath to the management at county hall. This follows the recent publication of the Bill, which will create 31 single tier local authorities in Ireland from the current 114 councils. I had the privilege a number of years before I was elected to the House of attending a meeting at which the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, who was then an opposition spokesperson, laid out his plans for local government reform if he was lucky enough to be appointed to the office. I am privileged to be in the House as he seeks to enact those plans, which will have a positive effect on our communities.

A range of outdated legacy rank and status issues inherited from the 19th century system will be addressed following decades of false political promises of reform by successive Governments, mostly led by Fianna Fáil, and I am proud the Minister has the opportunity to introduce such fundamental institutional change. Good governance can be linked directly to the transparency and accountability that operates within a society. It is marked by broad support for good administrative structures and public confidence in social justice.

The State wandered far from those ideals and its defining attributes became a lack of accountability, excessive secrecy and probably undue control. An opportunity to address those failings has now arisen and we are taking it.

Apart from giving effect to major structural reorganisation, the most important provisions in the Bill are the changes being made to local authority governance. The Bill will see the rebalancing of powers between the executive and the elected council, bringing with it much greater powers to elected council members to direct policy. Going forward, the councils will oversee implementation and actively review actions of local authority management. Councillors will have power over the appointment of the new chief executive position, which will replace the old county manager role. In addition, the expansion of the role of SPCs is really welcome, given that I spent years on one, as is the establishment of a national oversight and audit commission.

In my own county of Meath, the county council will now have 40 members elected to it, reflecting the population size and growth over the past number of years. I very much welcome that finally the population size is being recognised. I also very much look forward to when our funding recognises the population growth we have experienced in Meath over the past ten to 15 years because it has not done so in recent years. When one compares per capita funding with that in other counties with lower population sizes, one sees they get the same amount of funding. I look forward to that issue being addressed.

The provision in section 18 ensures the continuity of policy from what will soon be dissolved town councils to the county councils but I have a small issue in regard to the deficits that will be carried over from town councils to the newly formed county council structures. My county has three town councils which will be abolished next May. Each of them carries quite considerable deficits which will obviously hinder and place a millstone around the neck of the new council elected next May in terms of the activities in those areas. Will that be taken into consideration?

I wish to go back to what reformed local government will look like. It will enhance economic, social and community development in our counties. It will deliver efficient and really good value services, which we need in our communities. It will represent our citizens and communities in a way that is effective, very transparent and more accountable, with our elected councils providing strong leadership and not, as sometimes happened in the past, hiding behind the manager or claiming to have no powers. The Bill vests real, new and substantial powers in our elected county councillors, which is really welcome.

The reforms are long overdue. There needs to be greater scrutiny in the way local authorities are managed. This is not true of all counties but a culture of the inside track and who one knows was very prevalent in some counties. It was extremely corrosive not only for the political system, but for the communities it served and I am very glad that will be removed. It is particularly destructive in a community and a society where innovation and entrepreneurship is vital.

The changes offer an opportunity to start afresh and forge new local governments to serve the community. The whole point of local government reform is to ensure that our local councils deliver better services to their citizens. For too long, local government has been by-passed by quangos. I want councils to do more for citizens and for local communities but I accept that first local government must regain public trust and this Bill genuinely lays the foundations for that happen.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Local Government Bill 2013. I do not believe much thought or effort went into the drawing up the new boundaries for local government, or that there was much independence in the process. For example, Taghmon in County Wexford is approximately 8 km from Wexford town but it is now being put in with the local authority area of New Ross, which is at least 25 to 30 km away. It has nothing in common with the New Ross constituency. Much of the redrawing of the boundaries had a political dimension to it. With the eight seaters and ten seaters, the Minister was trying to ensure the seats of Fine Gael and Labour Party councillors would be protected. Obviously, there was not too much independence attached to the drawing up of the boundaries by the commission.

That is a very serious accusation.

In the early 2000s, we had Better Local Government initiated by one of our own Ministers, Noel Dempsey, and continued by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin. We had county managers and directors of services and total bureaucratic control of the councils was initiated at that time. I always believed that the county secretary, the county manager and the county engineer approach was far better because at least there was someone with responsibility in the council to whom one could go. In latter years when one contacted or wrote to the county manager about an issue, he would refer it to the director of services who would refer it to the area engineer who would refer it to the district engineer. No one accepted responsibility. I hope that whatever changes come about, we will see some changes in that area and that someone in the local authority accepts responsibility at the top in respect of representations made.

I refer to the abolition of town councils. I served on Enniscorthy Town Council for many years and I always believed this was where democracy was closest to the citizens. Now town councils will be abolished and will be replaced by municipal districts. There is no explanation as to how a municipal district will operate. Will it have a chairman? Will it have a specified budget or will it be dependent on the amount of money handed down from county council level? I agree with Deputy Creed that municipal districts do not fit in here and that we should go back to a town and district council. If we had Enniscorthy town and district council, Wexford town and district council and New Ross district council, it would sound better as we would be including the town in the name. The Minister should consider that suggestion which did not come from this side of the House but from Deputy Creed and others on his side. It would be far better if the town was included in the name.

In my area, there will be an eight seater. If I was a betting man - sometimes I have a flutter on the old horses - I would bet that we will have three people elected from the town and five from the rural area in the local elections next May. I will not predict who they will be but I think that is what the line-up will be. I fear that when it comes to divvying up the spoils at a municipal authority meeting, the towns will lose out because certain rural councillors will be more inclined to spread the money into the rural areas. There will be a deficit in terms of democracy for the towns. That is an area the Minister needs to look at before he finalises the Bill.

NAMA seems to operate like the third secret of Fatima. What role will NAMA play in local authorities in the future? It seems to hold the aces when it comes to the housing programme for local authorities. There is no reference to NAMA in the Bill. We have been told by the Minister and others that there are 4,000 houses available through NAMA but the slowness of decision-making in NAMA is a concern in local authorities and among local authority members. We had the farcical situation in Enniscorthy where Enniscorthy Urban Council bought houses from a contractor who went into NAMA. It had such difficulty dealing with NAMA that the urban council walked away. It did not conclude the deal with NAMA in respect of the 13 houses because of the bureaucracy and red tape and lack of co-operation. How will the Minister speed up decision-making in NAMA?

I believe he should be able to come into the House and name the specific areas in each county where houses are available through NAMA. Perhaps the local representatives, the council officials and the NAMA officials might work together in such circumstances to ensure the houses in question are allocated to the councils as quickly as possible. I read somewhere that some local authorities have rejected NAMA houses. I find that amazing, considering the number of people who are on the housing list in every local authority area.

There is concern among councillors and officials that Irish Water seems to be operating in a secretive way. Nobody can get answers on where Irish Water will fit in at local authority level in the future. Will the people who are currently employed in the water sections of local authorities remain with those authorities? Will they transfer to Irish Water eventually? Someone said it will take 15 years to transfer them to Irish Water. There is concern in this regard. Irish Water is installing meters, digging trenches and causing water leaks and ESB problems in Wexford town at the moment. People are asking me whether Irish Water or the client for whom the water meter is being installed will ultimately pay for the meter. That issue needs to be cleared up.

I understand that local Leader programme companies are to be based in the local authorities. The Minister has told me that while they will be based in the local authorities, they will not actually form part of those authorities. He has said that those who are employed on Leader programmes will not become local authority workers - they will remain on contract. Maybe the Minister might clear that up as well.

There are some good points and some not so good points in the Bill. I do not think it will ultimately take power away from the bureaucrats and the county managers and give it to the citizens and the local representatives who will be elected next May. The post of manager will be replaced by the post of chief executive. That sounds good, but I am concerned they will have more powers than the county managers already have. I feel that many county managers act like they are infallible. They are certainly not in tune with the views and ideals of many elected representatives. Now that they are to be called chief executives, will they have much more power than they have had previously? God knows they have had enough power up to now without giving them any further powers.

I would like to mention another aspect of this matter that always concerns the general public. Our salaries and expenses are in the public domain. We might know what a county manager's basic pay is, but we do not know what increases or expenses he or she gets. All of that should be available to the public. The salaries of county managers, like those of Deputies and Ministers in this House, are funded by those who pay rates and taxes.

The Minister initially said that 80% of the receipts from the local property tax would go to local authorities. He seems to have rowed back on that more recently. He is now saying that councillors will have the power to increase or decrease the property tax in the future. This concerns me greatly because in the past, councillors around the country increased rates more often than not when they were short of a few bob. I would say it happened 99% of the time. If the county manager says when the budget is being considered next year that the local authority has a shortfall of €20 million, €30 million or €50 million, it is likely that he or she will propose an increase in the local property tax rate. Judging by the record of councillors in the past, when they went along with the views of county managers more often than not, the proposed increase will be sanctioned in such circumstances. I would be concerned about giving them these powers because, as I have said, they usually go in the wrong direction and increase the rates.

I think this Bill needs to be amended. I hope the Minister will accept amendments to some areas of it on Committee Stage. I support Deputy Creed's suggestion that the Minister should call these bodies "town and district councils" rather than "municipal districts". I think the word "town" needs to be used. I think "Enniscorthy town and district council" sounds much better than "Enniscorthy municipal authority".

I would like to share time with Deputy Mitchell.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation. I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, who comes from the same county as me. The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and I probably know more than most Deputies about the need for local government reform in Limerick. Over the years, we have witnessed the absolute and total failure to take seriously the challenges faced by local authorities around the country. Typically, the possibility of a boundary extension was proposed as a soft answer by those considering how to solve Limerick's problems. When I was a member of Limerick County Council, I often said that the extension of the Limerick city boundary might solve the city's problem but would create a problem for the county.

I was pleased that the Government took the bull by the horns when it came into office and insisted that the two Limerick local authorities should come together. I think this unification will be good for people and businesses in Limerick. It will help to attract inward investment into the city and county. The unifying of the two authorities is being replicated in Tipperary and Waterford and there may be opportunities to do it elsewhere. If I have a concern about this process, it is that I feel it is essential that two local authorities should not be unified at the expense of one authority or the other. As one of the first people to propose the establishment of a single Limerick authority, I often use the expression "whether you are from Mountcollins or from Corbally, you are no less Limerick". The new local authority must spread its emphasis evenly.

I suggest that after this Bill is implemented, the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht should be required to examine on a yearly basis the effectiveness of these local government reforms. In that context, perhaps I could propose that a reference to "local government" be included in the name of the committee. The previous speaker referred to the Better Local Government initiative that was introduced by his party. To my mind, that initiative resulted in bigger local government rather than better local government. When I spent over seven years as a member of a local authority, I found it frustrating to participate in a strategic policy committee or corporate policy group that met infrequently and did not really have a major say. A far more robust system of scrutiny is needed, perhaps involving engagement at Oireachtas committee level. I suggest that the elected representatives and the new chief executives could be invited to come before Oireachtas committees to explain some of their decisions on how to spend taxpayers' money.

Like previous speakers, I am concerned about the impact that the reduction in the number of local authorities and the unifying of local authorities will have on commercial rates. People like the Minister of State who are familiar with rate payers in Limerick city will be aware that they have paid very high rates over the years. There is a concern that when authorities are subjected to this unifying mechanism, there might be a temptation to increase the lower rate rather than reduce the higher rate. It has to be spelled out clearly that such an approach cannot be countenanced by the Government. This mechanism cannot be used as an excuse to shove up rates in towns, villages and city suburbs throughout the country that are to be included in newly incorporated local authorities.

Local authority members are at a disadvantage at the moment. Many Deputies have been members of local authorities in the past. When a new local area plan or county development plan comes before a council, it comes with the advice of the manager. There is never a mechanism within the council for councillors to procure their own advice. A mechanism should be inserted into the legislation to provide that when corporate policy groups are established, a certain amount of money is ring-fenced on an annual basis for advice to be given to such groups. Perhaps we could provide for that mechanism to kick in when two thirds of the members of that group agree to seek legal, financial or other advice from an external expert. Such an independent assessment could be compared to what might be on offer from the executive.

We need to empower our local authority members not only to do the work they do every day, many of them very effectively, but we also need to empower them to challenge the status quo, which will need adequate financial resources.

