As amendments Nos. 1, 10 to 12, inclusive, and 15 are related, they may be discussed together.
Local Government Reform Bill 2013: Report Stage
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 14, line 37, after "district" to insert "council".
We have been told that many of the amendments we have tabled to this substantial Bill have been ruled out of order due to the potential cost on the Exchequer. I have looked back over the amendments tabled by my party that were disallowed. We feel it is very unfair that they have been ruled out of order. It has certainly restricted our ability to try to amend the legislation in this House. We feel it is unfair on the Opposition that matters are being dealt with in this way. I suppose we cannot do much about it today other than make it clear that we are not happy about it.
More consideration should be given to amendments tabled by Opposition Deputies. The excuse of being a potential charge on the Exchequer can be used to rule every one of our amendments out of order.
Amendment No. 1 seeks to give the new municipal districts the ethos of a local authority with powers devolved at local level. In many cases such a district might cover half or one third of a county - substantial areas up to 40 or 50 miles across.
Amendment No. 10 addresses similar concerns relating to municipal districts. We are trying to ensure the Bill confers on municipal districts the status of a local authority and that they have maximum devolution. I know the Minister has spoken about maximising devolution from the centre and this is an opportunity to do so. We feel it should also be reflected in naming the new districts.
I concur with what Deputy Stanley has said on the adjudication of many of the amendments, which have been ruled out of order for a variety of reasons. Given that many of those same amendments were discussed on Committee Stage, I would have thought they would also have been discussed on Report Stage. I am especially mindful of the contention that many have the potential to be a charge on the State. It is a very open-ended statement which contradicts much of the thrust on which we wish to engage with the Minister on the potential changes that could have a positive effect on local authorities and so forth. I ask for a more thorough explanation as to why it is believed they represent a potential charge on the Exchequer.
My amendments, Nos. 10 to 12, inclusive, seek to use the term "municipal district council" rather than "municipal district". In all instances where "municipal district" is mentioned it should also contain the word "council". As the previous speaker has said, it would add weight to the contention that much power will be contained within those district areas with a view to them having autonomy. They should have the power not only for agreeing spend and policy pertaining to that spend, but also have the potential to raise funds within those districts and carry out the duties for that area as they will have been elected to do when the elections take place next year.
I ask the Minister to take on board the thrust of what we are asking for in order to give greater impetus, effect and meaning to those districts by appending the word "council" to them in order to improve their standing and also any legal implication that may exist.
I also express serious concern about a number of amendments that have been ruled out of order. Many of these were also tabled on Committee Stage and were not accepted on Committee Stage. In some cases there was a commitment to make changes. However, they have been ruled out on Report Stage. I do not understand how they can be allowed on Committee Stage and disallowed at this Stage when the same test is applied for both. It narrows down the range of issues we can debate on this very substantial legislation.
Local government reform is critical in the context of reforming all our political institutions because they are all integrated together. If we do things at national level that should be done at local level, we are criticised for having an excessive level of localism at national level. This is incredibly important legislation. On Committee Stage the Minister accused me of viewing my glass as half-empty when it came to this reform. While the Bill introduces reform, it is not the kind of reform I want to see and we have a difference of opinion on that. I believe my opinion is just as valid as the Minister's.
I passionately believe the real opportunity is at the district council level. That is where people function and interact with each other. At that level there is a huge level of volunteerism and public representatives can connect with citizens in a very meaningful way, not just at an individual level, but as community groups across the spectrum of issues in which people are involved. They do Trojan voluntary work at community level in terms of running the country. In fact we are let down by our politics and the real opportunity is at district council level.
The addition of word "council" in these amendments is not a minor affair. It gives the authority at the level where it really matters. While it creates a legal entity, I had understood that was where the real power would be positioned. By not positioning it there, we are maintaining the same culture of control from the Custom House to the councils. The Minister will not change the culture, nor will I.
We have gone through all that nonsense previously.
The culture is dictated by that control mechanism. Essentially we are limiting the prospect of real change and engagement by not taking that on board. That is my honestly held view, having been a member of a town council and a county council for a long number of years.
The Minister said that he would have a look at my amendment No. 15 and I will be interested to hear what he has to say. Some of the things I had expected to change do not appear to have changed following the Committee Stage debate - we will come to some of those later. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say on the issue of control and how he believes that will not continue to be a dominant feature of local government if we do not give the municipal districts the appropriate power and control.
Amendment No. 15 deals with cases where a local authority may revoke the delegation of a function to a municipal district. I am seeking that may only be done by way of agreement with the municipal district. I do not want these to be beefed-up area committees; I want them to be meaningful if they are to happen. At the very least that should be acceded to.
The amendments Deputy Dowds and I tabled were ruled out of order, as they would potentially be a charge on the State. We knew that could happen. They deal with the funding of local government and changes to the collection of rates, in particular. We are not too upset about that because the Minister and his officials have to a great extent worked with us to deal with those amendments in their own way and have put their own wording on those issues.
We greatly appreciate the kind of communication there has been in that regard in the past few months. It has been very constructive. We both feel that way. I hope that the Minister will tell me his view about spreading the payments when it comes to new valuations as set down in our amendment.
