I suppose we should congratulate the Minister of State before we start taking any business.
Local Government Bill 2018: From the Seanad
Amendments Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together, by agreement.
I have a quick question which the Minister of State may be able to answer. When this section was originally amended by way of a Fianna Fáil amendment, which we supported in the Dáil, it aimed to compel the Minister to introduce legislation in line with the outcome of the referendum. Obviously I was not in the Seanad when this amendment was made but it seems tighter than the Dáil amendment. It says that not only would the Minister have to comply within the two years but it does not give the Minister at that time the option to outline the reasons why he or she would choose not to. Am I correct in that interpretation of the amendment? I just want to make sure that I have not misunderstood it.
With regard to amendment No. 5, we accepted the purpose behind the Fianna Fáil amendment, which was to ensure that there would be a report published within two years which would reflect the outcome of the plebiscites that are to be held on the issue of directly elected mayors. Parliamentary draftsmen felt that the wording of the Fianna Fáil amendment was such that, if it were to be given its strict legal interpretation, a report would have to be produced on the holding of plebiscites as opposed to a report on their outcome. It is a tightening-up of the wording but the purpose of the amendment is to achieve the aim of Deputy Darragh O'Brien's amendment, which was to have a report produced containing and reflecting the outcome of the plebiscites.
Amendments Nos. 6 to 8, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together, by agreement.
I am not sure what the Government is doing. If it is agreeing with the amendment, that is positive. I have already spoken on this issue in the Dáil. If the Government is agreeing with the amendment, I welcome that agreement. I thank the Seanad for looking at this so diligently and for taking on board the arguments made in the Dáil. We are asking for the deletion of the sections set out in the amendment not on the basis of being negative, but on the basis of the reports that were produced for the Government. There were three reports, a basic report and two interim reports following on from it. This report said that giving funding to the city and county councils was a necessary precondition. It said that this funding was absolutely fundamental before any changes took place. It also recognised that the local authorities were working very well on the ground and already had existing shared services. That was acknowledged.
Furthermore, since that report was released my attention has been drawn to research carried out by the economics department of the National University of Ireland, Galway. It reviewed the literature relating to this matter. I draw the Minister of State's attention to this research. It is absolutely non-political. It was produced by the university and made available to anybody who wants it. The research evidence examining scale economies in the Irish case is virtually absent. The proposal came from Government to merge Galway City Council with Galway County Council on a number of bases but primarily because it would be more cost-efficient and because of economies of scale. This research points out that evidence for this is virtually absent. It goes on to point to the notable exception of the work carried out by Dr. Mark Callanan in 2014, which raised concerns about the risks of intuition relating to the perceived benefits that flow from bigger councils and local authority mergers.
The paper goes on to look at international research. The most basic conclusion of this research is that the evidence is inconclusive. Some research says "Yes" and some research says "No". The paper points out this great divergence. In a sense England and Scotland are outliers because their local authorities are much bigger whereas many such authorities in other parts of Europe and the world are much smaller and work very efficiently.
It is a very bad step from a democratic perspective, and I am glad that the Government has now gone back on it, to increase the size of local authorities on the basis of no evidence and in blatant disregard of the Lisbon treaty. The Government constantly quotes the treaty in the Chamber for many reasons but it fails to comment on Article 10, which talks about decisions being made as close as possible to the people on the ground. If the Government is in agreement with the amendment put forward by the Seanad, I welcome that. Any future proposal in respect of Galway should come forward on a case-by-case basis and the Government should set out why it is necessary, why it is proposed, and what it is based on. A fundamental condition is the giving of adequate resources and staff to the two local authorities, which are struggling on the ground.
The Seanad made a very wise decision. The people of Galway were basically being asked to buy a pig in a poke. A document was prepared by some experts but, as is shown by the university document, it was not based on any real hard evidence. These experts proposed the general principle of a merger. As I pointed out to the Minister time and again, they also said that nothing should happen until the money issue is resolved. That issue has certainly not been resolved in the case of Galway. It is also fair to say that we seem to be forever tinkering with structures in this country. I was not all that long mar Theachta Dála do Ghaillimh Thiar when I met an eminent management consultant. He made a very wise observation to me. He said that we are forever tinkering with the structures but that maybe it is time to start making the structures we have work.
My experience of local authorities is that some big ones are very inefficient and some are quite efficient while some very small local authorities are highly efficient and others are not so efficient. It seems to me that often the quality of management and leadership, and not the size of a thing, are what make it work or not work. It is the same with nations: some big nations are not very good at all while some small nations are tremendously effective at servicing their citizens and we can get the very opposite of that effect.
If we are to change the structures in Galway it is fair to say there are three big choices we have to make. One is the status quo. The second is what I call the "Cork solution" where the experts have said to amalgamate but the politicians have said no, that will not work and then they plan to extend the city boundary. The third choice is the merger. Before we come to a conclusion on that we need some answers to some questions. In any new arrangement we would need to know the financial arrangements pertaining to each scenario. We would also need to know what powers in an amalgamated arrangement would devolve to the municipal authorities. In this case the whole of Galway city would just be a municipal authority. As a representative for Galway city I know that the people there are very curious and anxious to know what residual powers would be left in the county.
There are also all of the rural municipal authorities that are screaming out for more power. When town councils were abolished they were meant to be replaced with strong, powerful, municipal, statutory authorities. The argument against the town council is around why towns should get something the countryside does not get. They all need the same services. It was not ever meant to be a recipe for centralisation into the heart of the county.