I have often heard it said in this House that the Government is making great strides to make local government more attractive for women and young people. However, there is an elephant in the room. I was a local authority member and I know it is not a job that can be done easily by someone working in the private sector or in a job where getting time off to attend meetings is difficult. The legislation should provide that local authority meetings be held at a time that suits local authority members and not the staff. In many rural areas local authority meetings are held at 11 a.m. It is not easy for a PAYE worker, a young parent at home, a teacher or a farmer to get time off to attend a local authority meeting in what is not a full-time job and one that is not remunerated properly. I mean that sincerely. I do not believe local authority members are paid properly for the job they do.

The Department, in conjunction with the County and City Managers Association, needs to examine the expectation that it is to be a part-time job with whole-time hours. It needs to insist that local authority members are facilitated in having meetings at times outside the normal working day. We are reducing the number of councils and local authority members and expecting them to cover even bigger areas. As the Minister of State will know, in our part of the world we have new electoral areas in Kilmallock, Newcastle West and Rathkeale that are gigantic. They are bigger than most Dáil constituencies. To be fair to those people, we need mechanisms in place to accommodate them properly if we are to prevent what we are seeing now, which is very good young local authority members announcing they will not stand in the next local election because it is conflicting with their jobs. They cannot get time off and their employers are rightly complaining.

Some people may be concerned about the abolition of town councils. I am from a town of nearly 8,500 people. We do not have a town council. It was abolished in the 1950s and formally went off the Statute Book in the 1990s. Our experience is much the same as what is proposed in the Bill in that the local electoral area committee essentially became the town council for Newcastle West. It also became the town council for places such as Abbeyfeale, Dromcollogher, Rathkeale and Ardagh along with other small towns and villages. There is not massive fear. If one were to ask any businessperson, ratepayer or person on the street if they are concerned about the abolition of town councils, they would say they are not, once they know the services will not be reduced and the rates will not increase. Those are the two things that concern people.

I agree with Deputy Browne on the Freedom of Information Act requests made to Oireachtas Members and local authority members. That information should be made available for directors of service and the new chief executives being introduced. Everybody in the public service should be able to account for the money spent on himself or herself regardless of whether they are elected. They should have nothing to be afraid of in publishing their expenses.

There seems to be a constant need for local area plans and local development plans. I know the Minister of State has a particular interest in this given her responsibility for planning. The cost associated with renewing these development plans is something we will need to consider from a legislative point of view. We are recruiting oodles of consultants to renew plans at a time when the building industry has stagnated. I would much prefer to see the existing plans, if the elected members wish, being extended for periods of time and then be approved by the Minister if he sees fit. The renewal of these plans on a every five years is a massive drain on local authority resources at a time when they do not have the money.

I acknowledge the work local authority members do and I particularly acknowledge the role played by the party leaders within local authorities. I was one. I welcome that party leaders will be part of the corporate policy group. For too long the corporate policy group was sacrosanct, and while the chair of a strategic policy committee might get to sit on it, a group leader, who was ultimately responsible for the local authority, did not get a look in at all.

Regarding shared services, Limerick has a population of 190,000. We will have a single library service, a single environment service, a single housing service, etc. The four counties with the smallest populations that adjoin each other have a combined population of less than Limerick. While each of them will have its own county manager, we need to consider increased levels of shared services. For argument's sake, do we need individual librarians, chief fire officers, and directors of services for environment, housing and sanitary services, each of whom is drawing a salary of in excess of €100,000, in each local authority covering populations of 40,000, 50,000 or 60,000? I do not believe we do. There might be an opportunity for increased roles for senior executive engineers.

I believe the Bill represents a step in the right direction and is long overdue. I wish those standing for election in May well because it is a very difficult thing for anyone to do. Ultimately they will be the final decision makers as to whether this legislation is good. I encourage the Minister and the Department to engage actively with the Oireachtas to ensure that if changes are required, the Government will be willing to take them on board.

For as long as I have been involved in politics we have been talking about political reform, and recently I have heard people talk about so-called real political reform. I believe this Bill is genuinely reforming from a structural and administrative perspective and from a functional perspective. Local authority members are getting more powers, which will challenge them but will forge a real connection between those who are elected and the citizens they serve. Too often in the past when we reformed local government, it was all about structures, including changes to boundaries, numbers of local authority members and so on. As a result over the years, local government has failed to deliver on its full potential.

I am a former local authority member, as many of us are. I still firmly believe that it is at local level that genuine quality-of-life changes can be achieved. The lack of reserved functions and financial dependence on central government has meant that local government has been a creature of central government in many ways, implementing policies dictated by Government to a level dictated by the finances available to it.

I agree with the previous speaker that it is to the credit of local authorities and good managers over the years that we have achieved so much. It is only when one goes abroad and sees other local authorities at work that we really appreciate the services we get from our local authorities and their members. It is not always true that the far-off hills are greener. No one - least of all the elected local authority members - believes things could not be done better or that local government could not be more efficient and responsive to the citizens it serves. I believe the Bill will go a long way to achieving that and will certainly improve on the present situation.

While there has been some upset at the abolition of town councils, they were no longer appropriate either geographically or functionally and could not play the role originally envisaged for them. Their replacement with municipal districts will result in towns getting a more effective and efficient service, and achieve enhanced priority in the overall county council setting.

I have a quibble with one structural change which I believe is superfluous and unnecessarily expensive - the increase in the number of local authority members in Dublin. While I appreciate the intention is to achieve equity in the ratio of local authority members to population as between Dublin and other parts of the country, I do not believe it is necessary. Despite having much bigger populations, the Dublin local authorities areas are geographically much smaller and are very homogeneous, which often does not apply in counties elsewhere in the country where there is a mix of towns, cities and villages. They have a greater diversity of issues to deal with, quite apart from having geographically bigger areas.

Nevertheless I accept that the greatly reduced number of structures and the overall reduction in representation is to be welcomed. It will reduce costs and will achieve more focused representation for the people being served.

I am pleased about the greater economic roles that local authorities are to have for the areas they serve.

The dissolution of the city and county enterprise boards and their amalgamation into the local authority is the right thing to do. The councils will now have their own local economic plans, local community development committees and one-stop shops. Local authorities are far better informed about local conditions and they should be able not only to give the services in but to shape the economic life of the areas that they serve. We will see how it works out but it has the potential to give better service.

The Minister, Deputy Hogan, said that he had great hopes for the local property tax adding that under the new regime elected members will have an important role in determining the appropriate level of the tax with discretion to increase or decrease the rate by up to 15%. That is incorrect. We are told councillors will have the power to vary the amount but they certainly will not have the power to determine the appropriate level of the tax. The level of the tax is and always will be, under this system, determined solely by the property market. That has always been the basis of my complaint about the tax and I want to reiterate that.

In every other country in the world the level of local property tax is determined by the cost of local services and within the area big properties pay more than small ones but our system completely ignores the cost of local services such that in some counties the take from the local property tax would be only a minute percentage of the cost of local services whereas in Dublin it will be a great deal more. In my own local authority the level of property tax at an estimated €52 million - if it is like last year and it will be - is almost exactly twice the cost of services, twice what the council got from the local government fund. This results in Dublin households, and similarly those in other cities, not only paying more than anywhere else but paying more than is necessary. To mollify the Dublin citizens the promise was made that 80% of what was collected would be kept and spent locally and that from 2015 councils could vary the charge up or down by 15%. It is very disappointing to hear now that the 80% will not be introduced in 2014. Perhaps the intention is to introduce it in 2015 but it does raise questions about the long-term intention and if the power to vary charges will ever really exist because councils cannot vary what they do not get in the first place.

Varying the tax by 15% is only meaningful to councils if they also determine the overall level of tax. Already the value of houses in Dublin has risen by 12.5%. By the time people revalue their properties in 2016, if the current trend continues their value could be to 40% higher than it is now. For Dubliners this tax will always be onerous and unfair if we continue to calculate it as we do. Citizens might, however, feel slightly less aggrieved if the 80% promise were kept, if most of the money they were paying was being kept to be spent locally. That promise has to be kept because not only will it encourage accountability of councils and councillors to their citizens but the ability to vary the tax depends on getting the money in first place.

I understand it is the intention that the local government fund will be more or less what it was last year although people have paid huge sums to the Government in property tax on the assumption that they were getting it back. Varying the tax really matters in Dublin. It does not matter in some counties. Deputy Brown was worried that councillors would put it up willy-nilly if they were short of a few bob but putting up the tax in some counties by 15% would be so negligible that it would not be worth doing. It certainly will not bother the citizens because many citizens in many council areas will pay only €90 a year. To vary that by 15% will make a difference of only €13.50, which will not be of any consequence, but it matters in Dublin. If somebody pays €900 in property tax the ability to vary and reduce that by 15% really does matter. It also matters to the local authority if it wants to increase or decrease its revenue by 15%. It would be a significant sum of money.

We have made a promise and it is vital that we keep it, to keep faith with the citizens but also to show that the Minister placed a high value on forging the connection between the people who pay the taxes and the people who deliver the service. That is the essence of good local government. If this deal is to deliver what the Minister hopes it is important that at the Cabinet table he makes the point that the 80% promise must be kept.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Local Government Bill 2013. This Bill purports to be about putting people first and informing local government and local democracy. It is nothing like that, it is about the destruction of local democracy. Local democracy is about the provision of local services to facilitate access for people to those services and indeed to public representatives. The principle of subsidiarity suggests very strongly that local services should be provided as close as possible to the people that they serve. This Bill and the policy being pursued by this Government goes in the opposite direction. It is the story that big is supposed to be better, that centralisation is better, but we know that bigger is not better and neither is centralisation. The delivery of local services to people should be done at the lowest level possible, town level, across the country.

This Bill proposes to abolish 80 town councils and reduces the number of councillors by a third. We will now have the lowest number of councillors per head of population in any EU or OECD country. We will have abolished town and borough councils which have a long tradition and history. My own county, Tipperary, is particularly badly affected as seven local authorities will be abolished, Clonmel Borough Council, Carrick-on-Suir, Cashel, Tipperary, Templemore, Nenagh and Thurles town councils. North and South Tipperary county councils will be amalgamated. It is a tragedy to abolish a borough council in my hometown of Clonmel which led the fight against Cromwell and was the only town to defeat him, in 1648, led by the Mayor of the day, Mayor White and supported by Hugh Dubh O'Neill from Ulster. The town and its council have many traditions and a long history. It is wrong to abolish town and borough councils because they represent our past and if we do not know where we came from we will hardly know where to go in the future.

The policy being pursued by the Government includes the reduction of council powers, as in the case of water services. It also reduces funding to local authorities. Over recent years €500 million has been taken out of the funding of local authorities. That started in 2011 with a 9% reduction, another 9% in 2012 and further reductions in 2013 and 2014, starving local authorities of funds and income to provide services.

What reduction was there in 2013?

We in Clonmel defeated Cromwell and sometimes it is easier to defeat an external enemy than an internal one like the Minister. We defeated Cromwell and it has taken a Minister like the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to abolish a borough council with huge history and traditions. The Minister has taken €500 million out of local authority funding over the past number of years and heaped unfair taxes on local people. He has imposed the local property tax on ordinary people across this country, a tax the leader of Fine Gael said was morally wrong, unfair and unjust. To add insult to injury, he now tells us he will not even give local authorities the full property tax. He will not honour the 80% reduction and will reduce funding to local authorities. Of course, the big lie we were told in the debate on the local property tax was that we would get additional services. Everybody across this country now knows that this is simply untrue. There are no new services. In fact, we have seen a stripping away of funding, a stripping away of staff by way of the moratorium and a stripping away of powers. It is no wonder that services are suffering badly.

I am delighted the Minister is here. I want to send out the message loud and clear that this Government has brought into law a provision that every local authority house must pay the local property tax. Kites are being flown by local authorities around the country which say they are going to increase rents for local authority dwellings. I can tell the Minister that this will be fought across this country. Local authority tenants are entitled to proper services and their rents should not be increased for the local property tax. This is something that local authorities, communities and tenants' organisations will fight and defeat.