There is a two-tier economy in this country. Certain parts of the country are being revalued. It started in Dublin then Limerick and now Waterford. In many cases the increases on the rates bill for some businesses are as large as 200% or 300%. There is a simple idea behind my amendment, to spread the payments over three years, to allow people to manage the increases. We spotted something in the Bill which we thought was important. There is a policy contradiction. Somebody in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government had the foresight to examine the harmonisation process that occurs when local authorities are amalgamated and felt that it would be wise not to inflict a sharp shock on businesses but to spread that harmonisation process over 10 years. For a business within a local authority area that is being amalgamated with another local authority the harmonisation process would be spread out so that it would have a minimal effect on the business. A 300% increase in a new valuation for a business is potentially disastrous and catastrophic for the business.
We thank the officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for their technical help. We propose to spread the payments at least over three years. That has a downside: this is budget neutral and there will be people who are subject to decreases, which must be spread out like the increases. I am less concerned about that than I am about the people who would have to suffer the increase so quickly in one year. That is a real problem. I would appreciate if the Minister could address our amendment, which was ruled out of order on Committee Stage and again here. I know that he is considering it and talking to his officials about it, as well as dealing with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
We are speaking to the amendments in the group, Nos. 1, 10 11, 12 and 15.
I understand that. Could the Leas-Cheann Comhairle allow me to finish?
I want to call the Minister now to reply.
I would like to mention the other two amendments. With regard to the 50% issue and the rebate I understand that the Minister will allow discretion in the local authorities. We appreciate that he has accepted the essence of our amendment. To impose a 50% bill on a vacant premises would be a mistake. A two-tier economy exists. I understand from the Committee Stage debate that the Minister will allow the local authorities have discretion and there will be no statutory enforcement of that 50% outside Dublin, Cork and Limerick.
The last amendment has to do with arrears. I understand that the Minister will table an amendment in the Seanad to deal with the arrears that are tacked onto a new sale or a leasehold. Perhaps the Minister could address how he proposes to deal with that in the Seanad.
I have allowed people to voice their disappointment about the amendments but I cannot allow discussion on them. I call on the Minister to reply.
Amendments Nos. 1, 10, 11, 12, and 15 relate to discussions we held on Committee Stage. I assure Deputy Cowen and others I do not decide what amendments are included or not. I hope they appreciate that it is a matter for others to make those decisions.
The amendments we are discussing are similar to those they discussed on Committee Stage. During that debate we considered the word "council" to describe municipal districts, which, as Deputies have rightly said, is more familiar to people and would confer a certain status on a municipal district. I understand why the Deputy raised those points but I am convinced that it would bring confusion rather than clarification to the reform that we propose. For that reason I propose not to use the term "council" despite the corporate status that it would confer on the municipal district entity. I want to make clear that the municipal district system involves substantial reform, not just a replication of the county council area committee system. The defining characteristic of the municipal district is that, unlike the area committee, the elected members for each district will perform functions of the local authority on a devolved basis for the district, thereby increasing subsidiarity and making local government more responsible to local communities. Contrary to what Deputy Catherine Murphy says, 70% of all local representation now is in town councils but they have only 7% of the local government activity. I want to see those areas having more power and responsibility through the municipal district system.
There are 70 reserved functions assigned to the elected members at the municipal district level. Some are no big deal but for the first time there are other substantive ones. Town councils did not have them but the municipal districts will have these particular powers. Districts will have full power to decide on matters at district level, local area plans, by-laws, works on roads, housing and amenities and will be fully engaged in a structured way with the local community. I will insist that they engage with the citizen in a structured way at that level, for the first time. The democratically elected councillor for the municipal district will be able to attend plenary session in the same local authority area to fight the case even further for the needs and resources of a particular district. There is no duplication of public representation, no dual mandate, and I would prefer, as I am sure most people would prefer, to be on a local authority that had meaningful power and responsibility rather than tokenism.
There was a structure in place, for many years, the town council, whose powers have been taken away. It started in 1977 with the abolition of rates but that is history. We want the municipal district system to provide a coherent and comprehensive system of governance within each county, to embrace as many areas as possible. It is up to the local authorities in plenary session to devolve more than I am devolving. This is the list of reserved functions we have put into the legislation but if it wants to, the full council can decide that the municipal district can do more. We are giving that flexibility to local authorities, not to put them in a straightjacket in terms of what they do at municipal district level but to see if there are powers more appropriate to the municipal level than the full plenary council level.
This reform programme introduces more power and responsibility and brings it closer to the citizen in an integrated way, not an administrative and bureaucratic way, not for the sake of having a town council in every town over a certain population or, in the case of Granard, with effectively no population. This is the type of change we are trying to make in order to eliminate the structural duplication. The human and other resources will be put to better use to promote the sustainable economic, social and community development of an area. The functions that may be performed by the elected members at various levels of governance are set out in the Bill. Section 21 will insert a new section, 131A, and a new schedule, 14A, in the 2001 Act, the first and second parts of which will deal with the functions that should be performed by members at municipal level or by members of the municipal district or local authority levels.
The allocation function as set out in the Schedule was decided almost entirely on the basis of the recommendations of the working group that I set up between the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland and the Association of County and City Councils. They have engaged very constructively in this process. By giving them the opportunity to allow the full plenary session of a council to devolve more in addition to what we have agreed gives some credibility to the notion that I want to devolve as much as I possibly can to the lowest possible level. I am firmly of the same view as the Deputies opposite. There is discretion to do that.