Before we go any further we need an independent, objective study to work out how good the amalgamation has been in Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary. We need to see if it worked out equally well across the whole of the new territory. Were there marginal areas doing less well? How did the socially disadvantaged areas in the urban areas do, for example? It is not just in totality but also for each constituent part and with particular reference to those who got left behind in marginal, more isolated rural areas and in socially disadvantaged urban areas that are continually left behind even in the cities.
If we are being told that we should accept the report on Galway I would like to know why the expert report on Cork was not accepted. Galway is nearly as big and is certainly as diverse as Cork. Linguistically Galway is a lot more diverse than much of Cork, and geographically it is nearly three counties; county east Galway, as I call it, Galway city and the county of Connemara. County Connemara has very little in common even with east Galway, whatever about the city. Why was the report not done in Cork? We need to look at this.
Representation is a big issue. There will be 57 representatives on the new authority if one was just to add them together. Does anyone really believe in the long term that we would have a local authority of 57 members? Does anybody really believe that it would be an effective council chamber in which to make decisions? The problem is that if it is decided to reduce the representation, and one extrapolates in the 40,000 extra people who are supposed to be situated in and around Galway city, say within a ten mile radius of Eyre Square, how much representation would there be in 20 or 25 years in the more sparsely populated parts of the county such as Woodford, Portumna and Dunmore in the very north of the county, and in the western parts of Connemara?
If the whole area is amalgamated I am concerned that disadvantaged urban areas would be neglected. Parts of our society where there are huge social difficulties are socially deprived areas where many people do not want to live. I remember the first time I went canvassing for the Seanad. I went to Limerick and I was brought into Southill. I have been in many places in Dublin, I grew up there, and I have been everywhere in Galway but I have never seen anything as deprived as Southill was at that time.
It is much better now.
I am not saying it is not. We have, however, massive problems in our cities and this is why we have gardaí with guns on the streets of north inner city Dublin. These are not security problems; these are social deprivation problems. I am not sure that when one puts the whole county together that the focus on these areas of disadvantage would increase. I believe it would actually decrease.
There is one interesting question that always arises in these amalgamation situations, and which I would love to see on paper before I sign for anything on the dotted line, which is around the status of the mayors or cathaoirligh of the various authorities. Galway was the first to have a quincentennial year and other places such as Waterford and Dublin followed with 800 and 1,000 year commemorations to outdo us. There is a lot of history attached to having a mayor in Galway. What status would the mayor of Galway have in an amalgamated local authority? Would it be equal to the chair of the county or the chair of what would be, effectively, a municipal district? I believe these issues need to be looked at again and we need answers before we sign on the dotted line. Another issue is how the mayors or cathaoirligh would be elected.
I do not go along with the theory that what is good for the city is not good for the country. I do not know if my own party colleagues agree with me but I do not understand the logic that cities need five-year directly elected mayors while the areas where houses are further apart, with bigger gardens and a few fields in between are somehow radically different just because they have more space and more greenery, and that those areas do not need the same sort of structures as the more conglomerated housing arrangements that we call cities. Perhaps 100 years ago the areas were radically different because rural areas did not have water services, footpaths, sewerage systems or street lights, along with a million and one other things. Now in rural areas, and certainly in the small rural towns and villages, there are the same requirements for services as in towns and cities. I could never understand this fixation we have with cities and their status. We think that those who happen to live outside the urban areas are some second-class citizens within their own State.
The Minister of State can sum up what I am saying with this: I have always believed that in the case for Galway we should not buy a pig in a poke. I hope today we can agree that what the Seanad did was right and that we can move on from here. I hope that in the meantime the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, makes sure that Galway gets adequate finance now and not because there will or will not be a merger of the local authorities but because Galway, by all recognition and all independent studies, is not getting a fair share of the money. This was highlighted by the expert group. It is absolutely incumbent on the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, without any precondition to provide the necessary money for Galway city and especially County Galway which has been starved of cash. When compared to other cities Galway city does very unfavourably. They should all be funded on an equal basis according to need and an objective formula, which is not the way it is currently shared.
The formula we have is so archaic that it was months before the Department even admitted that there was a formula at all. When I eventually received it, the Department could not explain it. That matter is totally separate from the changes in structure and should be dealt with now. If the Minister of State does not believe me, he should look at his own expert report.
I represent the constituency of Roscommon-Galway and want to say a few words in the same vein as the previous speakers, Deputies Connolly and Ó Cuív.
I do not agree at all with the idea of a merger. I might be wrong, but the population of the city and county of Galway combined is in the region of 300,000. County Galway is 6,000 sq. km in size which is a huge area. Therefore, I do not agree that it should be represented by one entity. That would be a huge mistake, one I hope will not occur. It should be remembered that there are three separate constituencies, namely, Roscommon-Galway, Galway East and Galway West, which, in itself, is something of a record. The area I represent which includes the towns of Ballinasloe, Moylough, Mountbellew and Ballygar is vast and feels neglected.
The most important aspect is funding. I have attended meetings with Deputies Ó Cuív and Connolly, among others, and know what a massive issue the lack of funding is in the city and county. The Minister of State is well aware of this, as is the Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Kyne, having attended the meetings. It is vital that the issue of funding be addressed now. We are all aware of the severe financial position in the county and city. So much work that needs to be done cannot take place.