What happened to the RAPID programme over the past number of years, which was in place for local communities and estates which were completely bypassed and never even had a sniff of the Celtic tiger and which were getting some little support from the programme, is a disgrace. The RAPID programme is now no more. Those communities which suffered through the Celtic tiger years are being made to suffer even more by the reduction in this programme and the fact it has been completely undermined by the withdrawal of funding. An associated withdrawal of funding from youth work around this country is another aspect of this. Both RAPID and youth work were working well and helping local communities, particularly young people. Not only has the RAPID programme been completely undermined, there has been a reduction in funding for youth services.

Housing is a service that has traditionally been provided by local authorities. It is a policy of which the Labour Party was always proud. Indeed, it was entitled to be proud of it. The Labour Party in the past always built local authority houses for people who could not provide housing from their own resources. We now have 112,000 families on local authority housing waiting lists. These are huge numbers. People are waiting for many years for a house simply because there is no house building programme. A very small amount of money has been put aside this year for house building but this is simply a drop in the ocean. It is not enough and the sooner local authorities are allowed and funded to build houses in the future, the better it will be. I ask the Minister to extend immediately the local authority house building programme. It would also have the knock-on effect of providing employment to local people who have lost out due to the recession, particularly in the building industry. It would save money on the social welfare front as well so it is a programme that would be beneficial not just to local authority tenants looking for a house but for employment in the future.

I appreciate the Minister's presence in the Chamber. Local government reform is something I feel very strongly about, having served on a council for almost 12 years. It was always a matter of great frustration that so much power was in the hands of unelected people. There are some positives in this Bill. There are some things that could be improved on but it is really important that we put local government at the centre of political reform. To the greatest extent possible, local decisions should be made locally and, therefore, local politicians need power to effect these changes. For that reason, I supported the introduction of the local property tax because giving local authorities their own funding is one way to give them power.

It is really important that we get 80% of property tax delivered locally as soon as possible. I would like this to happen at the beginning of this coming year because this is what people expect. I broadly agree with the earlier remarks of Deputy Olivia Mitchell about the property tax issue because as it is currently constituted, it definitely weighs far more heavily on people in Dublin than elsewhere. If there is spare money available, it would be useful if we could use some of that money in Dublin to, for example, pay for waste collection. That would help to mitigate the blow to people's pockets and would also bring local government closer to people's front doors, which is where it should always be.

The Minister is probably the biggest man in the Dáil but he should be very careful with his officials in the Department. There are several major enemies of local government in this country and one of them is the Department itself because it would be handier for it if as many decisions as possible were made centrally. The Minister should never allow them to get him in a headlock. I know he would be the hardest person to get in a headlock but they would beat him in terms of numbers if not size and strength. I ask the Minister to consider making it statutory that any face-to-face interaction between councils and the Department include elected members and not just unelected officials.

I was always very conscious of the fact that many major decisions for local authorities in the Dublin area were made with no elected people present. I urge the Minister to consider that point. The mayor or chairperson of a council is an obvious person to have at such meetings, but it would not necessarily have to be just that person.

The second big enemy of good local government is the county managerial system. The Bill goes some way towards downgrading it and I am aware from conversations with the Minister that he is very keen to transfer more power to the elected members, but changing the name to "chief executive" alone does not change much. I see some advance in the Minister's proposals in terms of them having to provide additional advice to members. In theory, councillors have been asked to approve new appointees, but in practice they have had little or no say. I hope that as a result of these changes elected representatives will have a greater say on who should be chosen. It is worth considering having elected members included on interview boards for major posts in councils. I also believe the Minister should have a veto power where political favouritism is shown. Senior staff in county councils are presenting faits accompli to councillors, especially in the case of Part 8 proposals. Councillors, through committees, should have a say in what is being proposed, obviously with professional advice being given by staff.

The third enemy of good local government is councillors who do not wish to exercise authority but simply wish to use the council chamber as a place to bellyache rather than make decisions. Many councillors would step up to the plate if given real power. Given that there is such disillusion with politics at present and that so many politicians start their careers in the local electoral system, if people saw councillors exercising real authority I believe more good candidates would be likely to present themselves for election and people would be more likely to approach them about local issues rather than their local Deputies. This is an important issue at present because there is some evidence to suggest that, across the parties, it is harder to get good candidates to run in council elections. As it is the main route towards national politics, it is really important that we have the best people going forward for election to local authorities.

Having made those criticisms, I wish to acknowledge and applaud the very positive and productive work being done by great numbers of local officials, managers and elected councillors. I can give an example of where I have seen this. In my local council, the combined effort of the council and a forward-looking manager succeeded in setting up a very effective business park which has encouraged some major industries into the Dublin area. That could not have been done without foresight because it required having a long-term view and ensuring there was sufficient energy and water available. At their best, councils can behave in that way and it is important to acknowledge that. There are many jobs in south Dublin, particularly in Grange Castle Business Park, because of good foresight on the part of councils and an active county manager.

Part of the reform of local government must include alignment between local authorities and other areas of local service to the community. For example, policing districts should, as a rule, not straddle local authority boundaries. The same should be true of education and training board areas. If we ever return to the health boards system, they should similarly be aligned with county boundaries.

The issue of town councils versus municipal districts is mainly one for people outside the Dublin area. There is an argument for scrapping town councils, but we ought to tread carefully. Many towns and cities, and the Minister's native city of Kilkenny is a good example, have a very venerable history and have long established institutions. I understand what the Minister is moving towards in that regard and I broadly welcome it, but in the case of Kilkenny, for example, the map shows that the proposal for the Kilkenny city area would divide it into two different electoral areas. It would be better if the local election wards were coterminous with the city as it would be easier for the people representing that area to do so effectively, rather than having them straddle two areas. I would also like to know what type of powers municipal districts will have. Presumably they will be augmented in some way with what area committees currently do, but they depend entirely on decisions being made centrally. I look forward to the Minister's comments on that issue.

With regard to local community development committees, the change towards business support units is welcome. However, we must ensure they make a positive contribution towards the development of jobs. As I indicated with regard to my local council, councils can have a major impact, particularly if they are in economic powerhouse counties such as Dublin or Cork. In the case of more remote areas, there is still a role for councils. Obviously they must think in terms of different scales but in the area of tourism, for example, they could do a great deal to promote their county and help to develop that industry. That is one example but they can do that in other areas as well.

We must examine the issue of commercial rates, for two reasons. The first is that they are so important for the functioning of local authorities. In my local council, for example, at least 50% of the funding comes from commercial rates. They are extremely important. I realise this will not always be the case as the extent of commercial development will vary in counties. The second reason is that infrequent valuations can lead to a situation where rates levels can be inappropriate due to either an economic downturn or an upturn. This might be covered in the valuation legislation that is proposed, but it is important that valuations are carried out on a reasonably frequent basis. If we are moving towards a self-assessment process, as appears to be the case, that is good from the point of view that people can re-assess their situation quite frequently. If that happens, however, it is important to have checks. There must be an inspectorate to check 10% or so of the decisions on a fairly regular basis. Deputy Deasy has spoken about this, but there is also a strong case for phasing in the changes so that whether the commercial rate is being increased or decreased, it is done in stages rather than in a single big jump. I understand the Minister is open to an amendment in that area.

With regard to regional assemblies, I served on the Southern and Eastern Regional Assembly in Waterford at one time. I love Waterford as a city but the value of going there was more for my liking of the area than for what happened at the assembly.

The assemblies should either be scrapped or given real powers, as I discovered that the council had got its hands on a bit of money to pay for what I had gone there to achieve. I am glad it got the money, but I had nothing to do in the delegation.

The issue of a directly elected mayor for the Dublin area has been a hot potato. I am interested in the plebiscite idea but, having considered the issue, I do not agree with the suggestion of a directly elected mayor. Some of my party colleagues disagree with me. It is worth having a mayor for the greater Dublin area who is elected by councillors from the four Dublin authorities, albeit for possibly longer than one year, as that period does not allow much time. There is a case for a person to be elected for the full five-year term. I fear that, if a mayor was directly elected by the people, a celebrity candidate without much knowledge or understanding of how local government works might get elected, leading to quite a bit of conflict between the mayor and the elected councillors. I am glad that there will be a vote on the issue in order that the public might at least be able to make a decision. A long-term mayor for the greater Dublin area is a worthwhile suggestion, but the conflict between elected councillors and mayors would be an issue. Deputies may have read the contribution to a newspaper approximately two weeks ago by a directly elected Labour Party mayor in the Manchester area. He drew attention to this issue. We must tread carefully, although it would be useful to have a figure of power for several years in the greater Dublin area. In one sense, I am arguing for someone to be elected in the same way as the Taoiseach. He was elected from his constituency of Mayo, but it was the Members of this Chamber who elected him as Taoiseach, not the population in general.

We must strengthen local democracy. The Bill contains important measures that move in that direction, but a great deal more work is to be done. It is difficult to do everything in one go.

For a moment following the previous speaker's contribution, I got a mental image of Hulk Hogan of the WWE television series. I wondered whether the Minister was on leave from that series. On a more serious note, I welcome the Minister.

Deputy Dowds is strong on weights and measures. The Minister is the tallest, strongest man in the Dáil. I hope he has a long and happy holding of that honour.

Deputy Dowds is a great person.

The Custom House was where the Minister launched this Bill, remarking that it had been 122 years since our system of local government had been introduced. That is a long time, and the Minister is to be commended on undertaking a root and branch examination of the system. I admit that my reading of the situation obtaining across the country is probably cursory compared with his own, but some features that have been examined by others stand out. Generally speaking, the country is under-represented in a democratic sense compared with other countries. Perhaps this could be highlighted in terms of the important engineering aspect of what is afoot.

The Bill, which features 65 sections in ten Parts and five Schedules, is a comprehensive piece of work. To digest what it is all about, perhaps we could have the main parameters or pitch markings set out in an easy-to-understand form, showing what the democratic pluses and minuses are in headline bullet points, the number of town councils to be dissolved, the reduction in head count, etc. This is what one would do with a war planning map, with one's divisions of tanks and troops.

The thrust of what is being done is commendable. With this Bill, we intend to build a better, stronger, more efficient, "more responsive and more accountable system of local government where the voices of all citizens are heard and the needs of our communities are addressed". Let us use a template to measure outcomes against these aspirations. When we measure, we can get a handle on things and make adjustments. We can let more water in or out. I am not referring to water meters, but the Minister knows what I am saying with that analogy.

To pick up on Deputy O'Donovan's comments, it is worth mentioning in the course of this discussion that the majority of councillors, be they town or county councillors, do a big day's work without being particularly well paid. Savings of €45 million were mentioned in the commentary on the Bill. It is an attractive headline figure for discussion, but let us go down to the troops, the men and women serving on the councils. The public deserves to know the hours they invest. That figure could be in one column, the average number of days councillors work for citizens could be in another and their remuneration could be in a third, with a large asterisk pointing out that it is all part-time and that it can work against their promotion prospects in other walks of life. This needs to be recognised in the debate.

My next comment follows on from the Taoiseach's statement at 11.30 a.m. today on how the country will progress without a formal standby line of credit following the completion of the disbursement part of the troika programme. The public does not understand what exiting the bailout means. In truthful and everyday understandable words, exiting means that we will finish drawing down over a period of three years loans that were given by a combination of three lenders to cover the shortfall in our national income vis-à-vis our national expenditure as we tried to achieve economies and efficiencies in that expenditure and maintain revenues or, in certain cases, increase them.

The wisdom of moving forward without a formal standby arrangement does not meet the requirement of the day, but that is a different debate and I will not distract the participants in today's discussion with that idea.

I want to flag it because there was a temptation, which became a reality, for the Government parties to say that income tax was not touched in the recent budget. Technically that statement is correct because the headline rates did not change at any level. However, the realities of life for every citizen - and more particularly for those at the lower end of the income scale and in the middle and lower-middle levels - concerning indirect taxation were very noticeable. I will explain how that is the case. The income of the average citizen or family will be more than spent because borrowings have risen in order to meet expenditure. Their net income after tax, which is the stated headline figure for income tax, will be spent on the following main areas: one third on mortgages; and half of gross earnings on light, heat, food, transport and medical expenses, including health insurance. Those expenses have risen by more than 15% in one year. The local property tax is in that bracket also.

