Public Service Decentralisation Programme: Presentations.

The item on today's agenda is public service decentralisation. The purpose of the meeting is to consider issues arising from the decentralisation of some Government offices and Departments and the offices of some State agencies to locations outside Dublin. The committee believes it is important for it to provide a forum in which it can examine how best to contribute to the successful implementation of a decentralisation policy which maximises the beneficial impact of decentralisation on regional development which preserves and improves the efficiency and effectiveness of policy making administrative machinery and which respects the legitimate interests of civil and public servants.

In the course of our initial two days of meetings on decentralisation the committee will hear from organisations with a direct interest in the contribution that decentralisation will make to balanced regional development. We will hear from two Government offices which decentralised during the 1990s. Discussion will also take place with unions representing civil and public servants who have a direct personal interest in the challenges and opportunities to which decentralisation gives rise. The committee intends to schedule further meetings after the August break.

Today's meeting will commence with presentations from three people working in the academic field, all of whom have made considered and expert contributions to the debate on decentralisation. Short presentations will be heard from Mr. Hendrik van der Kamp, senior lecturer and head of school of environmental planning at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Dr. Edward Walsh, President Emeritus, University of Limerick and Professor Michael Bannon, Emeritus, department of planning and environmental policy, University College, Dublin. You are all welcome and I thank you for attending. I thank you for your biographies and your papers which have already been circulated to members. Following the presentations, questions will be put to the three contributors by members of the committee. It is hoped to conclude this session within one and a half hours. I invite Mr. Hendrik van der Kamp to make his presentation.

Mr. Hendrik van der Kamp

The proposed decentralisation of civil servants to provincial towns and cities has created concern among those who have an interest in the planning and delivery of the national spatial strategy. In particular, the point has been noted that the strategy can be regarded as being doomed because not only did it contain too many gateways and hubs than was good for the country, it now even fails to recognise the importance of using the instrument of decentralisation of Departments by spreading the jam too thinly.

I do not agree with this interpretation of the Government's plans. One particularly interesting aspect of the decentralisation plans is the potential for the clustering of functions in different settlements in Ireland. This point has received little attention in the public reaction to the proposals but deserves closer scrutiny because of the potential contribution to the idea of polycentricurban development. The idea of polycentricurban development is that the modern city is, effectively, a network of cities, towns and villages just as the concept of balanced regional development was a critical feature of the national spatial strategy. The polycentric concept rejects the idea that towns and cities work as individual entities. It recognises the reality that people live in one town, often shop or recreate in another and find employment in a third. Just like everything else in our network society, villages, towns and cities are connected to each other and may develop different roles and characteristics within an overall urban network.

It is clear that the Minister attempted to bring Departments to locations where there was a potential synergy either with the existing function of the town or with the existence of Government agencies specifically related to the Department in question. An example of this was the decision to locate the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in Wexford where, since its inception, the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency has been located. There are strong links between the two bodies. Another example is that of the Department of Defence which was to be located in Newbridge and the nearby Curragh where there is a strong tradition of the presence of the military.

The plans of the Minister also show potential synergies with other aspects of towns where the relocation will take place. Examples include the move of 100 Teagasc staff to Carlow, where there is an agriculture research base already, the move of the Garda Headquarters to Thurles, close to the Garda Training College in nearby Templemore, or the move of the Irish Aviation Authority to Shannon. This idea of creating specific functions for specific towns and strengthening the role of the towns by encouraging links and synergies between private and public sector agencies is characteristic of the polycentric concept. This concept, just as much as the idea of the gateways and hubs, was a key feature of the national spatial strategy and has also been long-time characteristic of, for example, the urban structure in the Netherlands. Cities there traditionally have had different and contrasting roles based on their geographic location or traditional strength. For example, commerce and trading are located in Amsterdam, port services and heavy industry are located in Rotterdam, government and diplomatic services are located in the Hague and the national headquarters is in Utrecht.