I support what has been said about the Bill by my two colleagues. There is also a need to establish a town council in Ballinasloe, a town with a population of 7,000. It is vital that towns like it have a town council. There is a lot of work to be done and a need for forward planning. However, I again say I am not in favour of a merger. It is the wrong way to go. County Galway is too vast and has too big a population. Having one council to represent it is not going to make it more efficient. I agree with my colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, that it is often the case that a small entity can be run much more efficiently and do more work.
I will touch on some of the issues about which I spoke before Christmas.
Deputy Ó Cuív, among others spoke, about funding. It must be a year since we had our first meeting, with almost full attendance by Deputies from the constituencies of Galway West, Galway East and Roscommon-Galway, to discuss the issue of funding with senior officials. We were presented with a tabular statement, which was very interesting as it provided information on the finances in the past 20 years and a comparative analysis with the figures for other local authorities. There have obviously been some changes in that time, including the introduction of the local property tax, LPT, among others. However, it was quite clear that a gap had opened up 17, 18 or 19 years ago that had never been closed between Galway County Council and other local authorities. I am not sure the issue was pursued as much as it should have been by Galway County Council, but it has been in the past few years. Irrespective of questions about a merger, as I pointed out before Christmas, the issue of funding is absolutely critical for the county. We face a number of challenges which include those related to the coastline, offshore islands and the size of the county that give rise to a potential need for extra expenditure. I also pointed out that Galway city took in a huge amount in rates that in an amalgamated area would be distributed across the county. There is a large interdependence between Galway city and county. Many people live in the county but work in the city. It could be argued that where rates are being gathered in the city, the employees of the companies paying them who are living in the county do not get the benefit. These are the anomalies that need to be addressed. Irrespective of questions about merging the councils, the issue of funding is paramount.
I am aware, from the discussions on the Bill, that officially Fianna Fáil supported it for a long period, before deciding to change its mind. That was its right and I am sure pressure was brought to bear on the Deputies who represent Galway. That is democracy and it is the case that we do not have a majority. However, with the proposal for a merger came the promise of a sum of money for the county. What is the current status of that proposal? In December a budget was formed by Galway County Council based on the promise of funding.
I apologise if this matter was mentioned earlier, but is it still the Minister of State's intention to progress a new local government Bill in the autumn which will specifically provide for a merger in Galway? What does he plan to do between now and then in terms of cross-party engagement to get the views of Members from Galway and the population of Galway city and county? Is there a process? The Bill would be subject to scrutiny on Committee Stage. In advance of that happening, what level of engagement is the Minister of State advocating? I have had conversations with people in Galway city who, if a merger does not go ahead, still have a desire to see an extension of the boundaries. I have heard suggestions that places as far out as Barna and Moycullen and as far as the motorway boundary in Athenry should be brought within the city boundaries. I would have huge concerns about those suggestions, notwithstanding some of the positives that could accrue in the city if they were to happen. I can see why people in the city would like to take that route, but I would have grave concerns for people in the county in terms of the availability of funding. If a merger is not to go ahead because it does not have the support of the House, as is clearly the case, is the extension of boundaries back on the cards? What form would it take? I would have concerns, if that is the route being proposed, owing to the effect on the availability of funding.
Plebiscites on the issue of directly elected mayors are planned for May to coincide with the local and European elections. It was suggested that people in Galway city and county would be asked for their views on the issue. What would happen if the people in one of the two local authority areas said they were interested and people in the other said they were not? As things stand, the merger is not going ahead. Will the Minister of State now decide not to hold a plebiscite on the issue in Galway city and county in May?
Other anomalies have been pointed to also. There has been agreement on the Galway city ring road project, on which the county council is taking the lead on behalf of the two councils. Businesses in the east of the city, in Parkmore, for example, which skirt the boundary between the city and county are being charged rates for the parts of their premises in the county and the city, which is causing complications. Concern has also been expressed that, while some services are shared between the city and county, for example, the fire service and library services, the city pays recompense for the services it receives from the county. It does not, however, have a say in how they are delivered.
While many of us have spoken about shared services being the way forward, that may not be ideal in all circumstances.
As I have indicated before, at this stage my preference is for a strong unified local authority serving a population of 250,000, and that is growing. It would have the critical mass to be top of the pile after the local authorities in Dublin and perhaps Cork in terms of its weight. Given that there has been so much interaction and engagement between city and county, it makes perfect sense to consider the opportunities the merger would allow in terms of a positive redistribution of funding. I realise the concern is that the effect would be the opposite and that the county would suffer, yet I believe the opportunities for the city and county would be greater.
Another issue is the strength of municipal districts. As discussed, Galway city would have a municipal district in a unified authority. The districts in Dublin City Council have 63 councillors, as I understand it, and there are five areas. They meet monthly or more often and there is a less frequent plenary meeting of the full council. The concern is that it would be a large and unruly or unwieldy council that would be unable to make decisions. However, I believe making decisions and conferring powers at municipal level with a proper budget would be a positive step for municipal areas in a unified local authority. That is what has been proposed by the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.
I have several concerns. Predominant at this stage are the questions of where the plans are and where we are going from now. Will plans be submitted for an expansion of the city boundaries? What impact could this have on the county? What is the basis of shared services? Is the Minister of State now proposing to move forward on that line also?