If the expenditure of an average household has increased by at least 15% in a year, in the absence of inflation that amounts to an increase in taxation on gross income of about 7.5% or 8%. That is a mathematical fact. That is the sort of pressure that households at the lower, middle and lower-middle income levels are experiencing. That is the truth of it, which is why indigenous national income has stalled and is unlikely to rise in the foreseeable future. At the same time, such households have suffocating legacy debts. Everything is interrelated in a nation's debt experience, including household debt, SME corporate debt and Government debt, which is referred to as the national debt. I am afraid that our international creditors, including the ECB and euro system creditors, do not want to acknowledge that level of stress and burden on this country.

Only a few weeks ago, the Minister for Finance was presenting the 2014 budget, which was constrained by the rigorous demands of the troika. At the same time, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said that it was not on the agenda to consider what is referred to euphemistically as retrospective bank recapitalisation because everything in Ireland was fine and fiscal consolidation was progressing well. That is not true, however, because it is not fine. Every second day I meet people who are hugely distressed. Their distress is caused by a situation that is not being addressed properly by their creditor banks.

Given the inter-relatedness of things, our banks in turn are in debt to the euro system, even including the survivor banks, AIB and Bank of Ireland. They are indebted to the euro system in two ways - through moneys they borrowed from the Central Bank of Ireland and moneys borrowed from the European Central Bank, mainly to redeem historically large tranches of bonds that were due for redemption. They were redeemed to the bondholders at the time, not to the original bond investors. The bondholders were speculators because they had bought bonds in the hope of making profits, which they did. The Irish people are now paying the price, half of which - some €28 billion - is in the form of long-dated bonds of up to 40 years, replacing promissory notes that were of a shorter maturity.

One of the measures we were forced to introduce as a result of the lending programme was a local property tax. That brings me back to today's discussion. The Government has promised that in Dublin, Cork, Galway and other cities 80% of the local property tax collected will be directed to local authorities in the areas where the tax is applied. Local property valuations tend to be much higher in cities than in rural areas. That plan is not necessarily happening, however, because there is foot-dragging on that promise, which is not right.

After 2015, local authorities - under new arrangements envisaged by this Bill - will have the ability to raise local property taxes by up to 15% or to lower them, but that is unlikely. Government Deputies Olivia Mitchell and Robert Dowds have made these points already.

As regards local authority representation, the main concerns are about council services and rates that businesses must pay. More recently, concerns have been raised about property tax because of the promise to dedicate 80% of that collection to fund local authority services. The aspiration for the Bill is to build a better, stronger, more efficient, responsive and accountable local government system in which all citizens' voices will be heard and community needs will be addressed. In order to check that those aspirations and objectives are delivered - and to measure the outcomes - we should have a report card, to use the Taoiseach's analogy, or a template. In that way we could have an annual or bi-annual score for the efforts and outcomes involved.

The Oireachtas Library's digest does excellent work and has published charts of representation in other countries and in Ireland.

We are at the top of the league table in terms of our having the greatest number of citizens per local authority member. Another aspect of the Bill in headline terms is the appointment of chief executives of authorities, which appointments will be made through the Public Appointments Service and ratified by members. It is important these positions of responsibility are not captured by Government. From my reading of the Bill in regard to the structures to be introduced, there will continue to be a strong link between Government and the proposed chief executives. In my view, that link is too strong. Counter-balancing that, the establishment of the national oversight auditing committee is a welcome aspect of the proposed structure.

The interface between local area plans and local enterprise boards should be continually encouraged, improved and strengthened. Business and family communities within areas need to be participants in the efforts of such boards and committees. They need to feel that their inputs are taken on board and, equally, that the committees and boards accept their observations, criticisms and suggestions. It is important the communications channels both ways are realistic and accessible.

I would like the following points to linger in the minds of everybody present. While in the context of the framing of the recent budget and Finance Bill, the headline rates of income tax were not touched, the indirect expenditure of households, including light, heat, transport, including bus and train fares, gas, the local property tax and the claw-back of relief on VHI premiums, account for 50% of household incomes. All of these costs have increased by a minimum of 15% in one year, notwithstanding that the consumer price index is low. While this is not called income tax it, is a tax on the income on which families have to live. We cannot sneak those extra burdens on families while their incomes are depressed, jobs continue to be lost and young people are emigrating. This is smoke and mirrors. It is not true.

I wish to share time with Deputies Simon Harris and Joe O'Reilly.

The Bill before the House today has the potential to revolutionise how we deliver local government in a way that addresses the acknowledged weaknesses of the current system of local democracy. Local government in Ireland has evolved from an era when transport and communication presented difficulties to a population struggling with establishing a fragile and fledgling economy in a Republic which was asserting its independence on the international stage. Of necessity, democratic representation had to be local and accessible and the model which has served us well for so long was tailored to the needs of those to whom it was accountable. People interacted with local government face to face because it was the only option available to them at the time. The system reflected the needs of those it served. Recognising the enormous changes which have occurred in relation to communications and transport, we need to modify this system to reflect the needs of the people it serves. We live in a world where interaction is conducted using mobile telephones and the Internet, where transport is readily available and where local politicians are easily accessible without the need for meetings. It is only rational that these factors be recognised in developing a model of local government to address the changing circumstances of those it serves.

In recognition of these factors this Bill proposes to introduce a system of local government which provides greater democratic equality and does so in a way which recognises recent development of certain urban or metropolitan areas while at the same time delivering local government to rural areas in a way that is sustainable, cost effective and addresses the need for greater efficiency and cost reduction in the deliverance of government. It addresses the anomaly whereby 14% of the population have 46% of the representation. It reduces the number of local councillors from 1,627 to 949 while at the same time providing a system more streamlined and focused on the needs of the local communities it serves.

Similarly, the issues being presented are reflective of a changing and growing economy. We need to develop a model of local government that has the capacity to address these issues by providing the infrastructure, services and conditions conducive to encouraging the development of local enterprise and employment. The delivery of a sustainable local economy, capable of providing for the needs of the community, is the single most important factor in creating the engine that will propel us, as a nation, towards a properly developed economy with the capacity to provide housing, employment, medical services, education and all the necessities at a local level vital to ensure a vibrant local economy. It is vital that as a nation we keep pace with the needs of our people and remain conscious of the rapid development of the international economies and business models which have such a significant impact on an open economy such as ours. We must develop a system of local government that has the capacity to address the issues arising and has the flexibility to interact with communities and deliver a programme of change which places them in a position to benefit through planned development.

The Bill, way of the provisions of sections 40 and 49(a), provides for the statutory establishment of a strategic policy committee on economic development and a local community development committee, both of which will have specific functions to plan and deliver economic and social development at community level and will have the authority to request the attendance of public authorities at meetings should they be deemed necessary. This places local politicians in the driving seat to deliver improved community services and conditions and provides an opportunity to grow and develop rural enterprise and community spirit. This is an opportunity to focus more intently on local development and concentrate on measures aimed at reversing the outflow of the young, intelligent and educated members of our society to foreign economies where their enthusiasm and abilities are being utilised towards developing other economies. It also provides us with the tools to recognise the potential of local resources and develop them in such a way as to maintain and revive local communities and stem the exodus to centres of larger population. The Bill provides for the introduction of a framework of accountability which introduces an audit system and regulates ethics in public office, financial matters and the delivery of services. These are essential instruments in providing for the future decentralisation of government in so far as the new institutions are equipped with the prerequisite checks and balances necessary for their development into sustainable and efficient centres of local power. The creation of regional assemblies will serve to provide a platform for greater co-operation between areas of mutual ambition and need and will facilitate the delivery of joint ventures mutually beneficial to local requirements.

I was proud to be elected a town councillor for Ballybay in 2009. It is a great honour to be elected by one's neighbours and friends to represent one's town. In debating this Bill, which will change forever the system of local government with which we were brought up, it is incumbent on me to pay tribute to the many local government politicians of all political creeds who worked selflessly over many years with little and very often no remuneration to provide a system of local government that served us well at the time. The model of local government provided for in this legislation has the capacity to address the many and varied complex issues arising and deliver local environments in which our people can create wealth and generate local centres of employment and sustainable growth which will provide a resolution to the many social problems facing our communities. Community prosperity is the key to the creation of a just society. In providing the tools whereby local communities can work together towards self development, we are laying the foundations for a better society.

This legislation may prove to be the solution to the many inadequacies of our current local government system. In introducing this legislation the Minister, Deputy Hogan, has given local government the power to achieve power.

He served for many years on a local authority himself and knows well the strengths and weaknesses of the current system. He has done this nation a great service in providing a framework equipped with the proper facilities, structures and demographics on which we can build a local government model capable of accepting and exercising decentralised power and financial authority when the time is right. He has created the model, laid the foundations and created the fabric of the structure. It only remains, when the system is functional and proven to be so, to equip it with the financial resources and authority to deliver a dynamic boost to how local governance and development across a range of disciplines is delivered and, in doing so, reignite the capacity of Ireland to deliver for itself on a local level.

It is important the voluntary community sector works hand in hand with the local authorities to deliver services for the benefit of all communities. Therefore, reform of local government should not be to the benefit of one sector rather than another but should be so that both sectors can work hand in hand to deliver better services.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Local Government Bill 2013. I commend the Minister on getting the Bill to this Stage. There has been agreement across the political divide for many years that local government needed to be reformed. We all hear from our constituents. We know it ourselves as practising politicians. We hear it from our colleagues who serve on local authorities. We can debate reform until the cows come home, but at some point we have to act. This Bill takes the most radical reform of local government in many years and makes an honest and admirable effort to improve structures at local government level.

I welcome in particular a couple of elements of the Bill. First, I welcome the appointment of chief executives rather than county managers. When I was elected to Wicklow County Council in 2009, like many other councillors I thought I would come in and change the world. Councillors do their best for their constituents but they are in a structure where they have to go cap in hand to unelected officials at local level to try to get things done. Many of those unelected officials are very competent and diligent people. However, politicians seek a democratic mandate from their community to represent them, and the community holds those politicians to account for actions at a local level. They often do not realise the little influence that councillors can wield at times compared with council officials. It is important that we try to redress that balance in this Bill in order that the power is vested with the people elected at community level every five years, and the officials work in a professional and competent way with them. The balance of power must be tipped in favour of those democratically elected by their communities.

The establishment of the position of chief executive rather than county manager is a step both in symbolism and in action towards giving more power and more responsibilities to elected members. Chief executives will have a number of statutory obligations towards elected members which the county manager does not currently possess. Elected members of any given council will also have to approve, by more than 50% of their votes, the appointment of the person nominated to be chief executive. I welcome that, which is a step in the right direction. People can say all they wish about politicians, including councillors, but at the end of the day, these are people who ask their community for a mandate to serve them. It is very important we do everything we possibly can to ensure there are structures in place which allow them to have meaningful influence on their communities and their counties.

I also welcome the establishment of local enterprise offices. We cannot have a situation where enterprise and business development in a community is siphoned off to an agency on one side. Many county development boards and county enterprise boards have done great work and many fine people have served on them, but we need local enterprise and business solutions to be at the centre of a functioning local government system. All the answers to this country's economic challenges cannot come from the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, or from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Many of the solutions are coming from communities across Ireland. When councils make decisions about a range of issues, we need enterprise and business considerations to be at the heart of those decisions. By having local enterprise offices in the local authorities, working side by side with the other directorates in local authorities, we will put business and local enterprise at the heart of local authority decision-making. That is to be welcomed. We need to look at as many opportunities as possible to involve in these local enterprise offices local business people and local people in the community who have innovative ideas on how to create local employment. I would be interested in discussing that further with the Minister.

While I am not a Dublin-based Deputy - I live in the commuter belt - the plans for a plebiscite for a directly elected mayor of Dublin are a welcome development. I will respect the decision of the people of Dublin, and I commend the Minister on putting this question to them. We need a strong, directly elected chief executive with a mandate to get things done. If the plebiscite is passed and that system beds down, the Minister should be ambitious and should look at the possibility of having directly elected mayors or chief executives of other councils. Why can the people of Wicklow not elect somebody directly if the people of Dublin can? That should be kept under review as the process evolves in Dublin.