While I am sympathetic to Deputy Catherine Murphy's point about more devolution I have explained what I am doing but I will reconsider the matter for Committee Stage in the Seanad to give a bit more legal impetus to the notion that we have to consult with municipal district level members on the revocation of delegated functions to that level.
If it would make even further progress towards showing my bona fides in regard to these amendments, I am certainly prepared to do that part of it on Committee Stage in the Seanad. However, I am not prepared to use the term "council". There is one council and there will be 31 local authorities, not 114. I do not want to recreate or confer corporate status on an entity like the municipal district just for the sake of it.
With regard to the devolution of powers, one issue is that of bus stops, which is not dealt with in the reserved functions. Perhaps the officials will take note of this point. At the moment, in order to install a bus shelter, it is necessary to contact the National Transport Authority and chief executives and a plethora of other people have to become involved. If a bus shelter is needed in Johnstown, Urlingford or anywhere else, it should be within the competence of the local authority to erect one so that four or five people can stand in out of the rain while waiting for public transport. The current situation is ludicrous. By and large, there are no bus shelters in rural areas whereas there are plenty of them in the North. Small, modest bus shelters can be cheaply installed. It is one of the issues we need to address. We are talking about involving local councils more in performing functions and about more environmentally friendly policies. If we are to get people to use public transport, we have to provide shelters for them to stand in out of the rain while they are waiting for that transport. The people who can decide best where to locate that bus stop are the local councillors elected on behalf of the people.
Some of the measures in regard to the devolution of powers are very small and frivolous whereas the Bill does not deal with some of the major issues. For example, we lobbied for the joint policing committees, as did other parties. The Department, with the Department of Justice and Equality, needs to consider strengthening those joint policing committees to give them real teeth because they will be better if they are strengthened.
I acknowledge what the Minister has said in regard to what he believes and the manner in which he has set out devolved powers to district councils, as I will continue to call them, as well as the option and the powers that remain with the local authority to devolve further powers. Perhaps the Minister could set this in train at this early stage and ask local authorities to begin this process, as they see fit, in order to have brought finality to it before the elections take place next May.
I am still disappointed the Minister does not believe it is necessary to allow the terminology to include the word "council". In my own county, for example, in any correspondence or communication they have, they now refer to themselves as Offaly local authorities, made up at present of Birr Town Council, Tullamore Town Council, Edenderry Town Commission and Offaly County Council. I do not believe it would have any adverse effect on the workings of that local authority and its function in devolving powers to district councils, of which there would be only three. It would give greater credence and authority to many candidates and councillors alike, as they seek the affirmation and support of the electorate in order to serve on those district councils, to be able to say that person is being elected to the overarching Offaly local authority with specific responsibility, as devolved by that authority, to a municipal district, with the effect of having responsibility for many devolved powers, as the Minister said.
I reiterate that this process should now begin, in addition to the list the Minister has drawn up, and for it to be added and agreed across the country prior to any election taking place. It is in that vein I believe it is an easier sell to the public because they will feel they are electing a person to a district or area who can effect change and progress in that area for which they are elected, and have the funding available to them to do so.
As I have said on numerous occasions, and will say again, I am not arguing that every town council should be retained. The Minister said the coverage is 7%. There is a lesson to be learned from some of the functions that town councils carried out that are necessarily going to transfer into the municipal district councils. The county councils tended to focus much more on what I would call hard services, such as roads, footpaths, street lighting and that kind of thing, whereas the town councils would have a stronger role in regard to softer services involving engagement with communities and running events, such as awards nights, tidy estates competitions and so on, that really make a difference to an area. That is the area I am concerned is not going to be picked up by the municipal authorities.
I am very unhappy we cannot debate section 69, which relates to local government funding and Irish water, because the level of discretionary spend will be incredibly important right across the spectrum, including the points that have been made in regard to commercial rates and all the rest. However, the amendments on that have been ruled out of order. This will have a bearing in terms of the kind of services about which I am talking.
It will be very important that the passage of this legislation is a process rather than an event in regard to the devolution of functions. For example, if the Committee on the Environment and Local Government has a role in this regard, or if there is another monitoring agency, which we will discuss later on other amendments, it is very important that this is a dynamic process.
The Minister did not come back to me with regard to amendment No. 15, although he had said he would look at this when we discussed it on Committee Stage. The county council can revoke the delegation but I sought that this would be by consent rather than by diktat, more or less. The Minister might address this point.
I call Deputy Deasy on amendments Nos. 1, 10 to 12, inclusive, and 15.
We are talking about the funding of local government, as Deputy Murphy mentioned. Some 50% is the estimate with regard to commercial rates funding local government, so I believe it is germane.
We are not on amendment No. 23.
I ask the Minister to comment on the three amendments concerning the transitional relief fund, the 50% rebate issue and how we propose to deal with the legacy or historical arrears on properties.
I wish to raise two other issues. First, we need to get into a debate here as to how, organisationally within government, we deal with the whole area of rates and whether this should be dealt with by one Department. This area crosses over into three or four different Departments at present and an argument might be made that it would be better for any regulations or legislation dealing with this area to be centrally located in one Department.
Second, legislation was introduced this year in the Seanad, the Valuation (Amendment)(No. 2) Bill. I know the Minister is aware of this Bill and is anxious to move it on. One issue in the Bill is the whole area of self-assessment and whether businesses that are now being revalued and given new valuations will be allowed to self-assess under the new legislation. It is something that is very pertinent. I am being asked that question by businesses that have new valuations and I would appreciate a response from the Minister.