Some genuine concern was expressed that the decision to enact the merger was included at the end of a larger Bill. I share this concern. It was not ideal. I can understand the rationale because the Bill was related to provisions for a chief executive, but it was commented on that this was not ideal. A stand-alone Bill for Galway, whether it was voted down or otherwise, would have been more ideal in placing the entire focus on our second largest geographical area and in having a full and proper discussion on the opportunities and threats a merger would bring. In that way we could have brought the idea to the people of Galway and heard their views the length and breadth of the county. In that way we could also have heard the stories and concerns about population decline. Some believe this will isolate them further. The counter-argument highlights the greater funding opportunities an amalgamated authority would provide and how there would be more resources to be spread around. I look forward to hearing some of the replies to these questions.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. Regardless of which side of the debate we are on, we should acknowledge that the Minister of State with responsibility for local government, Deputy Phelan, has met us several times to discuss the issue. This compares favourably with what has been done by any other Minister and needs to be respected.
The report on Galway was clear in stating funding was the first issue. When we met the Minister of State with his departmental officials, one of the figures went up a little. The deficit in Galway compared to that in most other counties, although not all, is vast. We have a county that is starved of funding. Not only that, we need to consider the turnover. I see it in the county council and the likes of Tuam Municipal District and Ballinasloe. There is a high turnover of staff who are moving to other places because the level of starvation of money is ferocious. We have lost good people because of the greater level of certainty of funding in other places. We have to address that issue.
At our meetings the departmental officials discussed the local property tax and how at the end of 2019 there would be more euro in the kitty. A small amount will not resolve the issues in Galway. I am not suggesting the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has to be the financier. There are many sides to it, including road infrastructure and the repair of roads. The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, referred to the nature of the coastline of the county, while Deputy Ó Cuív referred to the islands. It must be remembered that Galway is the second biggest county in Ireland.
I have spoken on numerous occasions to the Minister of State about peripheral areas. Many are seriously concerned that they will be left as the forgotten people. Galway has approximately 6,400 km of roads. The budget the local authorities receive is something like 30% or 40% less than what it was in 2008. That is causing difficulty, which is the problem. Since a high proportion of traffic enters Galway, more money will be spent there than on a by-road leading to a few houses. The people living in them feel aggrieved. No matter what way the Minister of State moves forward – I understand he is talking about bringing forward a Bill in the autumn – the first thing he needs to do is show me the money. Second, municipal districts throughout the country need to be in charge of their own destiny. They need to know what budget will be provided. This does not apply only to districts in Galway. We cannot have a situation where district authorities would have their tongues out every year wondering what was to come.
The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, spoke about the extension of boundaries. We all have to acknowledge that Galway cannot remain stagnant or stay the way it is and I would be the first to say it. It needs infrastructure. In fairness, I know that the outer bypass project is proceeding. For many a year Deputy Connolly has been highlighting the need for public transport services in Galway city. I live 40 miles from Galway, but I can get to Leinster House quicker than to the council buildings in Galway because of traffic congestion. It is a city of culture and heritage, but these difficulties are causing major problems in attracting inward investment. I know that the people who represent Galway city have reservations about the mayor proposal. I do not claim to be an expert on it because when a person lives in the country, he or she does not know as much about it. We have our own mayor on the county council.
I will make one suggestion about the proposal of the Minister of State to extend the boundaries. We must ensure funding is in place for rural areas, including Connemara, Portumna, Ballinasloe and Tuam. We must ensure the areas on the periphery will be looked after. It may be worthwhile looking at extending the boundaries because it is acknowledged that Galway city will grow. There is vast potential that could be realised if the likes of Athenry had a sewerage scheme. Oranmore is filling up well. Galway can only grow in a couple of directions because, obviously, there is the coastline on one side. That debate needs to take place, but I want to be clear on one point: I do not believe the people are against the Minister of State in trying to change things in Galway.
It is a matter of how we change it and how we put the steps of the stairs in place. The funding aspect is crucial for County Galway and the people living in the affected areas.
There has been talk that the Minister of State will introduce a separate Bill for Galway later in the year. It would be worth working with the Deputies across the board, as the Minister of State has done, it must be acknowledged, when the changes are brought in.
The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, has noted the money that is going into the five municipal districts, whether it is €1 million or €1.2 million. Where does this stand?
The situation in Cork was miles ahead while Galway was thrown in, as it were, near the end. To be fair to all parties, nobody wanted to hold up that process. The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, asked whether some people had changed their minds, but to be fair, everyone was very clear. They had the same message that they did not want to hold up the process in Cork which had been ongoing for some time.
For all counties, we should ensure the autonomy of municipal districts and how they operate. We must also be careful about Galway. Whether people like it or not, and I think it is a good thing, it will move out so that other areas such as Oranmore, Bearna and heading out towards Athenry will build up and almost become another part of the city. There is a genuine fear in those rural areas that they will not be represented and we must look at that. One might have to travel a large distance to find 5,000 people living in a rural area. Proportional representation is very important for those areas to prevent them from being overwhelmed. It might be a solution to extend the boundaries, and the Department might look at whether that is needed.
There is also a question of the number of staff needed by Galway. They are under pressure. Talking to council staff in Tuam or Ballinasloe, there are people coming and going, which is not the ideal situation when trying to provide all the services required in those rural areas.
Once again, I thank the Minister of State for engaging with us. He might not like some of the things that we have said but I want to acknowledge his engagement.
I will briefly speak to the proposed changes of the boundary for Cork and how it is proposed to expand the city westwards towards Ballincollig and Blarney.