What the polycentric concept can mean in an Irish context is well-illustrated by the gateway town designation in the midlands. Unlike the other gateway towns, this gateway was a combination of three towns, Mullingar, Athlone and Tullamore. Under the proposed decentralisation plans, these three towns would receive the transfer of staff from a number of strong Departments. For example, 300 staff from the Department of Education and Science would move to Mullingar, 145 staff from the Higher Education Authority would move to Athlone and 130 staff from the Department of Finance would move to Tullamore. A combined total of 575 workers would therefore be located within the gateway. However, if the transfer of public servants to nearby towns is included, the number increases. Examples would be the transfer of 90 staff to Portarlington and 75 staff to Edenderry, which are close to Tullamore, the transfer of 230 staff to Roscommon and 110 to Ballinasloe, which are close to Athlone, and the transfer of 130 staff to Longford, which is close to Mullingar. Such transfers would constitute an additional 635 jobs making a total of 1,210 jobs, which would mean that arguably almost 12% of the total jobs to be decentralised would be related to the midlands gateway.

Commuting has become a part of Irish lifestyles and is not always negative or avoidable. In any event, commuting between Longford and Mullingar or between Ballinasloe and Athlone is quite acceptable in my view. What matters is that towns of all sizes can function in an overall urban network without the dominance of Dublin that has been a characteristic of the past. It is perhaps a pity that the rejection of important planning studies, such as the Buchanan strategy in the 1960s and the ERDO strategy for the greater Dublin area in the 1980s, were based on too much focusing on a single aspect of the study. In the case of the national spatial strategy, we should not make the same mistake by focusing too much on the relevance of the gateway and hub designations. The national spatial strategy should be about using every part of Ireland in terms of its full capacity, strength and qualities.

The proposed decentralisation plans have been criticised not only for not delivering on the national spatial strategy but also because they would disimprove the functioning of the public service because these functions relate to national, not regional or local, policy making. This argument displays the continued perception that what is of national interest must be determined in Dublin, our national capital. This is not necessarily the case. The example of the urban structure in the Netherlands illustrates that national functions can be perfectly carried out in different towns and cities with the location of the national government in the Hague, headquarters of multinational companies in Amsterdam, national television and radio facilities in a regional town in Hilversum and the national meteorological service near Utrecht in a central location in the country. This sharing out of national services between different cities has enabled cities like Amsterdam to remain relatively compact, a characteristic which is often favourably commented upon by foreign visitors to the city.

The proposed decentralisation and bringing of new workers and functions to, in some cases, small settlements will contribute not only to the functioning of the regions outside Dublin as healthy urban systems in their own right but also to the realisation that what is of national importance need not necessarily happen in Dublin. This change in perception of the role of our national capital may be a significant achievement of the proposed decentralisation plans and may perhaps be more important than the contribution of the relocation of jobs for the reduction in congestion problems in Dublin. In that sense, the contribution of the plans of the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, to real balanced regional development may be more significant than is generally recognised.

I thank you for that and call Dr. Edward Walsh to make his presentation.

Dr. Edward Walsh

I welcome that the Government is placing the regional imbalance in Ireland in a central position of importance. For 28 years I worked in developing the University of Limerick in a regional city and I am vividly aware of how both sides of the country could improve and benefit from less emphasis on Dublin and more emphasis on the regions. However, I am concerned that what is proposed will not create a counterpole to Dublin. The proposal to fragment central government into nine components threatens the future well-being of governance in this country.

I am sure the proposal in December was launched with good intentions, but the very title provokes confusion because the word "decentralisation" is incorrectly used. This is a plan for the relocation of 10,000 public servants and it is an important initiative and to be welcomed, but it is not decentralisation. Those who work internationally are absolutely astonished at its use. The term "decentralisation" is understood to be the transfer of responsibility to democratically elected lower levels of government. It is proposed to relocate 10,000 public servants and, in principle, that must be welcomed. It is a good idea, but its success depends on what public servants it is intended to relocate. Those public servants who are concerned with regulatory work, back office work and so on need not and should not be in Dublin, but those public servants and the Minister concerned with forming strategy and policy for our country need to be located together in a compact coherent group. Agile government in the knowledge age is vital.

At a recent OECD symposium of Ministers, the conclusion was that one can decentralise jobs and move various people from the centre but that centralising critical policy-making responsibilities is vital if one is to have agile government. What is proposed will not make government more agile. It will fragment policy making in the administrative capital. It will slow decision making. It will weaken international networking and it runs counter to Eoin O'Driscoll's recent national enterprise strategy in respect of which he called for coherent agile government at the centre.