All I would say to Deputy Deasy is that the issues he has raised are being discussed during the course of the day. Any savings that will accrue from the reforms we are undertaking should not impose any additional cost on business. This is about harmonisation of the systems in place downwards, not upwards. At the end of the day, it is a matter for the elected members, who have a reserved function on this matter at budget time, to ensure that is the case.
Considerable savings will be made from the elimination of the duplication and the integration of services at staffing level, as well as at a structural level, to allow for that to happen. I will make allocations very shortly in regard to the general purpose grants, in conjunction with Irish Water, which will hopefully allow local authorities to see the benefit of the reform in 2014 and not just be waiting over a ten-year period.
Under the legislation, it can be up to ten years but if local authorities are in a position financially to harmonise their rates in one go and have the resources arising from these allocations to do so, we will do so. In respect of the other issues relating to 50%, we suggested on Committee Stage in the Seanad that will be a reserved function of the local authorities.
May I speak?
The Minister only has a minute remaining.
I will come back for that one later on. Most of the functions mentioned by Deputy Catherine Murphy will be allowed to continue at municipal district level. I do not think people have got into their minds that they have seven or eight councillors at municipal district. These councillors will be able to perform many more functions than the old town councils. The same people will also be able to go to the plenary session of the council and fight their case for resources for the municipal district. That is eliminating duplication and giving them another chance. Obviously, they must build relationships with municipal districts around their county or city to achieve that. It is a process and I agree with the Deputy that this will not just end with this legislation. That is why I have given powers to the local authority in plenary session to add more reserved functions to be devolved at local level to municipal district level if it wishes to do so. In respect of amendment No. 15, I spoke about the discretion that will be available in the Bill for functions to be re-allocated between different levels of the council on the basis of local decisions but, as I said on Committee Stage, I am sympathetic to considering what amendment we could bring forward in the Seanad to reflect the need to consult municipal district members on the revocation of a delegation function to that level. We are prepared to look at the context of the Seanad. We have not had it for this Stage.
Is Deputy Stanley pressing the amendment?
Does Deputy Stanley wish to conclude?
The Deputy mentioned bus stops.
Most traffic and parking functions will be at district level so we will check the situation regarding bus shelters. I do not see any reason a local authority cannot provide an essential facility for citizens at that level if it wishes to do so.
Small bus shelters.
If it wishes to do so, I am sure there is nothing stopping it at the moment.
They are not allowed to do it.
We will have a look at that.
How stands the amendment?
One has to go through the National Transport Authority to apply for the bus shelter. The list is drawn up by the senior executives in the National Transport Authority. I am not casting any aspersions on them but they are remote from where the bus stop is needed. If the bus stop is needed in Urlingford or Castletown, the councillors need to be able to make that decision. It is not something that needs to be made centrally in an office in Dublin. The people in the locality - the local area engineer and the local councillors - should be involved in the same way as they would be when a roads plan is done for the area. They are the people in the area. The Minister has been a local councillor, as has Deputy Cowen and some of the other Deputies present, and he understands what I am talking about. Regardless of whether one is to the right or left or in the centre of the political spectrum, it is practical stuff that needs to be devolved.
Amendments Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, are out of order.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 28, after line 36, to insert the following:
"19. (1) The Minister shall as soon as is practicable and in accordance with this Part establish an Advisory Panel on the Future Development of Local Government (in this Part referred to as the Panel).
(2) Membership of the Panel shall comprise of three persons appointed by the Minister with the consent of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Community and Local Government.
(3) The Panel shall prepare and submit to the Minister not less than 1 year after the 2014 Establishment Day, and every second year hence, a report detailing—
(a) the effectiveness of the reforms made to Regional Authorities under this Act;
(b) the effectiveness of the reforms made to Local Authorities under this Act;
(c) the effectiveness of the reforms made to Municipal Districts under this Act;
(d) a review indicating the level of adherence in the State to each provision of the European Charter of Local Self Government done at Strasbourg on 15 October 1985, and what measures the Panel consider necessary to achieve the fullest adherence (ETS No. 122);
(e) the measures the Panel deems necessary to further devolve functions and powers to regional authorities from central government in the areas of—
(i) planning and development;
(ii) environmental protection;
(iii) sustainable economic growth;
(iv) transport provision, including roads and public transport;
(v) household, commercial and industrial waste;
(vi) public procurement;
(vii) renewable energy capacity;
(viii) social and community development;
(ix) education and training;
(x) culture and heritage;
(xi) parks and wildlife;
(f) the measures the Panel deems necessary to further devolve functions and powers to municipal district councils from local authorities in the areas of—
(i) planning and development;
(ii) environmental protection;
(iii) sustainable social and community development;
(iv) sustainable economic growth;
(v) energy microgeneration;
and all powers and functions referred to in Parts 1, 2 and 3 of Schedule 14A of the Principal Act;
(g) a review of the funds, assets and resources assigned to local government on a per capita basis for each Municipal District Council, Local Authority and Regional Authority.
(4) The Panel shall publish its report within 30 days of presenting it to the Minister and it shall be laid before Dáil Éireann by the Government forthwith.
(5) The Panel shall stand dissolved only with the consent of both Houses of the Oireachtas on the request of the Government.".