That is not envisaged in the three amendments before the House. We dealt with them earlier.
It has been outlined how residents in Blarney and Ballincollig were concerned at how the boundary was pushed on them. They very much felt as though they had had no say in the matter and there was no plebiscite on the matter, and it is unclear what became of the petition that was collected on the matter. However, locals were realistic and recognised that the Cabinet had made a decision over a year ago and that the legislation and the boundary revision would follow.
An important issue arising from this is the orderly handover of some 400 services operated by the county council in the transition zone, and that it be orderly and clean so that residents are not at a loss and there is no failure of services during the transition period. People are worried that city councillors would be elected in the summer while the services would be run by the county council or other service operators. Were something to go wrong in that case, it is not clear who to deal with.
The implementation group wants to take on all 400 services in the first go, which is very ambitious and might not be wholly realistic. That is one aim.
I do not want to be unhelpful but perhaps the Deputy could table a Topical Issue matter on this subject, which I would be more than happy to take. However, the points that the Deputy is raising are not envisaged in any of the three amendments that the House is considering now.
I have two other points. Will I have another opportunity later to raise these two other Cork related issues?
The Deputy may throw them out there quickly.
Cork is done and dusted.
The Deputy could have raised these earlier on Second Stage.
I refer to funding. The county's concern about the financial package has been well made. Several amendments were proposed earlier setting out a timeline on this. Is the Minister of State satisfied that the timing of the financial agreement review is not too soon that the county would be left exposed? It was envisaged originally that it would last for up to ten years but then there were proposals that it would be shortened to three to five years.
Finally, I refer to the fine-tuning of the line where it runs through the middle of fields, in Ballinore, for example. There should be more realistic boundaries that would run along the edges of fields and other natural boundaries. Does an opportunity remain for locals to put forward realistic changes so that the boundary would be fine-tuned in such a way?
I call the Minister of State to respond to the broad range of issues. The Government will not have anyone in Cork left if they give the Galway people all the money.
I will refer to Cork briefly to begin. An amendment was agreed to, which I tabled, to ensure that the financial review period is extended to ten years, specifically with a view to ensuring the situation with Cork County Council. I have no role in boundaries, through fields or otherwise, but I agree with the Deputy. I have always supported geographic boundaries being boundaries, whether it is a drain, river, or a motorway or road in the modern context. However, the line was drawn and in some places it goes through fields. It is there now and it is not my responsibility.
The question of services is a matter for the implementation group. One thing that has been highlighted is the number of functions fulfilled by local authorities which are often unheralded. The Deputy referred to 400 services. It is envisaged that they will transfer on or around the same time.
On Galway, I assure Deputy Connolly that the Government does support the amendment and I do not expect it will be necessary to divide the House on the matter. The Deputy can email me the report to which she referred at the Oireachtas email address which I still have, email@example.com. I will be more than happy to read it.
Deputy Ó Cuív referred to the original report on the merger in Galway being proposed by some experts. The difference between Galway and Cork is that there was a split in the latter case and a minority report was produced on Cork. Three people had favoured merger in Cork and two were against, and a second investigation was undertaken. However, there was unanimous agreement about Galway. It was a unanimous agreement that involved the chief executives of both city and county councils as well as the experts, although I would say that the chief executives are also experts, even if we live in a time when being an expert is supposed to be a bad thing.
Municipal districts have an extensive list of functions currently, but the situation is haphazard. Deputy Ó Cuív is right in his assertion that some local authorities are better at performing some functions than others. I have found that some local authorities have a strong municipal district structure, with the districts being where most of the nitty-gritty work of local authorities is done, be it roads, footpaths or lights. Some do not have that structure, though, with decisions rehashed or debated again at the councils' plenary sessions. That is one of the reasons the additional money that I was hoping to give to Galway County Council was targeted specifically at establishing a stronger municipal district structure. Some local authorities, I will provide Deputy Ó Cuív with the details after this debate, have a strong structure in place, with local decisions being made locally.
I do not want the Deputy to be under any illusion that there are no powers currently. We have a problem in some of the local authorities across the country, in that there are elected members of all parties and none who do not want powers. When I met councillors' representative groups a month or so after being appointed to this position, neither could list a single additional power that a local councillor should get. While I do not believe that to be representative of every councillor, it is an issue that has never been addressed.
Several Deputies discussed the merger proposal. As I stated on Second Stage in this House and in the Seanad, the primary driver was never efficiency. Efficiency would be expected in a new single organisation where two now exist. Rather, the primary driver was to see the capital of the west coast, as it were, with a unitary authority that was able to cover the unique features of Galway that have been referenced by, among others, Deputy Fitzmaurice. He mentioned how the location of Galway city was unusual, in that Galway Bay was on one side and Lough Corrib was on the other. Lough Corrib and the bay produce a city that is almost a figure of eight in terms of its spread into the rural hinterland. That figure will change and grow over the course of the city's development.
I wish to reassure the House on the issue of funding for the Galway local authorities. I have a very small amount of discretionary funding, and I propose to put half of that into Galway County Council over the next four years. My door is still open for the council to come forward with local government reforms. The discretionary funding is based solely on proposals for such reforms, so I cannot just give it to a local authority. If the local authorities in Galway have such proposals, the funding that was committed to prior to the Bill being changed can be delivered. However, it cannot legally be delivered if there is no reform proposal.