In essence, a good proposal has been launched without a plan. There is no statement that has been made public which shows that this proposal will make Ireland a better place or its governance more effective. The implementation group has commenced its work prior to the publication of a plan which outlines how Ireland will be a better place as a result.

There are years of international experience on which to draw. The French have been relocating public servants from Paris for the past 50 years. In terms of how do they do it, they announce five to seven years in advance that, for example, the patent office will relocate to Lyon. That permits public servants who want to move to Lyon to migrate to the patent office over the five-year period and those who do not want to move to Lyon to migrate out of that office. Therefore, five years later, a group of people are enthusiastic about moving to Lyon, those working in the patent office board a train and the office is relocated without missing a beat.

We must learn from Norway where they have concluded that the policy-making components of central government should not be moved out of Oslo. However, it is proposed to move eight regulatory bodies out of Oslo because they believe that regulatory bodies can function more effectively outside the administrative capital. We can learn from the United Kingdom where 20,000 public servants are being moved out of London and the northern way is being created along the M62 between the cities of Liverpool and Hull as a counterpole to London, but they are not fragmenting the Parliament in Westminster. We can learn from the German experience of moving the Government from Bonn to Berlin where part of the system was left in Bonn but it was discovered that, with two centres, it was difficult to have agile coherent government. Gradually the remnants of what is in Bonn will be moved to Berlin to ensure there is a coherent agile government in the administrative capital. I am delighted this group is looking at a possible revision of the plan. Let me suggest two goals. One is to create a coherent, focused team of strategic policy makers in central government in the administrative capital. In that way we would have the most agile governance of any country within the European Union.

The other goal is to relocate thousands of public servants not involved in central policy and strategy making to regions in a well-placed, orderly and focused way to create a counterpole to Dublin. To implement that, I am suggesting a ten-point action plan: one, Government re-declares its commitment to the principle of relocation and decentralisation; two, declares the need for a revised plan; three, declares that central ministerial policy strategy groups will not be fragmented but will be further consolidated in the administrative capital with the objective of providing Ireland with the most agile and coherent governance in Europe; four, holds implementation in abeyance pending the creation of a plan; five, draws on international best practice; six, establishes a national-international planning group drawing in the best minds available with a view, within six months, to coming up with a strategic plan for relocation; seven, focuses on relocation of the many thousands of public servants not involved in policy and strategy; eight, draws on the French experience of 50 years in an orderly relocation planning exercise; nine, examines carefully the UK's northern way and the Norwegian relocation plans; and ten, draws on international best practice to consider how the clustering of thousands of talented public servants can stimulate the creation of a national counterpole to Dublin.

What is being proposed will not do this but will threaten Ireland's future well-being by fragmenting policy making at the heart of Government.

Thank you very much. I now call on Professor Michael Bannon of University College Dublin.

Professor Michael Bannon

Thank you, Chairman, for this opportunity. I wish you well in examining this question of what the Government has titled "decentralisation". In advance of my presentation, I furnished the committee with a copy of my paper. Therefore, I will now summarise that paper. There is also some background material which may be helpful to the committee both in terms of information and policy options.

In a perverse way, I may be partly to blame for all of us being here — beautiful as this building is — on this beautiful, sunny morning. Just over 30 years ago, I ran a conference on office location and regional development on the very day that perhaps some committee members, if they are old enough, may have entered politics by taking their seats in the Dáil in March 1973. That conference's report made a series of comparative studies and a number of suggestions. However, as is the nature of things, the report was misread by many people and, alas, we did not actually follow a strategic approach in the succeeding years.

I want to focus much more on the work or job functions that underpin this matter. The newspapers have been full of discussion about staff relocation. Staff relocation is important. It may be painful or wonderful but it happens after the work has been considered and either moved or not. There has been no discussion about and no attempt to understand the work factor in this exercise. It is as though it is of no importance. Maybe we tried it in the 1970s but I daresay that nobody would attempt to do that any longer in manufacturing industry. Nobody is going to suggest tomorrow that an organisation such as Intel should break up into 15, 20 or 30 different units. We understand and accept the idea of integrated manufacturing, but integrated decision making and integrated Government is of more importance. If one did not have it, one would not have the multinationals or the forward-looking companies at the cutting edge of technology that we have today.