Again, we had a debate on Committee Stage on this issue. The basis of it is that many of the functions I have included here are contained in the European Charter of Local Self Government, to which we signed up. In essence, I was looking to connect the two. The Minister said he was sympathetic to some of the points I was making and I will reserve saying anything further until I hear what he has to say and respond to it rather than labouring the point because the Minister knows the issue I raised on Committee Stage.
I acknowledge the spirit and intent of what Deputy Catherine Murphy is seeking to do here. I believe the Bill caters fairly well for her objective, particularly through the establishment of a national oversight and audit commission. This commission will scrutinise local government performance in fulfilling national, regional and local mandates. It promotes value for money where State funds are channelled through local government and the development of best practice and enhanced efficiency in the performance of local government functions. In terms of this latter point, this will achieve the Deputy's objective to ensure the functions of local government are kept under review.
In this regard, like Deputy Catherine Murphy, I strongly support devolution of functions to local government. It is clear, as I said earlier about the other amendments, that the Bill provides opportunities for significant devolution in terms of enterprise support and local and community development. It provides for further scope for further devolution from national level through the extension of section 72 of the principal Act to include all Departments and State agencies.
I am also glad to be able to state to the Deputy that at yesterday's Cabinet meeting, the Government agreed to a local government proofing procedure in respect of any new public services at local level. This will have the effect that in the future, local government must be considered first as a service delivery mechanism at local level. In terms of the overall review of the reform programme, we are also strengthening the representative structure for local authority elected members, including the development of a unified association and enabling the members to have a more effective input into the development of policy nationally.
The Bill also provides specifically for meetings with the members' representative associations. I also note the point raised by the Deputy during our last debate whereby the language of this amendment comes from the European Charter for Local Self Government. I remind her that we have recently been the subject of a review by the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities which welcomed the efforts for greater devolution enshrined in this Bill and called for accelerated implementation of the action programme to address the issue of inadequate subsidiarity and scope within the Irish local government system. I again make clear that criticisms made in that report, which was finalised last July, relate to the existing position and not, as some have misleadingly suggested, to this Bill. The Council of Europe has confirmed this. That said, a key objective of this reform programme is to reduce significantly the number of structures and processes and we are doing this with regard to the number of duplicative administrative and political structures through the replacement of town councils with municipal districts and in the mergers of Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary. It would be inconsistent of us to support the proposed establishment of an advisory panel in that context.
I welcome the point made by the Minister in respect of local government proofing services. It must be an ongoing and dynamic thing. We would agree that it is not going to happen unless it is that. My concern was that oversight and audit would be counting what is in place rather than looking to the future. I was wondering how that was going to happen, which was the motivation for my tabling this amendment. It is critical if we are going to de-clutter in many ways what we do at national level and do it at a much more appropriate level, which is at local level. I accept the point made by the Minister in respect of section 72. It remains to be seen whether it actually happens. I will withdraw the amendment in the interests of good faith but I may come back and seek that if I am not satisfied in a year's time that we are seeing the right outcome. I hope the Minister would give me a hearing at that stage if it is not playing out in the way we hope it will.
Amendment No. 6 is out of order.
Amendment No. 8 is an alternative to amendment No. 7 and both may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 29, between lines 2 and 3, to insert the following:
19. The Principal Act is amended by inserting the following Part after Part 3:
22A. (1) Every city and county council shall designate community council areas throughout its local authority area.
(2) The community councils would be on a statutory basis so that all agencies involved are obliged to act accordingly to that plan as passed by the councils.
(3) The structure of each such community council area shall reflect the natural community of that area and each village and town shall have its own community council.
(4) The number of members on each community council shall be between the range of 10 to 15 (dependent on population).
(5) Members of the community council shall consist of local councillors, statutory agencies, residents and representatives from the local community and voluntary sector.
(6) Residents shall be elected to the community council annually; such election shall take place at an annual general meeting of the community council.
(7) Membership of the community council will be on a voluntary basis.
(8) Persons registered on the register of electors for the particular year shall be invited to the annual general meeting and each such person shall be entitled to vote to elect community council members.
(9) Each community council may extend ex-officio, non-voting positions to representatives of local community groups, local councillors, statutory agencies and representatives from the local community and voluntary sector. Community groups shall be registered with the relevant local authority. Community and voluntary sector representatives would be nominated by their respective networks.
(10) Community councils may draft Local Area Plans in conjunction with the executive of the relevant local authority and any such plans so drafted shall only be put to the relevant local authority for approval following a vote of persons on the register of electors of the relevant community council area.
(11) The plans would be on 6 year cycles in line with city and county development plans.
(12) Community councils shall be consulted on any major planning applications within that community council’s area and shall be invited to make submissions on same to the relevant local authority.
(13) Community council functions will include—
(a) organising local community events,
(b) organising plebiscites on matters including street name changes,
(c) organising community levies for specific projects, including playgrounds, sports facilities and parks,
(d) allocation of funding for lighting, traffic calming measures, upkeep of play areas and minor remediation measures, and
(e) establish advisory councils on community-based planning to provide a forum for discussion and development of the framework for community-based planning.".
This amendment is in essence about the setting up of voluntary community councils. We are not talking about an extra cost. There are many voluntary community councils throughout the State as well as local development groups, forums and committees in towns, villages and suburbs. What we are seeking to do is to link these into the local authority system.