The status of the mayor of Galway is a matter for the Galway merger Bill. It is still Government policy that that Bill will be pursued in the second half of this year. Obviously, the first half will be largely curtailed by Brexit legislation. The merger Bill is still being drafted and remains a priority for me after the commercial rates Bill, which is the next legislation to cross my desk.
There is some confusion about the position of directly elected mayors. In Limerick and Waterford, people in the city and county will vote. I want to see a directly elected mayor or chairperson of the county councils in Leitrim, Kilkenny, Wexford and every county. Deputy Fitzmaurice is right, in that there should be no-----
The Minister of State's wife would be helpful in Leitrim.
Maybe Roscommon as well. A directly elected mayor is what is envisaged in the plebiscite legislation. Cork city is a separate local authority. It is the directly elected mayors of the single authorities in question that people will be asked about in May. That question has been removed in the Galway context, but that is the legitimate decision of the Seanad, which I am sure will be agreed to by the Dáil.
Deputy Eugene Murphy spoke about the restoration of Ballinasloe Town Council. My problem with town councils is that they allowed certain privileged citizens two ballot papers in a local election whereas the rest of us had to survive with one. Regardless of where a town is located, it cannot be viewed in isolation. That is why I will this year produce legislation on urban area committees relating to towns that cross county boundaries. It is convenient if towns' hinterlands are located in the one local authority area, but Ballinasloe is on a boundary and the old town council structure took no account of its natural hinterland. If one happened to live in an area that had become developed but was not inside the town boundary, one would not get a vote in the town council election. No democrat could stand over the situation of two ballot papers, which is why I intend to reinforce the municipal district structure further.
Among other Deputies, the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, referred to the funding gap that had emerged. Galway County Council is not the furthest away from the average funding received by the country's 31 local authorities. A piece of work on the local property tax has largely been completed by my Department's local government section but has not been completed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The model that existed, with more than 100 different variables in the distribution of the Local Government Fund, LGF, was too complicated and outdated. The new allocation model has not been finalised yet, but I intend to ask the Government to introduce a new model that is based on five variables, one of which will be the distance a particular local authority is from the average funding. Over time, it will bridge the funding gap for all of the underfunded and less funded local authorities across the country, not just Galway. It is important that we have clarity and a decision from the Government on the new LGF allocation model before the Galway merger legislation is before the House.
Several Galway Members have raised the issue of the appointment of a joint chief executive. This is exactly the same measure that was included for Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary. I urge Members with colleagues and friends who represent those counties to ask them what influence the mergers had. They were resisted at the time, but the feedback from Limerick and Waterford is positive. Tipperary was different, as it did not involve the merger of a city council and county council. Rather, it involved two separate counties in local government terms being merged into one. Deputy Ó Cuív's point about a process of analysing what has happened is a fair one. I will endeavour to have such work done.
Deputy Fitzmaurice discussed roads funding and other matters, some of which are outside my control. If Galway County Council has a proposal for strengthening its municipal districts, the discretionary fund is still available. It has not been allocated. I would be more than favourable towards providing it, but I will not draw up the proposals for the council.
I disagree with something else that the Deputy said.
The Deputy was talking about Cork. Nobody wanted to hold up Cork. There are a good number of Members who are not present who wanted to hold up the expansion of Cork - not Deputy Fitzmaurice nor any of the other Members present. On both Second Stage and Committee Stage, there were several Members in the House who were opposed, but legitimately. It is legitimate to oppose something. We live in an age where everyone is expected to agree about everything but it is a legitimate tactic, both parliamentary and otherwise, not to agree on particular issues.
I think I have addressed most of the questions. The Government is accepting these three amendments. It will be returning with a Bill on the Galway merger in the second half of the year. I am more than open to Galway County Council or Galway City Council looking for discretionary funding for necessary reforms of local government that would allow access to that reform fund but also would ensure that the funding situation, particularly in the county, would be improved in the short term. There is a long-term funding solution, which I hope can be agreed in the not-too-distant future.
I listened carefully to the Minister. The first statement I would make is, is leor nod don eolach. A nod is a good as a wink. It is incumbent on Galway County Council to put forward radical proposals within the next two to three weeks about strengthening the municipal districts, and with that to make the request for the €4 million. I certainly will be calling on the local authority to do so. I thank the Minister of State for the invitation. I hope that the request, when it goes in, will be honoured.
On the bigger issue of funding, ní cheannófar muc i mála. We will not buy a pig in a poke. If the Minister of State thinks that someone like me would sign off on a promise of distant vague equality in terms of rights of citizens to equality of funding for local services, he has got it wrong. The Minister of State admitted in his speech that it is inequitable. He stated grandly that Galway is not the most inequitable and there are people who are suffering even greater pain than us. We will mobilise them too. If the Minister of State thinks we will either sign off on any change or indefinitely accept the situation where we are second-class citizens, that day is gone. Everybody should be treated equally. That would be akin to saying, as was said but was wrong and was eventually put right, that equal pay for men and women doing the same job in the public service is a nice aspiration but they will have to wait because we do not have the money.
There is an easy answer. Whatever money the Government has, and it is always finite, the Government should divvy it out equally or fairly. That should happen now. If there are losers because they were getting too much for a long time, they should bless their lucky stars for the lucky years and say that this is equity. If there are winners who have suffered for a long time, they will not be winners. They will be catching up but will still be at a loss of years of underfunding. I am putting a marker down here today. Ní cheannófar muc i mála. Níl aon mhaith ann d'éinne teacht chugam le moltaí mura réiteofar ceist an airgid, mar a leagadh amach i dtuarascáil na saineolaithe.