I intend to comment on a number of points that are developed in my paper and people can take them up if they wish to do so. I wish to reiterate the issue of terminology. What we are dealing with in the Government proposal is relocation. We are not dealing with decentralisation or devolution. If anything, we are dealing with increased centralisation which will be required to control such a level of dispersal. Incidentally, if committee members look at the reports of discussions by their opposite numbers in Edinburgh, anytime they refer to Irish decentralisation, they put it in inverted commas.

Ireland is by far the most centralised and centralising society and economy in western Europe. That is a context to which I will revert, but the reality is that the problem is not so much about the issue of location, whether it is in Dublin, Athlone or elsewhere, but about the structure of Government and the failure to re-organise Government over the years.

Dr. Walsh has commented on the international experience which by and large shows that any relocation on the scale we are discussing is a long-term project. I suggest something like a ten-year planning horizon if it is to be done properly.

There is a need for openness and transparency. It is deeply shocking that we still do not have any background documentation on how this plan was arrived at, where it came from or even what the objectives are. That is in complete contrast to the European experience. France was mentioned but I would prefer to talk about Sweden which 30 years ago undertook its research in public, published the findings and proceeded from there.

That brings me to the need for prior evaluation of all aspects of this plan, including its objectives, the previous experience where it has been carried out in various countries, the successes and failures. I am particularly interested in the fact that, in the 1970s, Norway toyed with the idea of moving all its government offices to different places, but it backed off significantly. That is the sort of experience that needs to be examined. Denmark set its face against moving blocks of work and instead initiated a process of local government reform and devolution.

There is a great deal of anecdotal comment about how wonderful our own experience has been over the last 20 years in decentralising, as it is called, or relocating, but we have virtually no scientific basis for those comments at all. We do not really know how it has affected people and work. What happens if the work evaporates? For example, if one moves some grant-giving body to Ballina or another location, what do people do if that grant ceases to operate? There are some such issues in practice. Why are so many people who relocated in the past, applying for further relocation at present? What are the issues there? What sort of structures have we put in place to manage the human relations side of this matter? Why is it that bodies — Mr. van der Kamp mentioned one — that were set up outside Dublin appear to have drifted back to Dublin, possibly surreptitiously but effectively substantially?

In terms of that assessment, the national development plan nominated gateways but they have not performed particularly well and part of our evaluation should examine why they have not. Policy should be based on evidence and research.

Coming to the work involved, scientists and policy makers have come up with three or four categories of work. Programming or routine public sector work is something to which Dr. Walsh referred and it can be moved relatively easily because it is characterised by a lack of external commitments, external relations and external contact. By virtue of the fact that it is so characterised by lack of contact, it is unlikely to have any strategic impact on the reception area. That is not to come down against moving it. There will be a wage and housing benefit from that, but it makes no structural difference. In 1973, the Swedes decided against moving that type of work because the impact would not be strategic and because technology was likely to bring an end to that type of work.

At the other end of the scale is what scientists call orientation-type work. These are the crucial functions of government and are interdependent, inter-related and they drive our lives. They are the functions of joined-up government and interrelated government or agile government, as Dr. Walsh is calling it. I have come across no case where they can be detached or broken up without serious damage to society. In between that are a range of what scientists call planning functions and what the Lyons committee in England refers to as research and development. Those can be moved if that is done with common sense and judgement. They can be successfully moved to knowledge-rich environments and to infrastructures capable of providing a good range of functions. However, if it is done in a wrong manner or to the wrong place such as those which lack infrastructure, such functions will atrophy and stagnate, and have done so.

I draw the committee's attention to a point many people have missed, namely, what is going on in the UK, by which I mean the London and England. The Lyons committee is not, as one politician in this country said, taking our example and going ahead. That committee is actually adopting a radical new approach to the relocation of civil servants out of London. They have built up a huge amount of work based on the Fleming report and on the Hardiman report of 1973 and they have followed that with continuous research. However, the important point in talking about relocation is that Lyons in general has set his face against relocating blocks of government work. He has said that they are not going to do that again, that is, playing a chess game within the machinery of government. That is not what they are doing. They are moving to a situation where office dispersals are viewed as " ... part of the bigger reforms which also transform the nature, organisation, productivity and size of public service functions and where delivery may be by a number of routes, including decentralisation, devolution, or a change in the boundary between public and private sectors". The other point is that this is being carried out by the lands committee which is "also paving the way for further devolution of national government responsibilities".