These community councils could deal with a number of issues, for example, local area plans, community functions involving plebiscites and events, local community levies, the allocation of funding for minor remediation works, etc. We are trying to strengthen and recognise what is in place, to put it on a sounder footing and to link it with the local authority system. It is not a question of creating another layer of bureaucracy. Rather, it is a question of recognising the role of these voluntary groups, which have various names, and putting them on a proper electoral footing. This issue is often raised. From time to time, every Deputy attends public meetings called by various groups. In the case of a small number of groups, questions are asked about where they get their mandate from and how they are elected. Sinn Féin is seeking to ensure such groups are representative of the communities they claim to represent and are linked with the local authority system. They deal with local matters that should not tie up the next tier of local government.
In recent years, there has been much talk of social engagement and citizen engagement. We in this country are good in those respects compared with other countries, but we are in danger of losing that engagement, particularly in cities. It is still fairly good in rural areas, but our amendment is intended to improve civic participation and ensure it is done in a democratic way.
My amendment is similar to the one that has been discussed, in that it would set up community councils in an effort to plug the gap that will exist once the Minister's cull of many councils throughout the country as well as many of his colleagues at local authority level has been completed.
We will be okay.
Many of my own colleagues, too. I recognise the Minister's efforts to appease many of the authorities' members by ensuring municipal district councils will have devolved or, as he stated, greater, powers, but only one such power is not currently in the remit of local authorities. Hence my suggestion that the list be updated and that departmental functions relating to local authorities be devolved so as to give meaningful effect to the change that has supposedly been promised.
Deputy Catherine Murphy rightly stated that many town councils had played a fine role in areas other than those normally associated with local authorities, those being, housing, planning, lighting, water, etc. Town councils give much help and deliberation to retailers, community organisations and sporting clubs that may be lost in this change. I am mindful that some town council areas do not have the populations of many larger areas, from 7,000 people down to the likes of Clones, which has a small population but an effective town council. The same is the case in many parts of Donegal, my county and elsewhere.
Deputy Stanley and I have the best of intentions in wanting to plug the gap. There is room for community councils. Their work can be assessed, a similar proposal to Deputy Catherine Murphy's, who referred to analysing the benefit of the so-called reform that has been laid before the House. Community councils would look after areas that will be lost in the cull. Their structures would reflect the natural communities of their respective areas and each village and town should have its own community council. The number of members should range from seven to 15 people, who could undertake their duties on a voluntary basis and be elected annually at the council's AGM, where persons on the register of electors would be invited to cast their votes. Each council could extend ex officio non-voting positions to representatives of local community groups. The community councils could draft local area plans in conjunction with the executive of the districts.
What will the councillors do?
I acknowledge the Minister's intention in giving municipal district councils the power to set local area plans, but I also acknowledge the many county councils that involved town councils in the process without being compelled to do so. They did this in a spirit of unity and with the aim of delivering to their communities in the fullest possible sense. This practice can be continued.
Community councils would also be consulted on major planning applications. The Minister knows well the difficulties facing companies trying to develop wind energy and facing EirGrid in its efforts to improve its systems and networks. Many of the groups and organisations that are fearful of these proposals have pointed out that the public are not being engaged with in the consultative manner that is set in stone by various European conventions. The belief is that many of the companies involved are in contravention of those conventions. This Bill is a means to address that issue at local level by giving the public a greater level of involvement in local authorities' major planning decisions.
Community councils could also have responsibility for organising local community events, holding plebiscites on street name changes and so forth and raising community levies for playgrounds, sports facilities, parks, etc. When considering ways to devolve more power to local authorities, the Minister should ask his Cabinet colleagues about the way in which, for example, lottery grants are dispersed. Local authorities could also have a role in providing amenities and co-operating with local sporting and cultural organisations, the effectiveness of which is dependent on a local authority executive's good will in empowering members. This suggestion should be explored.
A cull is being carried out and the Bill is eroding local democracy. My amendment represents a constructive Opposition's approach to plugging gaps. It also offers an opportunity for greater community involvement than would be the case under the Minister's proposal.
I am surprised that Deputy Cowen has the mistaken view that we are taking powers from local authorities, given the fact that his party in government set up so many agencies and abolished so many opportunities for local government to play its part. Town councils were effectively made redundant.
That is a general statement.
I draw his attention to the fact that former town commissions had no power to adopt local area plans.
I made that point.
No, the Deputy did not.
They were engaged with under the goodwill of the local councils-----
If we were to allow-----
-----and the responsible attitude of the members of those councils.
What the Deputy is proposing with the community council is effectively to over-ride the democratic input of the elected members-----
We are not.
-----of the municipal district by asking them-----
We merely asked for a consultative process.
The Deputy is asking them to draft the local area plans. The democratically elected person in the municipal district is the elected person who should be in charge of adopting that plan.
It is a consultative process on the draft, not the plan.
There certainly should be a structure to ensure the community is engaged in the process, but not involved in the drafting of it.
The Minister has gone a step further actually.
He has given non-elected people a role in the corporate policy group.
We will come to that later.
When we reached it on Committee Stage, the Minister did not answer any of our queries about it.