The third point I want to make is that I respect expertise. I especially respect experts when they can provide independent evidence for their assertions and where they have done research on the subject that they are pontificating on. The world is full of experts. Those experts normally have specialties and an expert eye doctor is not much good to a person who has a heart complaint.
There is another matter about which we are losing the run of ourselves. Democracy is about the people electing the decision-makers. It seems that democracy has become unfashionable in this country and we have decided that we will just become rubber stampers, so when we are elected to these Houses, maybe we should not be given computers or anything, just given a rubber-stamp that states, "the experts say", and leave out the human factors that often outweigh the so-called expert factors. If it was as simple as the Minister of State says and if this logic of amalgamating Galway city and county was so overridingly good for everybody, then of course we would have to amalgamate Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon to provide critical mass because the same principles that the expert would be looking at would apply there. I know why the Minister of State will not do that. It is because people have what experts would consider an irrational emotional attachment to their county and they would be marching on Dublin, not for some financial reason but for the emotional reason of loyalty to a geographic area that they call their county and for which they shout at GAA matches throughout the country. There are emotional issues, people issues or motivational issues that often overcome physical disadvantages that have to be taken into account in making decisions, and that is why we elect politicians. Politicians often have a better grasp of these issues than the so-called experts.
If the Minister of State got rash reports, as I know he did, that parts of Laois should go into Carlow, parts of Roscommon should go into Westmeath, and I know certainly that there was a favourable report to put a part of south Kilkenny into Waterford city to try to help the balance of hurling between Waterford and Kilkenny, then I am sure he can get experts who will objectively tell him that is what he should do. As for all that area just over the border from Waterford city, the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, might know that the experts could propose that but he, as a Kilkenny man, knows that if he were to do that, he would be signing his death warrant in south Kilkenny as an elected representative because there are issues there that transcend all of this so-called expertise, and they are not bad, wrong or unimportant issues.
As a Minister, I always looked at the expert advice and I always took it into account. As a Deputy and a county councillor, I did the same. I am not one to ignore professional expert advice as long as I am satisfied that the professional expert is an expert in the subject concerned. Having done all of that, however, I then had to weigh up factors that they might not have taken into account, particularly human factors, and ask whether it still stood up. As the Minister of State said, and he must admit this, he will not put a bit of Kilkenny into Waterford, Laois into Carlow, or Roscommon into Westmeath to amalgamate it with Athlone. He will come up with another solution because he knows, as a politician, that no matter what a town planner tells him to do, it just will not work. Similarly in Galway, I know the county, the differences and the loyalties.
We have the right to point out that this proposal was wrong because it was a muc i mála job, badly thought out on a human level and unacceptable to the majority of public representatives across the country. One can be sure that if such a proportion of public representatives oppose a proposal, it is very likely that the same percentage of local people would have opposed it if it had gone to a plebiscite. There are no better people to understand the public mood than local public representatives.
I wish to speak to amendment No. 7 which is grouped with amendments Nos. 6 and 8. I wanted to allow the Deputies speaking on the section of the Bill relating to Galway to make their contributions before I spoke to amendment No. 7.
As the Minister mentioned towards the end of his most recent contribution, the amendment proposes the deletion of the reference in the Title to the making of local area plans by committees for certain urban areas. The Minister touched on his intention to come forward with proposals regarding urban area committees. The Minister brought forward the wider proposals on this issue and, indeed, a host of others at the last minute on Committee Stage. I know from the briefings provided by the Minister and his officials that spokespersons of all parties present on that Stage expressed a desire to reform the system and acknowledged that problems exist in certain areas in the impacted counties. The areas in which urban area committees were needed to address deficiencies in planning that had developed over several years, sometimes decades, were identified. Of course, that was also highlighted during the public submissions stage of the county boundary reviews, through which members of the public articulated their frustrations regarding how urban areas had developed, with residential areas sprawling into other counties and the resultant impact on services, accessing services and many other matters.
I am well aware of these issues and the impact thereof due to the development of Drogheda, a major town in the north east which has experienced significant residential urban sprawl from its base in County Louth across the county boundary into east Meath. Many of these proposals were brought forward at the last minute on Committee Stage, at which there was a desire among all members to address the deficiencies in terms of the debate that may have been required to get this right. When the amendments made on Committee Stage filtered down there was kick back from public representatives at local level and officials in terms of how the proposed committees would be constituted, the statutory powers involved in local area plans and how that would impact across county boundaries. We must acknowledge that and work with council executives and councillors to get this right for towns such as Drogheda and the other towns mentioned as suitable for the urban area committees.
Deputy Fitzmaurice earlier quoted Tom Cruise saying, "Show me the money." Money is at the heart of the problem in many of the relevant areas, whether in terms of rates, local property tax and other moneys collected in the areas or the issue of which county council coffers the moneys will eventually rest in. I welcome the Minister of State's comments regarding local government funding and the model for that, as well as the fact that the Government is drawing up new variables in terms of addressing the deficiencies, with which I am very familiar. County Meath is bottom of the list in terms of per capita local authority and central government funding. It is a county of 200,000 people but it is bottom of the list in various funding strands. Many people do not understand the reason for that. If the Government is going to reform the system, I hope the Minister of State will come forward with a different model and address those variables to bridge the gaps which exist within a reasonable timeframe. Last week, I asked the Taoiseach to explain his statement that there will be only modest increases in local property tax and that councils will be able to retain all of the local property tax raised in their areas. One wonders how the Government will square that circle because less well-off counties are being told the deficit that will exist under that model will be met by central government funding. The Government does not have a never-ending pool of money and one wonders where it will raise the required funds.