There is huge structural change going on there and that is being ignored in a lot of what we are talking about. That in turn is linked to the business plans of Departments. I concur with one aspect of this, which is that new bodies and agencies being established should be challenged about their location and should be particularly challenged as to whether they need to be in the capital in the first instance.

The process of selecting reception centres has been the subject of intense discussion and debate with further follow-through in terms of criteria and so on. It is not realistic, no matter how willingly and how much we wish it, to think that significant functions of the public service can function successfully, efficiently or adequately in small towns and places which lack the basic infrastructure or knowledge of a society heading towards the knowledge economy, places which often do not even have the functions of a county town. We need to get real with a lot of this.

I said in my paper that the national spatial strategy is the only game in town. There are various interpretations of that strategy, but we should start with the objective. What is the overriding objective? It is to provide a counterbalance to the growth of Dublin and to encourage growth on the same scale elsewhere.

Of the 10,300 job functions which have been discussed for relocation, a mere 1,325 are designated for the gateways, including Mullingar, Athlone and Tullamore. That is 12.9%, while 2,610, or 25%, are earmarked to be distributed around the greater Dublin area. The number suggested for County Kildare is 1% higher than that allocated to the gateways, at 1,462. If anyone can convince me that that is consistent with the national spatial strategy, they deserve the Nobel prize. What we are playing at here is the continued expansion of Dublin into the midlands and the further sprawling of Dublin. When we redraw the boundaries, while I do not know about Tullamore, Mullingar will certainly be within the Dublin region and Athlone will probably function as an acceptable gateway city with the amenities of the Shannon and so on. I am not sure that is the world we want, although there are some people who think it would be great to have a capital city of 2 million people. I do not know what the benefits of that would be. The national spatial strategy, NSS, is important and the strategy must address the issue of Dublin. We will leave it at that.

Independent processes are also important. This process should not only have been transparent from the start and in the public domain, it should have been independent of Government and outside the political process. Obviously there are political decisions at the end of it but the way this has been done has been inappropriate. There is a need for some kind of working group, commission, board or authority to take up the issue of Government relocation and to work on that and on future location decisions to guide us in a transformation from a centralised, top-down bureaucracy towards a decentralised, devolved, participatory and inclusive system of governance. In other words, this is not just relocation but moving the chairs on the Titanic. We need to tackle the whole issue of governance in the country in somewhat the same way as England and Wales.

It is important, not just in relation to this issue but with other matters, that Ministers and perhaps all elected representatives keep themselves at one remove from specific decisions on locations, sites and investment choices. This is something which should have been discussed and debated a long time ago.

The budget day announcement has generated a lengthy and vigorous debate about public sector office location and relocation in this country. It is important that this debate is progressed towards action and embracing genuine decentralisation and devolution leading ultimately to a future vision of Ireland where there is strong local government, effective regional authorities and the full implementation of the National Spatial Strategy 2002-2020: People, Places and Potential. Carefully considered public sector relocations have a role in such a process as elements in a slimmed down tier of central government.

I thank Professor Bannon for his presentation. We agreed the timetable at an earlier meeting as follows. Ten minutes will be allocated each to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour Party and Technical Group members and there will be an open session for 15 or 20 minutes at the end. I will cut off each group at the end of their ten minutes because we must meet other people following the break. Members can make observations or put questions to individual speakers.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Ned O'Keeffe. I welcome our distinguished visitors and thank them for their presentations. I am an enthusiastic supporter of decentralisation or relocation, however it is referred to. The body of opinion I am hearing very much supports what the Government is trying to do.

I would like to refer to something Professor Bannon said. He said he wanted to get some background information as to how the decision was made and what inquiries were made. Had the Government announced in the Budget Statement last December that it was to enter into discussions with the various unions and Departments involved in decentralisation, the Chairman would be very grey in the head before we reached this particular stage of discussing decentralisation. Given the good communications network in the country, it is not asking too much that 10,300 civil servants would be decentralised or relocated to various towns and urban settings throughout the country. I witnessed chronic congestion no later than this morning trying to get into the centre of the capital city to this meeting, and this is loosely termed a holiday period. Given that most Departments are located in central city locations, it is only right and proper that any Government worthy of governing the country should try to do something about this aspect. Do the members of the delegation agree with the general thrust of the Government's policy to try to relocate civil servants out of the city centre?