The plans to establish a national oversight and audit commission are very welcome. I serve on the Committee of Public Accounts and there has been cross-party criticism about the lack of scrutiny applied to how funds are spent at local level. Funds at national level are well scrutinised. This does not mean they are not wasted at times, but people are brought before the committee and are held to account for how they spend money across different Departments and agencies. When money leaves central government and goes to local authorities, however, there is not that same level of transparency. The national oversight and audit commission is very welcome. The establishment of audit committees at local level is very welcome, but I ask the Minister to explore how this commission could be linked with the Committee on Public Accounts and the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Perhaps the report of the audit commission could come before the Committee of Public Accounts, but given that much of this money is collected centrally and given out from various central sources, it would be important that there would be a roll-out at national level to scrutinise that.

I would like to express one concern about the age profile of the councillors we are going to attract. If somebody wishes to be a councillor in Wicklow, he or she must be able to attend meetings on a Monday afternoon at 2 o'clock. I know two individuals - one wanted to contest an election for Fianna Fáil and one for Fine Gael - who are unable to contest elections. They are both fine town councillors but they cannot contest the county council election because they have careers. With no disrespect to any demographic, we cannot have a situation where people must be retired, independently wealthy or self-employed to serve on local authorities. We must look at how we are going to provide for people who do not want to be full-time politicians because they have other careers. They have skill sets, talents and ideas they wish to bring to local government. We must look at how they can play a role as well.

It merits saying that Deputy Hogan will go down as a radical and reforming Minister. Outside of this Bill, he will be remembered for, and future historians will recognise the extraordinary importance of, the gender quotas for elections that he introduced. They will radically transform politics over time. This Bill is borne out of last year's Putting People First document. It is an excellent Bill in many respects. As my time is short, I will cite specific aspects of it. Before I do that, I echo the remarks of my constituency colleague, Deputy Conlon, in complimenting the generations of people who have served on local government at all levels. Three generations of some families have committed themselves to it. We had a lovely function honouring former chairpersons of our local authority in Cavan recently, initiated by Councillor Paddy O'Reilly. It was an excellent function where we recognised families who had given their entire existence to local government for generations. That was very worthwhile.

Part 6 provides for the establishment of local community development committees. That will be important as they will replace the county development boards but will be able to improve strategic planning and community development programmes and will work with the new enterprise boards to co-ordinate economic development. That is very important.

The new bodies will include the new chief executives, members of the local authorities, people from the sporting and cultural worlds, public and private interests, etc. That is a worthwhile development and it offers great potential.

Part 7 complements the proposal and enhances the policy-making role of the councils in the economic area. This is important and vital as well because people know the local needs and the sectors that need an emphasis. Much can be done in tourism and many cultural initiatives can be advanced at local level. I am proud of some of the work we have been able to do in our area recently and that can be developed further.

It is worthy of mention in the context of the power of local government that the Bill gives 20 additional new reserved functions to councillors. This cannot be in any way ignored and it cannot be suggested that it is not a significant aspect. There is an amendment to section 66 of the principal Act whereby the local authority can take measures to promote the interests of the local community across cultural, environmental and economic areas and that is a crucial aspect as well.

No organisation or administration can operate without transparency and accountability. In this context, the new sections 126A to 126L to the principal Act establishing a new national oversight and audit commission are important. The new section 126C will ensure that the use of State funds will be scrutinised. The new commission will scrutinise financial performance and value for money and it will issue reports on an annual basis. This will allow the public to see the performance of councils and in itself that will be an incentive to get the right results. The fact that these will be published and that the audits take place will in itself prevent waste. The body will be completely independent and autonomous and that is critical for the future development of local democracy and local power. Under the new section 126G to the principal Act, the commission will prepare and circulate reports on the activities of the local authorities and that is critical. I echo the Minister's comments. He stated: "It is only through this comprehensive form of measurement that we will be able to demonstrate that we have real reforms that citizens can see and benefit from."

Section 53 deals with the drawing up of budgets at municipal and county level. It places a requirement on the new chief executive to provide the elected members with a draft form of a local authority budget, giving them the opportunity to amend and include provisions they believe to be important. That is an important development. The budgetary process is where the action is and where councillors need more input, and the legislation attempts to realise this aspect. It will also offer an opportunity to establish a community fund and adopt a scheme for annual contributions by occupiers of dwellings towards particular community initiatives. If a particular local authority wishes to carry out an initiative in an area, it can look to local contributions to assist in this regard.

This goes back to the hackneyed expression from the American War of Independence about there being no taxation without representation. I will come to the property tax presently but we cannot really have effective local government unless there is a direct link with taxation and the local councillors. It is important that they make decisions in this area. If they do not, then they are not effective or powerful and not really accountable. There can be no real democratic input unless there is an effort in this area and that is to be welcomed.

Section 53 deals with the property tax and its collection at local level. After 2015, local authorities can make an adjustment of 15% upward or downward on the amount of property tax levied. The money will be paid and it will ultimately replace the local government fund. There must be an equalisation fund for obvious reasons because of demographics and the size of certain counties. We cannot simply keep all property tax collected in Cork there and discriminate against Leitrim, which does not have the potential to collect the same volume. There must be an equalisation dimension.

In the context of equalisation, collecting the tax and spreading it around, I would go even further than the maximum amount of 15%, if we could achieve it over time, and at some stage I would like to see councillors striking the rate as they did in the past. They should decide the amount of property tax and decide how it is spent. Then they should be obliged to go back to the electorate, outline that they raised the tax, collected a given amount and, as a result, did certain things in the community. This would ensure the collection of the tax, the output from it and accountability would be all tied up. That part of the Bill should be expanded further. All in all, the Bill will enhance the power of councillors, which is critical, and enhance the connectivity between councillors and those who elect them, which is important as well.

Ireland currently operates under an almost totally centralised system of governance. Despite the language used in the Bill to give the impression that the Government would like to move away from this profoundly anti-democratic situation, the Bill does nothing of the sort. The phrase "local authority" is bandied about throughout the Bill but it is a contradiction in terms because there is next to nothing in the Bill that confers any meaningful authority on the system of local government in Ireland. If we had real local authority, the people might have a voice when it comes to things that happen in their areas and communities. However, we do not have that at the moment. People are upset about things that are happening locally.

I come from a rural background and it is shocking how so many villages and townlands have deteriorated due to Government policy. I am referring to central government policy, not local government policy, because local government does not really have a say in the matter. Small schools are under pressure and the closure of Garda stations and post offices continues. People in certain areas of the country are looking at huge pylons being erected closer to houses than they would like. These are seen as a potential challenge to their health. Do these people have a say in what is happening? Can they talk to their local councillor, who might represent them at local authority level? No, they cannot, because he has no power. The local councillor has a say in the five-year development plan but that is all. He does not have a position of responsibility within the local authority.

Local authorities are run from central government. Central government appoints the managers. Now we are going to change the name to "chief executive". This is probably fitting because "chief executive officer" is a term more associated with the private sector. Given that there is such an undermining of local authorities at the moment, one could be forgiven for suspecting that in the long term the project could be to privatise what is left of any form of local administration. I use that term because there is no local authority, only a local administration governed by central authority in Dublin.

It would be wonderful if people could have a voice because then we might have something that resembles democracy. However, our democracy today is not like that. We may take the view that it is great to have elections. It is wonderful. Every five years people can vote for whoever they like or whoever happens to appear on the ballot paper. Is that as far as democracy goes? Really, that is about it. People seem to have no other say in how their communities are run between elections every five years. That is not my concept of democracy. Democracy should mean that people actually have a say in how things are organised, that is, things which affect them directly and which affect their children and communities. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, said with a straight face that this will be an improvement. Fair play to him, because that takes doing.

I am familiar with the way in which a certain village in Italy works, where there is a local authority and it has a say in education and in health. It controls local health and local education, still controls the refuse and makes sure the roads are cleared of snow in the winter. It organises all kinds of facilities and community projects for the old people and looks after the young people by taking care of all the sports grounds in the area of whatever type they may be. It is real local authority; it is community. People who can discern a return in services for the taxes they pay feel a bit better about paying tax. However, when all one's money disappears into a central fund and one has no idea where it goes, it is very hard to feel the same way about it. The democratic deficit in the form of a lack of real local authority in Ireland is one of the biggest problems facing Irish society.

Ireland signed up to the European Charter of Local Self-Government in November 1997 and ratified it in May 2002. The first monitoring visit by the Council of Europe was performed in 2001 and then again in October 2012. The recent draft report, Local Democracy in Ireland, which still is not generally available in the public domain for some strange reason, makes for illuminating reading. Its authors make extensive reference to and perform a critical dismantling of the much hyped Action Programme for Effective Local Government to which this Bill is to give legislative effect. After an exploration of the proposed action programme, the report found that many of the recommendations made in 2001 are still valid. It states:

Local authorities in Ireland still cannot be said to “regulate and manage a substantial share of public affairs”; the principle of subsidiarity is still not a primary concern in the allocation of public responsibilities. Local authorities’ discretion is still highly circumscribed through the use of statutory instruments and regulations to supplement laws, and the need to secure sanctions and prior approvals from national government for many activities. Consultation of local authorities over new legislation or financial decisions is not systematic. Local authorities are not provided with adequate or sufficiently diversified resources which are commensurate with the responsibilities of local government. Specific or earmarked grants still make up a significant proportion of central government transfers.

The report went on to perform an analysis of the situation of local democracy in Ireland, in light of the European Charter of Local Self-Government on an article by article basis and, without fail, found that Ireland does not live up to the conditions of the charter, even with the amendments to the principal Act that are proposed in this Bill.

With this Bill, the Minister promises Members the sun, moon, and stars in terms of the betterment of participatory local democracy in Ireland, but all he provides them with is empty bombast and misinformation as to what really is the purpose of this Bill. The Minister promises this Bill will provide a comprehensive, modern system of municipal governance with appropriate financial arrangements, a wider provision for devolution of functions from central level to local government and a strengthening of governance and oversight arrangements and powers of elected councils. This is hard to take, as it is abundantly clear that the Bill will deliver on none of these promises. Moreover, they are meaningless as long as local government continues to have relatively few functions, especially in comparison with our European neighbours. This fact has been highlighted repeatedly by Dr. Proinnsias Breathnach, who has observed that in European countries, everyday services such as education, health, police and so on are delivered at local level. In Ireland, by contrast, most of these services are organised at central level and this situation, argues Dr. Breathnach, has a reflexive effect on the kind of politics one gets in this country. He explains:

A lot of TDs see it as their main function to look after local constituents rather than to legislate. This has come home to roost now. The inability of the Government to deal with the current crisis is partly because people in Government are not [at] all up to the job because their main concern is looking after local needs ... If there was a clear separation of national functions and local functions, we would get a different type of person elected to the Dáil.

I would argue that were Ireland to have local councillors with real responsibility who were put into decision-making positions when elected, one also would get a different animal when electing local authority people. These comments are instructive in light of the fact that at the onset of the crisis, central government effectively handed over its decision-making powers to European and international neoliberal financial managers.

Another reason no change will issue from this Bill is that a massive bureaucratic machine has been set up in Dublin and its civil servants are not prepared to start giving up their functions and handing them out to those down in the country. Dr. Breathnach illustrated this situation by pointing out that in the preparation of the action programme, all Departments were requested to identify functions and services they currently performed centrally and which potentially could be devolved to local government. The action programme document records no response to this request from the Departments of Education and Skills, Health, Social Protection, Children and Youth Affairs, Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Defence and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Imagine that. According to Dr. Breathnach, "To give them their due, the Department of Agriculture, Food & Marine did manage to identify one function capable of being devolved to the local level, the function in question being responsibility for coastal navigation aids". This is mad stuff. In Wexford, responsibility for driving licences has just been moved from the local authority to an office in the centre of town. The local authority does not understand the reason for this because it had the structure, staff, experience and all necessary facilities to carry out this function. Moreover, it had parking spaces available. However, people are now obliged to go into the centre of town to a new office that it was necessary to rent, new staff were hired at additional expense to the State and people cannot get parking because the town centre is clogged and yet this is considered to be a good idea. I do not understand this and people are very disillusioned as to what central government has planned for them in the long term.