Everybody agrees that the existing community and voluntary structure is not working. I will try to reflect the tenor of the amendments. A working group has been established under the chairmanship of Fr. Seán Healy, whom the Deputy knows well, to bring the people together to assess what structure of citizen engagement and participative democracy we can have in conjunction with the municipal district members and the plenary council members.
I have one here.
I will certainly reflect on it for an amendment in the Seanad. I will get the report from Fr. Seán Healy on Friday and we will see what recommendations he offers. I am prepared to look at a structure to be put it in place, but I will not agree to a list of functions for a community council that would actually subvert the powers that were given to the municipal district member at local level.
It would not. The Minister is being disingenuous.
In addition, council officials would be tied up with doing the work with the community council rather than with the democratically elected member at municipal district level. We will not do that. We will come up with a structure and hopefully the Deputy-----
The Minister acknowledges there is a gap.
Yes, there is a gap, and I acknowledged that on Committee Stage. That is the reason I set up the working group, to look at what it considered to be an appropriate structure and to give some advice on it.
That is a big acknowledgement.
We will consider that in the context of ensuring that there are proper structures in place to engage effectively at local level, in a structured way rather than a haphazard way or on an ad hoc basis. It will be the first time the community and voluntary sector will have a role and responsibility with local government, as it has throughout other sections of the Bill.
The Minister is overstating the role of what is being proposed here. I accept his statement that he will await the feedback from the working group. While I welcome that, I appeal to him to try to give due recognition to the voluntary groups. They are haphazard at present and some of them do not have a uniform system for how they are elected or to establish their mandate. That must be addressed too, along with linking them into the local authority system.
First, I welcome the fact that the Minister has acknowledged that, by virtue of what he has proposed in this Bill en masse, a gap exists in respect of the involvement of various communities which now find themselves without a town council. Second, I welcome the fact that he is open to suggestions, such as what is proposed by myself and Deputy Stanley, to fill that gap. However, I am very disappointed that on Report Stage of this Bill the Minister is telling us that on Friday, after this Bill is passed, he will look at the report from Fr. Healy and others with a view to possibly amending the Bill on Committee Stage in the Seanad.
It will come back to this House again.
That shows a great disregard for this process.
It will be brought back before the House.
I would have preferred an amendment such as this-----
I do not agree with the wording.
The Minister acknowledges there is a gap.
He has acknowledged the folly in his Bill if it means that many communities will be left without the type of input he and I believe they should have and which they have had in many local authorities and town councils heretofore. The Minister set up a working group which will make recommendations to him, and to him alone. It will not consult with me or any other representative on Committee or Report Stage. That is a total disregard for the process in which we are engaged. I am sure there are many other Members whose constituencies are greatly affected by this Bill, which, at its core, attacks much of the local democracy to which we have become accustomed and which we wish to grow and elongate. It is very disingenuous and shows great disregard for the process in which we are engaged to consider the weight that may be given to a report that will be published next Friday. I accept that the authors of that report, on foot of the Minister's recommendations, have done much work over the last number of months, but it would have been more appropriate if the Minister had asked them to report and allow us to digest it-----
I did ask them.
-----before this process came about.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 29, between lines 2 and 3, to insert the following:
19. The principal Act is amended by inserting the following Part after Part 3:
22A. (1) Every city and county council shall designate Community Council Areas throughout its local authority area.
(2) The structure of each such Community Council Area shall reflect the natural community of that area and each village and town shall have its own Community Council.
(3) The number of members on each Community Council shall be between the range of 7 to 15 (towns shall have 15 members and villages shall have 7 members).
(4) Members of the Community Council shall undertake their duties on a voluntary basis.
(5) Community Council members shall be elected annually, such election shall take place at an annual general meeting of the Community Council.
(6) Persons registered on the register of electors for the particular year shall be invited to the Annual General meeting and each such person shall be entitled to vote to elect Community Council members.
(7) Each Community Council may extend ex-officio, non-voting positions to representatives of local community groups, such groups shall be chosen at the Annual General Meeting.
(8) Community Councils may draft Local Area Plans in conjunction with the executive of the relevant local authority and any such plans so drafted, shall only be put to the relevant Local Authority for approval following a vote of persons on the register of electors of the relevant Community Council Area.
(9) Community Councils shall be consulted on any major planning applications within that Community Council’s area and shall be invited to make submissions on same to the relevant local authority.
(10) Community Councils may organise matters such as—
(a) local community events,
(b) plebiscites on matters including street name changes,
(c) community levies for specific projects, including playgrounds, sports facilities, parks.”.”.
Amendment No. 9 is out of order.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 29, line 12, to delete “districts” and substitute “district councils”.
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 29, line 13, after “district” to insert “council”.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 29, line 14, after “districts” to insert “or as municipal district councils”.
Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 are out of order.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 33, to delete lines 5 to 8 and substitute the following:
“(b) A local authority may, by resolution and having received the prior consent of the municipal district council concerned, revoke the delegation by it under this subsection of a function, but the revocation is without prejudice to anything previously done by virtue of the delegated function.”.
Amendments Nos. 16 to 19, inclusive, are out of order.
I move amendment No. 20:
In page 40, between lines 16 and 17, to insert the following:
“(2) Each municipal district may in respect of that district set the commercial rate based on profits in the previous year. This should be part of the calculation along with valuation.”.