Dr. Walsh appeared to say that the policy makers in the Department would have difficulty if the Department of Defence were located in Kildare. Is it not a fact that the political head of each Department, namely, the Minister, will continue to be the policy maker? He will have Cabinet meetings on a regular weekly basis with his colleagues in Dublin. He will ask his executive in the Department to implement Government policy. I see no great difficulty with that. My question is whether each speaker agrees in principle with what the Government is trying to do.

I will pass over that question for a moment and take a contribution from Deputy Ned O'Keeffe. If there is another question, both will be dealt with.

I welcome the eminent members of the delegation who are well known in society for their views. There is considerable precedent for what is being done. We can look at towns like Cavan, Castlebar, Ballina and the successful relocation of the Central Statistics Office, CSO, to Cork, which was questioned at the time. It has been an outstanding success and a substantial number of people have been relocated in the past five to seven years.

I compliment the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, on his initiative in introducing this policy on budget day. The policy to decentralise 10,000 people to 53 locations throughout Ireland was very welcome because much of rural Ireland needs this type of status and emphasis. Many rural towns have no industry because it is moving towards the south east. The town of Youghal in my constituency has no industry. Two Departments will be decentralised to that town. Many people in the town must travel to other areas to get employment. This interferes with their livelihoods in terms of disposable income, an issue which came across during the local elections. An effort is being made to change the status of the country. It is predicted that in 20 years or less there will be a population of 4.7 million in the southern part of the country. Will the bulk of this 4.7 million people be located in the south east of the country in a catchment area from Dundalk to Wexford? The Government is looking to the future.

Holland, which is a very small country, was quoted as an example. I would cycle the length and breadth of Holland in practically a day, even though I am getting on in years. This is not a good example. Sweden and Norway were referred to. Norway has a very sparse population in the rural towns. The majority of people are living in the south of the country, and Sweden is similar. These two countries are not good examples in the context of this country. While Ireland is a small country, the land base is substantial. In regard to the spatial strategy, most of our hub towns have been identified in the decentralisation programme. Some towns in Cork and Kerry will benefit from decentralisation.

Decentralisation has been a success in the past. The only difference in this instance is that complete Departments, including the executive, will be moved to places such as Cavan and Portlaoise. The Department of Agriculture and Food will move to Portlaoise. I do not see any major change taking place. Dr. Walsh referred to the information age and modern technology. Life has become much easier. Many people involved in industry and so on now work from home. What is being suggested is not revolutionary. While I sympathise with people in the Civil and public service for any inconvenience caused, I believe it is the way forward.

Mr. van der Kamp spoke about the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government going to Wexford and the Department of Defence going to Newbridge, but he based it on precedent. He referred to the Garda training college in Thurles vis-à-vis Templemore. The Garda training college was not always located in Templemore. Where were the gardaí trained previously? The Irish Aviation Authority is a new development based in Shannon. Tradition is fine and politicians are very traditional, but we must move on and examine new areas.

There is a danger that this debate will cause an urban-rural divide. Many Deputies on all sides of the House, whether they represent Dublin or rural Ireland, are in favour of decentralisation. A dangerous precedent is being established. Different Ministers are making different statements. Some 53 locations were referred to in the budget which takes place on the most important day in Dáil Éireann. The policy has been endorsed. Much debate has taken place on the issue and I would like to see it move ahead progressively. I do not see it in the way the eminent speakers see it. It is a move in the right direction. We cannot compare this country to Holland, Sweden and Norway because we have a different structure, different people and so on. I look forward to decentralisation taking place. I would like the delegation to refer to my views on Sweden, Norway and Holland.

I will ask the gentlemen for a quick response. A detailed plan was referred to. There was no detailed plan. The decision was referred to in the election manifesto of the Government parties. It is implementing a Government policy which was voted on democratically by the people. This is where the democratic mandate for this came from. I want to put on the record that there is a democratic mandate for this decision. I ask the members of the delegation to make a brief response before I give members of the committee an opportunity to speak. Some of the other points will arise as the day goes on.