I am pretty familiar with Dublin City Council, due to all the work my company did in the city, and a huge undermining of morale in Dublin City Council is under way at present. First, in 2008 and 2009, all the graduates from engineering, architecture and planning, professionals of all sorts, were laid off. Since then, there has been no recruitment because a recruitment embargo is in place. On top of that, the most experienced and best of the staff are leaving because of different structures the Government has put in place and because they are getting out before losing more of their money. Overall, this means one will have staff who are cheaper because anyone who eventually is taken on obviously will be working for less than were the experienced staff. However, were I the new city manager of Dublin City Council, Owen Keegan, I would not be sleeping well at night given the amount of talent that remains at his disposal to run the capital city. This is lunacy and it does not make sense. One of the assistant managers is due to retire very soon but he will not be replaced. Right now, services such as water or waste are all being run into the roads section. There is actually a suspicion that the Government's long-term plan is the privatisation of local authorities. This is because the Government is undermining them to such an extent that it will make it impossible for the local authorities to function, after which the Government will be in a position to claim that as they cannot function or do the job, it will be necessary to privatise them. This would suit the neoliberal agenda and God knows, the major decisions are not being made in Ireland any more but are being made by people who do not live here.

The Bill does nothing to change the situation whereby a local authority effectively has very little control over its finances or any significant decision-making powers with regard to the most important public services, which are public services the Government increasingly views as commodities up for sale to private corporations. Has the Government forgotten that private companies are legally bound to increase their share price, irrespective of the cost to the people of Ireland?

If the Government's programme of privatisation continues, public services will increasingly be provided by those who view profit as more important than people, the environment or quality of service. That is not rocket science. The law demands of publicly owned companies that they maximise their profits. It is illegal for them not to do so. They are not allowed to consider the individual who they are supposed to be serving as an citizen, he or she is considered a commodity or a consumer.

A substantial part of the Bill refers to the strengthening of local government in local economic development but it is impossible to find anything in it that speaks to this. These seem to be a mere reshuffling of functions already performed at a local level; reshuffling is the general impression one gets from the Bill, reshuffling, cutting and pasting, changing the names and saving a few euro for the troika in the process.

There are no surprises here. Successive governments have been faced with the problem of local government and have done nothing about it. They have promised all sorts of improvements and enhanced democracy in order to keep the European Commission at bay, but now it seems this Government has simply decided to throw in the towel. Local government is viewed with such distaste from the Government benches that it is now regarded as simply another target for cuts. One has to appreciate the marketing strategy built into the Bill, namely, that when one is being forced to cut back on the quality of a product, one's best option is to change the packaging and call it by a different name, and then tell everyone lies about how good it is. McDonald's would not better them.

Why would this Government devolve responsibility and authority to local government in any meaningful way? We do not even have responsibility and authority at the level of central government. Ever since our referendum on the fiscal compact treaty in 2012, carried by a dismal 30% of the electorate under dire threats of harsher budget cuts if the people delivered the wrong answer, we have effectively seen our sovereignty complete its migration to Frankfurt, Brussels and Berlin, and for what - a pat on the head and in the words of one German official, the accolade of being "a model bailout student", and what a good student we have been. This Government has not erred from the terms of the troika’s memorandum of understanding and we are well on our way with its demands to amalgamate schools, reorganise local government, chop health spending and cut wages, driving them down into the ground.

In the words of Susan Watkins, editor of the New Left Review, "Elected legislators in the target countries [of the European Financial Stability Facility] have been reduced to clerks". Watkins made a special note in the case of Ireland when she wrote that "Irish TDs have so far internalized their subaltern status that a debate on designating June 16, Bloomsday, a public holiday, to celebrate the country’s ‘great literary tradition’, was brought to a halt by a ministerial reminder that the Troika’s permission would need to be sought rst". Could the words of Angela Merkel in November 2012 have been any more to the point when she said, “There is no such thing any more as domestic policy making”? Well Angela would say that. Instead of national sovereignty, or anything resembling a democracy, we have a collection of neoliberal clerks working on behalf of the markets, committed first and foremost to protecting investors, demanding austerity and deficit reduction, with scant regard for the dangers that these policies pose to the economy, society and the environment.

To paraphrase an analysis of the hollowing out of democracy by Nancy Fraser, one of the world’s foremost political philosophers, the situation is as follows: with the advent of globalisation, the international discussion that took place from the end of the Second World War up until the 1970s over what should count as a just ordering of social relations within a society has been distorted and to a certain extent disregarded as the goal posts have moved. The social processes shaping our lives now routinely overflow territorial borders. Nations are faced with a new vulnerability to transnational forces – supranational and international organisations, both governmental and non-governmental. Under this new paradigm, people the world over find themselves struggling against despotic local and national authorities, transnational corporate predation and global neoliberalism. The new governance structures of the global economy have vastly strengthened the ability of large corporations and investors to escape the regulatory and taxation powers of territorial states. I can assure the Minister that if the transatlantic trade arrangement comes into place there will be even further erosion of any notion of sovereignty left here.

The Government members came in here today with great ceremony. One would think one was in the House of Lords in London given the way the business was carried out. It was a master stroke in performance but it lacks substance. If anyone is dull enough to think that all of a sudden we will have the decision-making process back in our hands as long as the Government adheres to a neoliberal philosophy, allows itself to be dictated by the concerns of the financial markets and that by rushing from the arms of the troika into the arms of the financial markets we are escaping from something terrible and moving to something wonderful, God help them. The financial markets have no memories and they certainly have no compassion. They could not give a fiddler's about us and will screw us for every penny they can when they can. Just watch.

To add to what Deputy Wallace said, when they are screwing us I can guarantee the Minister that they will not be wearing any protection.

We have fought for centuries to get independence and since we got independence we seem to want to do nothing else but give it back. It is easy to understand why it took us so long to get it in the first place, given that since we have got it we appear not to want it. When the terrible British eventually handed over our country, and I use the word "terrible" because it is all relative in that they do not seem quite that terrible any more, they left us with a system of local government that trusted the people to make decisions and left power in the hands of people the public trusted to give the power to in the first place, but we took that apart bit by bit over the past century until we ended up where we are now. Apparently, the Minister intends to give more power to councillors and all of this will change, but it will not, not in the legislation he is providing here.

At a national level also we were in a huge hurry to give away our sovereignty. We could not do it quick enough and we have now arrived at a situation where we have completely given our sovereignty away. However, ultimately, sovereignty is not something a country does. Sovereignty begins in the mind of an individual. That is from where it comes. For this country to be sovereign and to give real power to its people, the people themselves must realise that they are sovereign and that, ultimately, their ideas are what should be carried out in this country but, sadly, this legislation moves further away from giving power to people.

The idea that the Minister suggests that this Bill will bring power close to the people is laughable. I do not know if people from the generation of the Minister, Deputy Hogan, ever watched "Sesame Street" but that programme explained quite a few concepts over the years, one of which was the concept of "near" and "far". In "Sesame Street" they tried to explain that to five and six year old children in a very simple way. "Far" is explained by a man looking off into the distance at something that is smaller who then runs off - one can hear his footsteps - far away. "Near" is explained as something that is closer, and he does not have to run that far. I imagine that the Minister, Deputy Hogan, would have a good understanding of that concept and given that he should, I would like him to explain to me how closing down Boyle Town Council and taking the power base out of that town will bring the power closer to the people, because it is putting it further away. Either the Minister, Deputy Hogan, does not believe what he is saying or he needs to watch that episode of "Sesame Street" to understand the difference between "near" and "far". If he did, he would understand that he is putting power further away from people. Instead of having a council in their own town, flawed and all as it is, he has created a situation where it will not be there. That cannot be an improvement.

I cannot find in the Bill the new powers that apparently councillors are going to get. There are no new real powers.

In fact, far from giving real powers, all that has happened is that we have done the equivalent of what they did in Windscale and changed the name to Sellafield. One is still left with the potential disaster on one's doorstep. All we get is a change from county manager to chief executive officer. It is a change in name but it is not a change in reality. It is purely tokenism. Even the Minister himself says that it is just about giving it a nicer name. How is that going to help anyone? Apparently the councillors get to choose the new CEO but if they do not choose, it reverts to the choosing body which will keep choosing and coming back until eventually they are forced to take someone who will decide their fate from then on. No more power will end up with the elected representative.

I do not see what the Minister is afraid of - perhaps I can - but from the point of view of developing the country, I ask what he is afraid of. I would suggest he is afraid that it took his party so long to get back into power - that was one hell of an achievement considering who was in government - that once they got into power, the idea of handing any of it away, regardless of what benefit it would be to the country, was just too difficult for them. Instead, they are consolidating power closer to the centre where they currently have the most power. It is not about what is good for the people, it is about what is good for the Government.

Many people will talk about systems of local government and they will complain that they are this or that and generally say there is something wrong with them. The general population will complain about the system of national government and say there is something wrong with it. It is difficult to get the perfect system but no matter what system is in place, if people do not participate, it is irrelevant. It is a bit like a person having a Ferrari - something I never want to have nor ever will have - and complaining that it does not work very well even though he is urinating in the petrol tank. The problem is not the system; the problem is what is being put into it.

It is from this that I make this call. Next May, we will have local elections. People can complain all they want about the system of governance we have. No matter how flawed the system the Minister wants to introduce, it is the system that will be there for the people to use. I am calling on people to participate in that system. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, is doing her damnedest to run people between the ages of 21 and 25 out of the country because, apparently, they are too lazy to get a job, even though there are no jobs. I made a suggestion during my speech on the budget and I will repeat it now. Those people in those age brackets should apply for the more than 900 jobs that are up for grabs next May. They should put their names on the ballot paper and participate. Deputy Simon Harris suggested that it seems to be difficult for younger people to get involved in local government because they need to have two jobs. I am sure that will not put off a lot of people who are unemployed. My suggestion is that the tens of thousands of young people go out and run in the next local elections. It is not that complicated to put one's name on the ballot paper. All that is needed is 15 people to propose one's name and those people must be registered to vote in the electoral area concerned. Alternatively, they could get all of their week's dole - €100 - which is all they get from the Government because apparently young people in that age group need fewer calories. I do not understand how that is decided but that is my only conclusion, that people like to eat less when they are that age. They could get all of their week's money and put it down as a deposit and challenge the political system.

I know in my heart that the only purpose in this country for local councillors is to canvass for Deputies in the run-up to a general election. Each of the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil councillors will grab about 20 people apiece and go out to beg for people's votes. If young people do what I suggest next May and run for election and if, for example, in Roscommon they took ten out of 18 seats, not only would they get a place and little bit of a say in how local government is run - because councillors do not have a real say - the real achievement would be that come the next general election, they will have potentially up to 200 canvassers who will go out and knock on the doors and say whatever it takes to get people to vote for their sugar daddy who will sort them out at national government level, because that is where the power lies. That is what people need to do.

If they do that, there will also be another benefit. Deputy Harris thinks it is not enough to survive on but it is also worth about €30,000 to each of those individuals. They can work in their local community. They can work on changing things, bit by bit, but the big advantage is that with ten Fianna Fáil councillors or Fine Gael councillors - we do not have any Labour Party people in my area because we were always too smart for that - they would then take €300,000 in resources from these organisations. Then we get to rebalance politics in this country and get real change because that is how we will change things. In the run-up to the next general election, those people who have cut the spokes on the political bicycle wheels can go out and they can work on getting into Dáil Éireann where they can change how local government works because local government does not work in this country and it will not work with the way the Government is trying to change it. We need a system similar to the system in Switzerland and many other countries around Europe where even villages with only 100 people have pretty much all the say over how the money is spent.

My frustration about the way local government is run comes from my experience as a county councillor and seeing how money was wasted, hand over fist, and how local councillors had pretty much no say in it, although they did have a say in it if they ignored all the waste, but that is not the way it should work. If elected, we should have total say over everything that happens. Why not have confidence in the people who have been elected? At the moment the job of a county councillor is to ignore the waste and hope then to get a few crumbs from the top table as opposed to pointing out the waste, and instead of crumbs from the top table, there will be loaves and cake. That is what is on the table until they munch away at it and waste it.