Of course, there is a need for us to address the deficiencies which exist in the areas for which urban area committees are proposed. I look forward to positively engaging with the Minister of State to ensure that is done because it is the citizens who are losing out. A strategy must be drawn up to deal with these areas. I look forward to positively working with him on this and ask that council executives and elected councillors be consulted to achieve what we all want, which is a better standard of living for citizens in the impacted areas.
I welcome the positive news regarding a discretionary fund and the more long-term changes that are required. In regard to the policy paper, I should give credit where it is due. It was published in the Economic and Social Review. I will send a copy to the Minister of State. Three of its authors, namely Gerard Turley, John McDonagh and Stephen McNena, are based in Galway. It was prepared in collaboration with a man from the Berlin School of Economics and Law whose name I will not attempt to pronounce. The paper is worth considering. It looks at the international evidence and the variation therein and at the need to look at other ways of achieving efficiencies, which is what all Members want.
It has been a battle to get this far. I wish that my energy had been used to examine public transport for Galway, for which there is a crying need, as Deputy Fitzmaurice stated. We have a major housing crisis to which I will refer later this evening on Second Stage of the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2018. I wish that the Government was zoning in on those real problems on the ground. Neither the councils nor their councillors asked for the local authorities to be merged. The proposal came from the previous Fine Gael and Labour Party Government which set up an expert group. Those on the ground were appealing for the Government to work with local representatives and councils on regional imbalance in towns such as Ballinasloe which need to be developed. I worked in Ballinasloe for many years. Those are the types of problems on which I would like to work, rather than a nonsensical battle on a merger that should never have come before the House.
I do not welcome the fact that the Minister of State will revert in the autumn as that is far too soon. He and the Department should reconsider what this is all about and go back to the expert group which, regarding preconditions, stated "the Expert Group believes that the amalgamation of Galway City and County Councils must be preceded by the addressing of the existing deficiency in respect of both the human and financial resources available." It further stated that the "financial resources available to both Galway City and County Councils fall[s] short of that available to comparable authorities and is insufficient to deliver on the role envisaged for Galway as an economic driver for the West." I am a very proud Galwegian but I do not think that Galway city should be developed out of proportion to towns in rural areas of Galway. We need balanced development. If we have learned anything, it is that the county of Galway is very important. The merging of the councils is not the answer. I ask the Minister of State and the Department to go back and look at the evidence on the ground to find a better way to proceed. As the Minister of State is relying on the experts, I ask that he, please, rely on their highlighting of the fact that the councils cannot effectively function because they do not have enough resources, rather than because they are too small. Obviously, that should be dealt with in the first instance.
I have previously spoken on this matter and will not take any more time except to once again thank the Seanad and my colleagues in Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil and the Independent Deputies who have forced the Dáil to see sense.
This is a very good example not of negativity but of the new Dáil that prevents measures being pushed through without their being based on evidence. What jumps to mind is the event in the packed audiovisual room recently. A series of people came forward to talk about science-based evidence, yet a measure was introduced without being based on anything. I am delighted, therefore, that sense is prevailing and that the Minister of State has spoken about a discretionary fund. I look forward to working with him but I certainly would like to focus on the real problems on the ground in Galway, including housing, public transport, health and an overall plan for the city. There is no such plan because in my time as a city councillor, the city council told me it did not have the resources to produce a master plan for the city, putting the common good to the fore. We are actually now reliant on developers for a plan for the city. The council will have some input but it will not be the driving force. The excuse given to me was that the council did not have the resources to produce a master plan. Can one imagine that we are back to developer-driven development in Galway, a city whose housing crisis is equal to that of Dublin?
I will be brief because people already know my views on this issue. These amendments are very much based on Galway but circumstances similar to those in Galway exist in Cork city. I offer my full support to the public representatives in Galway and its surrounds because they know at first hand the effects this measure will have on their area. I can see what is going to happen in my constituency, Cork South-West, where there was not one shred of democracy. Elected councillors from every party, including Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, as well as the independents, were totally against the amalgamation, especially the serious land grab, which will cost the rural communities severely. It does not matter whether it is in west Cork or Galway; it is the very same issue. It is the rural communities that will suffer.
My main worry is that the public representatives were not listened to, regardless of their location. Why have we elected representatives in councils who can speak on behalf of and work with the people on the ground if they simply do not have a say when it comes to issues such as this? They are being overlooked. Rural communities, be they in Galway or west Cork, are suffering and haemorrhaging terribly, and what is proposed will inflict further difficulties if it happens in my constituency in Cork. The islands and all the other communities will suffer. There was no proper consultation or dialogue. It was dictation from the top. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State considered this. I will be standing here again, please God, explaining to him where the Government went wrong and what it has cost the rural community of west Cork.
To be helpful to the House, there is an understanding that the Minister of State must leave shortly. We are almost finished. The Minister of State is accepting all the amendments.
The Seanad amendments are reported to the House. A message will be sent to Seanad Éireann acquainting it accordingly. I thank the Members for their co-operation.