Mr. van der Kamp

In contributing to this debate, I wish to stress that I am certainly not against the plans. I have tried to convey that its many positive aspects should be considered and debated. I was asked whether I agree with the principle. I am against knee-jerk reactions. I am disappointed that many people in the professional communities and elsewhere have displayed such a reaction. We should debate fully the many aspects of the proposal which need to be considered.

I am addressing the committee as a town planner. In that light, I welcome the proposal as an opportunity to plan towns. It can be another ingredient, although not the only one, in the process of building up small towns. I tried to convey in my presentation that the towns and villages in question are not isolated. In a modern society, such places are part of a connected network. They are found in the catchment areas of larger places.

I do not agree with the suggestion that it cannot be done here if it has not been done elsewhere. I make that point as somebody who is not Irish. Ireland has shown that it can be innovative. It can introduce things which have not been tested but which subsequently become examples. The various national development plans have been generally regarded as positive by people in Brussels who make decisions on European funding proposals.

As I said in my presentation, it is fundamentally wrong to suggest that if something is national, it needs to be in Dublin. Something which is located outside Dublin does not have to be the regional or local tier as it can just as easily be the national tier. This point is separate from the issue of breaking up the national Government, a Department or senior civil servants. I reject the supposed principle that something that deals with a national issue has to be in the national capital, which is a fundamental issue in this debate. The examples I cited relating to the Netherlands are not seen as demonstrating that it might well work.

Dr. Walsh

I agree that the administrative capital does not have to be in Dublin. The administrative capital of the Netherlands is in The Hague. I would much prefer the Government to consider moving the central administration to a single location in a planned way rather than splitting it up and moving it to nine locations. Such a form of relocation is being pursued in Malaysia and is planned in Korea and Japan. Central to my concern is the plan to fragment central government by relocating it to nine locations. The Taoiseach did not achieve his wonderful recent success with the European Constitution by e-mail. He had to bring people together. When the Government has to make decisions on key issues, it needs to bring people together in a room to haggle, to address the issues and to come to conclusions together. Electronics will not change that reality.

Professor Bannon

In response to what Deputy Ned O'Keeffe said, I wish to refer him to a quotation in my paper — I do not refer to my presentation — from Professor Peter Hall, who said that the more telecommunications we have, the more it will be followed by face-to-face meetings. One seems to generate the other but neither is an effective substitute for the other. In response to the Chairman, I wish to clarify that I was thinking of everything being public from the moment of the mandate. I will not discuss the detail of the issues which have been raised. I appreciate the points.

The issue I wish to emphasise is not the numbers being moved, the people being moved, or the work being moved. One should tread carefully if one is not sure that the efficiency and coherence of that work is not damaged. I have tried without success to contact a colleague in northern Sweden to discuss the issue of personnel. Approximately one third of the relocated posts in Sweden — I would not like the proportion to go into the record as precise — were filled by relocation. I am sure that it was a relatively small percentage. I ask the committee to take my comments as an inference.

I propose to share my time with Deputy Paul McGrath, as we do not have much time. Deputy Ned O'Keeffe said that the strength of this proposal is that it came through the budget day process, but that is the first thing that makes me uneasy about it. There was no Government memorandum, it did not go to the Cabinet, there was no risk assessment on the part of any of the organisations ex ante, there was no strategic plan for the proposal setting out the objectives, guiding principles and policies to be implemented and no attempt was made to align it with the spatial strategy or human resource needs. None of the things which accompany any normal Government decision was done.

If An Post proposed to close down a post office and move it to another location, one would rightly expect the company to say what it proposed to do about the staff and how it intended to continue to deliver quality service to the area in question. In this case, however, such prior scrutiny was not applied to a decision relating to services for 4 million people, affecting 10,000 workers and involving some of the State's most sensitive and strategic governance issues. I would like the members of the delegation to say whether that is acceptable. Regardless of whether the Government is right, should it not have stood over this and backed it up with a proper assessment?