One of my first experiences as a county councillor was approaching the executive to ask them if they could open our swimming pool all year round. The people of my area went out with shovels and wheelbarrows and dug out a 33 metre pool in the 1940s. Our town has always had an ambition to have the pool open all year round. I did up a plan at the time which showed that for £250,000, we could have opened it all year. I was told during my first week as a councillor that we did not have the money for it. In my second week as a councillor the car park behind the local area office, which is across the road from my office, was dug up and re-tarred at a cost of £110,000. The junction on the Galway road into Castlerea, which had a beautiful peach blossom tree on it, was dug up without asking anyone. They put in a new junction with two car spaces into which two cars did not fit and to this day still do not fit into it. That cost us the guts of another £100,000. A footpath was put down in the town which we did not need because the other footpath was perfect and my local authority, which did not have any money to provide a facility for young people in the town, spent more on three projects that no one asked for, but more to the point, the local elected member did not even know anything about it and was not told about it. Why was it done like that?

I set about trying to change things and asked if we could be informed beforehand and have more say. This did not happen. It was seen as an insult to the executive that a councillor might suggest to them what should be done. We ended up with a car park we did not need - it was grand anyway - and we ended up with a junction that did not work and that looks terrible now in comparison with the way it did. They did not open our swimming pool all year round, last year, as punishment, because people are not meant to point out local authority waste.

They closed it for an extra month during the summer even though the local community proposed a plan to open it longer. We were told, "Sorry, you don't have the proper expertise to run it", even though a member of our committee had a recommendation from the Olympics swimming committee, another member ran three credit unions while another was an expert on child welfare. No council staff member knew anything about swimming pools but officials concluded that they should run it.

There is no power whatsoever at local level and the Government's proposals will not change that. I am not saying that just to have a go at the Government. I was in favour of getting rid of the Seanad and I had no problem with that. Just because the Government parties proposed it, I did not deliberately oppose it. I acknowledged that at least the Government put the Constitutional Convention, flawed and all as it is, in place and it is trying. I am not coming into the House to disagree with what it is planning for the sake of it. I disagree because what the Government is doing will not change anything.

Local government might not be sexiest thing of all and when one starts talking about it, it probably puts people to sleep. It does not sound exciting but it is the most important policy to get right. How we govern ourselves at local level is important and because we are not doing it right, all the energy of local communities is being wasted. Anyone who has tried has given up and, as a result, communities are falling apart. Every now and again, whether it is in Castlrea, Boyle or Roscommon town, a development committee is set up because there is no local democracy to drive the community forward. People get together as a committee and they are all enthusiastic. They set about raising a few quid, a pittance in comparison to what is spent by the local authority. They try to work with local government but the system works against them and bit by bit they are worn down. That should not be the case. If we had a proper local governance system, instead of abolishing town councils, we would expand their number and instead of getting rid of good value councillors, the Government would get rid of expensive councillors.

For example, instead of having 18 county councillors in Roscommon, which is way too many for a population of 58,000, there should be six, one for each district. They should be paid a decent wage in order that they could do the work full time and they should be given the power to elect the chief executive. This would mean that person would be appointed with the thumbs up from the people. That is where the Minister should put the numbers and the eyes and ears of the community. Instead of closing down Boyle Town Council, he should use the money he saves from getting rid of 12 councillors in Roscommon to set up town councils in Castlerea, Roscommon town, Monksland or Ballaghaderreen and give power back to people locally so that the next time a decision is made to rip up a 40 year old peach blossom tree that looks beautiful and replace it with a junction that does not work, local people would be able to stop that before it proceeded. They would have so much to spend then that rather than dig up the footpath with one crack in it or the junction that works or the car park because they will not get the money again next year if they do not, they could spend it well on the local swimming pool, create seven jobs and make it more attractive for people to come into the town for other services. The next time there is a decision to take up a footpath, it would not be made on the basis of "we have the money and we had better spend it or we will not get it again next year" but on the basis of need. For example, €80,000 could be spent on a youth club or something similar. God love them but the young people might trip on the footpath on the way to it but at least there would be somewhere to go on the footpaths. Under the current system, the footpaths are perfect in Castlerea but there are not many places to go and that is a problem. Instead of building footpaths, which local authorities do over and over again, without any connection to reality, it could concentrate next year on setting up a local market so that people could sell their produce locally as opposed to chasing up those who set one up and working out how to close them down.

The Government's proposals will not change a jot. The legislation will centralise power even more and Government Members will continue to do favours for people locally, securing votes and keeping power centralised while, at the same time, we are in the Stone Age when it comes to local government. Why do they think they have so much money in Switzerland? Countries that have real local government do well because that is the right way to do things. We will end up broke because it is same old, same old.

The Bill gives legislative effect to proposals set out in the action programme for effective local government, which was published this time last year and which outlines an overall vision for local government as the primary vehicle for governance and public service at local level in Ireland. The action programme sets out Government policy on a range of reforms to the local government system, including structures, functions, funding, operational arrangements and governance designed to strengthen local government. The two primary aims of the Bill are to provide for the significant reorganisation of local government structures and the strengthening of governance and accountability in local government, with particular emphasis on rebalancing powers appropriately between the Executive and the elected council.

In addition to the significant structural reforms provided for in the legislation, Parts 7 and 8 and Schedule 3 contain a range of provisions relating to the more efficient and effective governance and management of local authorities. Of particular note is the major rebalancing of powers between the executive and the elected council, with much greater powers granted to the elected council to direct policy, oversee implementation and actively review the actions of local authority management. As a former Dublin city councillor for more than 30 years, I welcome these progressive policy changes.

The elected council will also have a power of decision over appointments to the new chief executive positions, which, under the Bill, will replace the current city and county manager positions. It has been said that city and county managers are the most powerful group of unelected officials in the State. The legislation contains the following specific provisions relating to the management and governance of local authorities - the post of city and county manager will be replaced by a post of chief executive, providing more explicit statutory expression of the duty of the chief executive to assist the formation of policy by the elected council, comply with that policy, support its implementation and account for action in that regard, as well as strengthened provisions for the elected members to oversee the actions of the chief executive in implementing policy decided by the elected council; a provision that will allow the elected members to decide on the appointment as chief executive of the person recommended by the Public Appointments Service on foot of the selection process for the post; other provisions to strengthen local government oversight, including expansion of the role and remit of local authority strategic policy committees, establishment of a national oversight and audit commission, and changes to local authority audit arrangements; and the amendment of section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001, which gives elected members power to direct the manager. The recent European Commission call on Dublin City Council to terminate a contract for client services and public relations at the Poolbeg incinerator in which spending ran over by more than €20 million is apt in the context of this Bill. Section 140 motions will no longer apply to planning functions in line with the recommendation of the Mahon tribunal.

A number of outstanding issues relating to the tribunal are relevant to the Bill. When the Mahon report was discussed in the House last year, the debate did not include the Carrickmines module because of pending court cases at that time. The court case collapsed last summer when the main witness became ill and it would be proper to fully debate the Carrickmines module following the publication of this chapter of the report. The Dáil should have a debate also on the entire Mahon report as a result of the the collapse of the court cases against one sitting and three former Dublin county councillors who were involved in rezonings.

Will the Minister arrange that debate?

In regard to the Mahon tribunal report and the making of city and county development plans, councils must guard against creating another property bubble in the future. We are again seeing house prices rise in the Dublin area due to a housing shortage. Care must be taken by planning authorities not to take action which would spawn another property bubble.

Part 10 provides for the arrangements in regard to the holding of a plebiscite to consider future local governance arrangements for the Dublin metropolitan area, including options for the introduction of a directly elected mayor. As a former lord mayor of Dublin, I welcome this initiative. Following a request from the Minister, the Lord Mayor of the City of Dublin shall convene a forum representative of elected members of the four Dublin local authorities to discuss the establishment of an office of a directly elected mayor for the Dublin metropolitan area. Subsequent to its discussions, the forum shall submit a written report, including a draft resolution containing its deliberations and conclusions, to the Minister. Once the Minister is satisfied with the resolution and the supporting statement, it can be put before each of the Dublin local authorities. The resolution shall provide for the holding of a plebiscite on whether the office of a directly elected lord mayor should be established for the Dublin metropolitan area. The resolution and statement should also include details of the future functions, structures and governance for the Dublin metropolitan area, the changes that would arise in regard to the local authorities and in regard to the functions of other bodies, their relationships with the office of a directly elected mayor, the cost and resource implications, advantages and disadvantages arising and measures to maximise efficiency and accountability and to avoid duplication across the local authorities.

All four Dublin local authorities must adopt the resolution no later than 31 March 2014, on the basis of an absolute majority in each local authority, to enable the plebiscite to go ahead. Where the resolution is adopted, a plebiscite may be held to provide for the establishment of the office of a directly elected lord mayor and other such matters relating to local government in the Dublin area as the Minister considers appropriate. The plebiscite shall be held in tandem with the 2014 local government elections.

This section also provides for the making of regulations setting up the arrangements for holding the plebiscite, including provision of information to the electorate. Section 63 provides that should the plebiscite be passed, the Minister shall, within two years of the date of the plebiscite, submit to both Houses of the Oireachtas a report either setting out a proposal for legislation on the establishment of the office of a directly elected lord mayor or containing a statement of the Minister's reasons for not making a proposal for legislation in that regard. I commend the Bill.

I welcome the Bill. We inherited a local government system from the British which is, in some ways good, in that there are positive things in it. However, time changes everything and it is progressive that this Minister and his Department have examined the whole nature of local authority and how it operates in this jurisdiction. A wide variety of issues have been highlighted in this comprehensive Bill, which deserve to be scrutinised. When time passes, there is no reason not to change things which do not work properly or belong to another age. That is a good thing, which I support, and I compliment the Minister and his staff.

Some Members were concerned about the reduction in the number of councillors. Given that I am on record during the Seanad referendum campaign as saying there are too many politicians, I have to be consistent, so that remains my position. I was a councillor for 12 years and would say there were too many councillors. I refer to the volume of time wasted on council business. There were 30 or more members present at some meetings with all saying the same thing, although maybe with slight variations, and dealing with matters which could have been dealt with in ten minutes. I witnessed this for 12 years and always thought it was the most backward system which should be scrutinised in terms of its efficiency, so I welcome this provision.

As politicians - I include councillors - we sometimes work against ourselves. From my time as a member of South Dublin County Council, which is the second largest local authority in the country, councillors would always refer to their workload, etc., but I think we should be honest with each other and admit that being a councillor, whether a city councillor or a county councillor, is not a full-time job. Trying to delude ourselves and mislead the public by saying it is a full-time job, that it takes up all of one's time and that one cannot watch "Love/Hate" on the television because one is a full-time councillor is rubbish. One can push the work into a few days. I worked full-time during the 12 years I was a councillor. I had a real job, as I always liked to say, and one squeezes in the other work. I am sure the Members present did the same. We should be honest when dealing with the public and say that being a member of a local authority is not a full-time job. It would be helpful if we did that.

I refer to one of the pitfalls of our political system, which we inherited, although we did not take all of it on board. I am sure the other Members present are no different from me but 80%, if not more, of one's time is taken up with council business which is so unlike any other parliament. I have only been a Member for a short time but I have never agreed with the proportional representation system. I agree with the British system of single seat constituencies. We should have more constituencies and fewer politicians. If we had single seat constituencies, we would focus on legislation, changing law and improving society. We should not be spending 80% of our time worrying about planting trees, autumn leaves, footpaths and so on. I do not think that is what the electorate intends us to do when they vote for a government.

This is a comprehensive Bill. There is so much in it that one would be here for half of the day if one was to comment on all of the sections. I refer to sections 50 to 65, inclusive, to which my colleague, Deputy Seán Kenny referred, on the plebiscite for the four Dublin local authorities which will take place during the local elections in May. In principle, I have no objection to that and it will be interesting to see the outcome. However, I have heard other Members complain and protest about the abolition of some local authorities, etc. The town in which I live has no problem with councils being abolished because it never had one, despite the fact it is the third largest population centre with 100,000 people living in it. I refer to Tallaght. Not only does it have a greater population than Galway, Kilkenny, Waterford and Limerick cities but in some cases it is twice that of some of the other cities.

As I have said, when I was a member of South Dublin County Council in 2003, it adopted a motion seeking city status for Tallaght as the third largest centre of population in the State. The council's policy is that Tallaght should be recognised as a city because that is what it is, in effect. Not only does it have a large population, but it also functions as a city in every way except in name. It has the educational and sporting facilities, such as Institute of Technology, Tallaght, which one would associate with a city. It has a chamber of commerce. It has never been granted city status, however.