As we heard a Member on the government benches say this morning, there are two economies. The economic realities in commercial areas in some towns and villages can be very different from what it is in others. Rates is one of the biggest matters of contention at present with regard to the funding of local authorities. The case was set out by the previous speaker in respect of the legacy rates. I agree with that and I have spoken to the Minister a few times about it. However, the issue here is the proposal in the amendment that the profitability of the company or business involved must be a factor. Some businesses have very small turnovers and profit margins. There are businesses with zero profit margins and some businesses are actually trading in the red, with people trying to keep them going on overdrafts. The amendment recognises that reality.
Currently, banks or other profitable businesses with turnovers of millions of euro, pay the same rates per square metre as the pound shop or a shop selling sweets or bicycles. We must have a rates system that is more reflective of economic reality in order to keep small businesses going.
We pay a lot of lip service to the SME sector, saying that we are all in favour of it, but in framing this legislation we must ensure that this sector is recognised. We must provide for the fact that even in good times some businesses will struggle. Where a business is making substantial profits, such as in the financial sector, the Bill should recognise that a bank can pay more than a bicycle shop. That key point needs to be reflected in the legislation. We want that discretion to be added to the calculation process which is archaic at the moment. It does not reflect the commercial and economic reality on the ground. Sinn Féin wants to ensure that jobs are protected, even if there are only one or two jobs in a small business. We must try to help businesses, particularly when there are difficult times, as there have been for the past four or five years. Start-up businesses should also be assisted to get off the ground when their profits are low.
Where businesses can pay substantially more and are making large profits, that should be taken into account. It is the fairest and most realistic way of doing it. It is also the most sensible way to create and maintain jobs.
The proposed amendment allows us to go a bit further and seek the Minister's opinion on funding local authorities in general. Despite the commitments made by the Minister and his Government colleagues prior to the introduction of the local property tax that people will be able to see the effect of such funds on local authorities, he has since stated that he is taking 20% out of that funding pool for the Exchequer. On Committee Stage of this Bill, the Minister also stated that he would take €600 million from that fund for Irish Water. That provision was not contained in the initial draft of the Bill. That is a runaway train as regards costs without having the necessary legislation to give effect to it in future. We have had no legislation concerning the transfer of networks from local authorities to Irish Water, or any legislation to set out the mechanism whereby the billing system will be put in place. We have only had legislation to establish Irish Water and commence metering.
Last week, I asked what specific target had been achieved to date since the metering installation process began. The Department refused to answer me, saying it was a function and duty of Irish Water and not the Department's responsibility. I am reliably informed, however, that only 20% of the target has been achieved to date. One must compare the great promise of reform that was made in setting up Irish Water with the mechanism for delivering water by local authorities. One should consider that many of the people hired by Irish Water have come from management roles in local authorities.
On Committee Stage, I said that about 30 people are currently employed in the provision of water services in County Leitrim. Some 16 or 17 of them are at engineering level, while the remainder are at management level. I understand that the Minister has put in place service level agreements with local authorities for the next 12 years where those 30 staff will remain and more management exists in Irish Water. The management of Leitrim County Council, for example, have a responsibility for the provision of water as they have for many other services that authority provides for local communities there. They will continue to have that responsibility and will be paid appropriately. Now, however, the management in Irish Water is going to do the same thing and will also be paid to provide that service.
There will also be a call centre with 450 staff, in addition to the responsibilities and duties under the service level agreement that staff have within local authorities throughout the country.
This amendment is about commercial rates.
Yes, it is about the commercial rate which is about funding local authorities. This Government promised that the funding of local authorities would be most transparent by virtue of the property tax being available to local people who pay it, and the services they expect. However, €600 million of it has already been taken for Irish Water and 20% is being taken for the State, but not for the provision of local services. This highlights the folly of the process and the haphazard manner in which it is being managed. We can now see the duplication that exists in Irish Water and in local authorities for the provision of water services. I want to hear some comment from the Minister in this regard, given that the questions I have tabled are not being answered by his Department.
On foot of the debate that has ensued since the publication of this Bill, will the Minister acknowledge its flaws? Forbes magazine says that Ireland is a great place to do business and we acknowledge that for many multinationals it is so. We also acknowledge the work undertaken by IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, and the strides that have been made in their areas of responsibility. It should be acknowledged, however, that this country is not a great place for small retailers to do business in town centres. Commercial rents have come down by up to 70%, while commercial rates have declined by no more than 5%. If that is the case, how can Ireland be perceived as the greatest country in which to transact business?
I know the Minister will say that there is a responsibility on the part of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, in this area. However, it all ties in to both Ministers' ability to provide relevant and proper funding for local authorities to carry out their functions, as well as assisting local businesses in town centres which are dilapidated due to the Government's ineffectiveness in tackling this issue. Will the Minister acknowledge, as Deputy Deasy said earlier, that there has to be a complete overhaul of the commercial rates system, including the way rates are evaluated and collected? In the Internet age, the current archaic system disregards the turnover of any particular business. In addition, there is no regard for a business's alignment to commercial rent or its profitability. Neither is there any regard to the lack of surcharge on out-of-town-centre developments, as is the case in the North of Ireland which has a 15% rate. Such a rate here would allow funding for local authorities to make a difference in towns which are facing ruin.
Prior to the last general election, the Minister and his colleagues gave a commitment on upward-only rent reviews. Now, however, the legal opinion tells them that it cannot be done, despite the fact that it was the same legal opinion that advised either government party prior to the election.