It is worth mentioning that historically, there are no Irish cities. I include Dublin in that. In all five cases, they exist as cities because the Vikings decided so, or because they were granted city status by the British monarchy. There is no such thing as an Irish city. When I discussed the question of city status for Tallaght with the Minister, Deputy Hogan, I informed him that we made no progress in this regard when we approached the Ministers who were responsible for local government in previous Administrations. I suggested to him that he would be the first Irish citizen ever to grant city status to any large town in this jurisdiction. As I have indicated, our current cities achieved that status by virtue of the generosity of Queen Victoria and Charles I.

The reality is that Tallaght is a very large urban centre. While I sympathise with those whose local town councils are being abolished under this Bill, I remind them that Tallaght has never had a town or city council. We want to have one. If a plebiscite takes place on foot of this Bill - I have no doubt it will - where will it leave the third largest centre of population in this State? Where will it leave the existing policy of South Dublin County Council as the second largest local authority in this country, which is that Tallaght should be granted city status? Regardless of the outcome of the plebiscite, it is not just a simple matter of the Minister making a decision on the basis of population size. Other factors, some of which I have outlined, also need to be considered. I reiterate to the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, and particularly to the Minister, Deputy Hogan, that this is the policy of the local authority. We want that to be considered in the period after the plebiscite, if not before.

I would like to share time with Deputy Tom Fleming.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Before I discuss the Local Government Bill 2013, I might suggest that Deputy Maloney should read the library service's insight into localism in politics, which was published a couple of years ago and contains interesting information about single-seat constituencies. It reveals that British MPs spend more time working on local issues than Deputies in this House. Given that the survey on which the report is based was conducted in 2002, before this issue came into sharp focus, I would say the figures are more accurate than they would be if the survey had been conducted more recently. I am sure all Deputies would now be very wary of saying they spend much time on local issues, given the public perception of clientelism and parish pump politics. There is a perception in Dublin that Deputies from rural areas are not interested in anything other than the parish pump. It would be worthwhile for Deputy Maloney to read the document in question because it sheds some light on certain figures. I can say that I certainly do not spend 80% of my time dealing with local authority issues.

The Bill before the House does not represent reform. I think its real purpose is to reduce costs in the long run while indirectly increasing the costs that have to be met by people in local council areas. If we were talking about political reform, we would be looking at various models of local authority operation and local representation. There are models of well-formed local government formats in countries across Europe. There are 1,500 people, on average, per local government unit in France. Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Norway have very effective local government systems. The difference is that real powers are given to the local government structures in such countries. In many countries, local authorities have the ability to raise funding at local level. I understand that 30% of taxation in Denmark goes into local authorities, which decide how it should be spent.

That is why I think this Bill has nothing to do with reform. It does not provide any reform. The only reform it provides is going in the wrong direction. I would argue that we should be developing a local government system from the level of the parish, which is the basic unit that makes up this State. Real local representative democracy at parish level should lead into democracy in the new municipal areas, or electoral areas as they are under the existing Local Government Acts. That, in turn, should lead into democracy at local authority level and ultimately democracy at Government level. In such circumstances, some real change and real reform might take place in this State.

One of the big legacies of previous Governments is their failure to make any attempt at real local government reform. Similarly, this Bill will continue the exact same system we have at the moment, whereby the manager has all the power and the councillors are the opposition, in effect. It will not confront the charade I saw in Donegal County Council for 12 years. The largest party - most of the time it was Fianna Fáil - made it look like it was in control of the council. In fact, it was cosying up to the county manager to get its pet projects dealt with. It made it look like it was providing for the smooth running of the council.

The reality is that councillors have no say. County managers direct the policies, the finances and the total operation of local government. If we really want to reform the limited amount of local government we have in this country, we should bring direct political accountability to local authorities. If we want to bring about real accountability, we should allow the local government system to operate in the same way as the system used in the Dáil - dysfunctional as it is - by allowing those who have a political majority at local authority level to control how local authority areas are run. By allowing local representatives to work in tandem with local authority management, we can replace the charade that exists in every local authority area at present with genuine political accountability. I think that would contribute to bringing about real change and making a real difference.

As part of the local authority reform I am proposing, we should give local authorities the ability to raise funding in their own areas. Perhaps a portion of the national tax take could be made available to them to give them real discretion in spending. Local authorities should be allowed to devise spending policies for the benefit, as they see it, of their counties. Of course there must be oversight and auditing to make sure money is being spent properly and people are being held to account. If local authorities and local politicians are misspending public funding, or failing to direct it towards the areas of greatest need, they must be held to account.

Unfortunately, the real change and real accountability I am advocating is not provided for in this Bill. The change in title from "county manager" to "chief executive" will not make any real difference to the operation of those functions. The Minister is tinkering around the edges. I think the abolition of the town councils is a retrograde step. Given that town councils and, in particular, town commissions do not have any power, I have to question how they have functioned or whether they have functioned at all. If we had real local government reform, those units could have real local powers and be able to deliver local services into their areas. We will not get that under this legislation.

I agree with the proposal in the Bill to abolish section 140 motions as they apply to planning matters. I think that is worthwhile. When I was a member of Donegal County Council, one's ability to get a section 140 motion, or a section 4 motion as it was known during the first few years of its operation, depended on the level of political sway one enjoyed. A decision on whether a person got planning permission hinged on whether he or she had a friend who was a politician.

It was not about whether it was in the interests of the county development. If the same rationale were used for putting forward a section 140 resolution many people in the same circumstances would also have been entitled to them. It makes perfect sense to remove that provision.

The Bill provides that 50% of the rates will be payable on empty buildings. In the current climate that will have a huge impact particularly in Donegal and other rural counties where many of our towns and villages have large numbers of vacant buildings because of the downturn and crisis. Levying 50% of the rate will put them into even more difficulty. It is a backdoor way of raising additional taxes to give extra funding to local authorities. Every cent that will be raised from it will be taken away from national government. That is one impact of the Bill and is a retrograde step.

Overall the legislation is a waste of time because it does not provide any reform or change. It will make no difference to local authorities apart from abolishing the town councils and changing the numbers of elected members - County Donegal will get an extra eight councillors. It will not make any difference to the lives of citizens and will not make a difference to the accountability of local authorities. It will not provide real political accountability whereby people's votes for local authority members will make a difference to the policy direction of the local authority. The Bill represents a lost opportunity and it is a pity we do not see real reform. The Government's idea of reform has been an attempt to abolish the Seanad and tinkering at the edges with the Dáil while maintaining the Executive's stranglehold over the Dáil. It also intends to maintain the stranglehold central government has on local authorities into the future.

Overall this is a lost opportunity and it is a shame we could not see real reform that would deliver real local government rather than the provisions in the Bill.

I call Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, who is sharing with Deputy Conaghan.

Local government reform has had a long and thorny history in Ireland. As it stands, the system is not serving its communities adequately. It remains only a reflection of an ambitious system that has not lived up to expectations since it was originally designed. It no longer remains efficient or relevant to modern Ireland and reform of this system is overdue.

Local government must serve its communities. Local knowledge is essential in dealing with local issues. Instead local government has become a cumbersome system making little tangible difference to local communities. As we are all too aware, Ireland can ill afford a bloated local government structure, hamstrung by inefficiency.

As it exists, our local government system has become a shell, limited in revenue raising powers, in accountability and in self-reliance. We have seen a trend whereby the funding and responsibilities of government are being progressively centralised in Dublin. Real power would mean having a meaningful role in local budgets or issues. I welcome a Bill that proposes reforming this system. However, I am disappointed that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council will get only 65% of its property tax take for 2014. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is one of the few councils that is not in debt. I understand that during these difficult economic times, we must all play a part. However, I question why Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown residents must carry more than their share of the economic burden, when other local authorities have overspent and not been as vigilant with their budgets.

I have some concerns over the introduction of a mayor of Dublin. Similar to the position in the UK, a directly elected mayor should be a political figure in her or his own right. This position cannot be merely ceremonial; it must be an effective position. If we introduce a directly elected mayor to Dublin, that person would have to be mindful and sensitive to all the needs of the greater Dublin area. While this mayor would be advised by the four local representatives of Dublin, the office must represent all the diversity Dublin has to offer. The mayor would have a responsibility for all the environs of Dublin from Tallaght to Dún Laoghaire, not just the city proper.

I would be concerned, however, that such a powerful figure could have an ability to override local initiatives. Dún Laoghaire has been making great progress in cruise tourism and promoting an international diaspora centre. Our villages and towns are fighting back having endured a difficult time. I am concerned that the Dún Laoghaire agenda would be sacrificed for the sake of other initiatives for Dublin city centre.

We must be vigilant that each local Dublin area is championed with equal measure. Regard also must be given to the fact that Dún Laoghaire residents would be contributing significant revenue through high property tax and their voices need to be heard. Our small business associations are supported by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. If it continues to retain only 65% of its property tax take, our council and residents will suffer.

We need a local government that can serve its communities. To do this, we need a system that is relevant to the needs of modern Ireland. This cannot be achieved without reforming the system.

A time of proposed change is a good time to reflect in general on the workings of local government, its status, its strengths, its weakness and its place in Irish political culture and life generally.

Of course, understanding the values and merits of local government is not helped by the opinions of some sectors if our society. I refer in particular to certain journalists, certain statutory bodies, such as the ESRI, and some academics who write on the topic of local government. Many individuals in these spheres of life, in trying to understand local government, limit themselves to commenting based on formal documents such as various Local Government Acts that were passed 20, 30 or 40 years ago and reading books on local government. Such an approach to uncovering and discovering what local government is really about has very limited value and is a very poor guide to the operation of local government in practice.

To really understand how local government works and how valuable it is in improving the life of local communities, rather than reading academic reports they would be much better off to study how an effective local authority member operates locally. That would be a much better pursuit for these academics than searching through academic tomes and volumes or various reports that are so detached from the real world in which most people live.

Let us take an imaginary city councillor standing at his or her hall door. As he or she looks up or down his or her street everything he or she sees is within the ambit of local government.

The councillor looks at the footpath and checks whether the surfaces are smooth and trip free, at the road and street surfaces to see are they broken or do they have potholes. He or she looks at the trees. Are trees missing or broken? He or she looks at street lighting and checks whether all these things are fit for purpose. If they are not he or she can do something about it, can rectify repair or replace them. Let us say that our imaginary city councillor leaves the front door and walks to the local park. Is the park safe? Is it pleasant? Is it clean? Is there a playground? Are the trees and flower areas being maintained? Are the football pitches grassed and marked? Is there a good enclosed five-a-side pitch? The councillor proceeds to the local shopping area and checks whether the public realm is pleasing to the eye. Is it attractively laid out? Is parking available and accessible?

The local councillor has a key role in providing for and maintaining these significant local community facilities. He or she can go to the local library and see if it is properly stocked with books and all the other facilities that local libraries now provide, or to the swimming pool, or the new arts centre. What makes communities work and what makes places into communities is to a huge extent the outcome of local government. In the case of each and every one of these local services the role of the city council is uppermost and the role of the local councillor working with his or her community and with the local managers is at the centre of that endeavour. The role of the council and the councillor has been critical to the success of more recent community structures such as the local employment services, partnerships and drugs task forces. All of this activity and provision is linked and locked into the role of the council within which councillors play a critical part, working alongside their managers and liaising with them.

On the question of power and influence I was on Dublin City Council for 20 years. In that time no city manager ever said to me that I did not have the power or the place to make a request for something in my community or to ask for such a thing to be done. I never heard a city or local area manager talk in that kind of language. Not having formally stated power does not come into the question. Influence counts more than power. Influence more than power makes Irish local government work for the councillor and for the community he represents. The managers are on the same mission as the councillors, to uplift and improve communities. That is their common concern. One cannot operate without the other. They have shared objectives. Their one common enemy is lack of money, not identifying who has power or influence or whether one has more power than the other. At a time when we are thinking about change we should reflect on what we already have and see considerable merit in it, rather than condemn it or abandon whole segments of local government provision as it stands.

Debate adjourned.