Following the European and local elections earlier this year, the issue seems to be whether the pace should be slowed down. The Taoiseach has said he wants to go as quickly as he can. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, has said we need to slow it down dramatically and his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, has said we need to begin consultations. It seems that many Ministers are going in opposite directions. That Ministers who are internal to the process do not have a clue about the Government's strategic objectives in this regard is symptomatic in some way. They are flapping around in an attempt to respond to the political pressures they face. The real problem is that they never had a framework within which this was worked out.

Certain groups have stepped up to the mark. The National Roads Authority, NRA, has put its hands up and said that it cannot continue to operate from Ballinasloe. The Equality Authority has said the same about Roscrea. Is it not the case that the Accounting Officers of the agencies in question are obliged to conduct risk assessments? If they find that the relevant Minister is not observing serious risks, they have an obligation to pass such papers to the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Is it not unacceptable that Accounting Officers are being put under the sort of political pressure that is inherent in making the announcement first and thinking about it afterwards? Having invested a great deal of its political capital in the scheme, the Government is asking Accounting Officers to determine independently how they will cope if 98% of their staff will not move, in the case of State agencies, and if key functions which they are being asked to deliver are being scattered in all directions. Is it not an unacceptable burden to place on the structure that is in place to protect taxpayers from poor decision making?

We need to step back from this. As other speakers have said, a proper commission should be established to examine the proposal. If such cannot be established, the Government should engage in such an investigation itself. What criteria were considered by the Cabinet sub-committee which has already done some work? When experts appeared before the sub-committee, which comprised the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Finance, they recommended that there should be a good spatial fit in terms of the locations for decentralisation and a good business case for the movement of offices. The plan was supposed to make Government work better. How did the sub-committee rate the towns in question? Were the final choices based on a rating? If so, can we see the rating? If not, it seems that the Government is flying by the seat of its pants.

If Ministers intend to proceed with the decentralisation proposal without heeding the need to re-examine it and back it up with a proper strategic statement, they must step up to the plate by signing a compliance statement and publishing a risk assessment. Ministers should say in their compliance statements that they have taken sufficient mitigating steps to ensure that moves will not have an adverse effect on policy making and the delivery of public services, etc. When failures are revealed in three or four years' time, Ministers should not be in a position to say that they were just implementing Government policy.

That is not acceptable. This is a democratic state in which we expect people to shoulder political responsibility. If Ministers proceed in this unprecedented manner, we must ask them to shoulder responsibility because they are moving in an extraordinary direction.

That was more a statement than a question but I will ask one question in respect of Mr. van der Kamp's contribution. I like his idea of moving speciality skills such as occurred with regard to Hilversum. I recall as children we used to tune into Hilversum, one of the radio stations one found on the dial. While this obviously reflects a conscious effort, would it be the correct approach to moving, for example, strategic telecom skills to a specific location in Ireland? Would one not first decide to create an infrastructure around, for example, Sligo based on building telecommunications expertise, establish an education infrastructure, move three or four agencies and provide a good planning framework to ensure the process is completed properly? At the end of this process, perhaps in ten years, Sligo would become the telecommunications centre of Ireland. Are we not putting the cart before the horse? Are we not to some degree producing ex post rationalisations by trying to find coherence when we should have had a statement setting out that Sligo is to become the telecommunications centre of Ireland and the approach to be taken?

I thank members of the delegation for their contributions. I have three questions. Mr. van der Kamp who is a town planner indicated that decentralisation was good for provincial towns. I welcome this particularly as I come from Mullingar, the only town in the midlands which has not benefited from decentralisation. He also stated he did not envisage difficulties in decentralising to peripheral towns as regards commuting and referred to travelling between Longford and Mullingar and Ballinasloe and Athlone. Surely as a town planner Mr. van der Kamp is aware that provincial towns such as Mullingar, Athlone and Longford are choked with traffic and the public transport system between them is virtually non-existent? How does he justify welcoming further commuting between these towns when a person travelling into Mullingar from Longford will be stuck in traffic for 20 minutes or half an hour? Has he examined in detail the position in these provincial towns?

Dr. Walsh referred to the difficulties of government decentralisation and the decision making process. He will have read the various reports which have shown that many of the senior people in the Departments do not want to move. The bottom line for senior staff in the Department of Education and Science, for example, is that they do not want to move to Mullingar. How does Dr. Walsh envisage the Department functioning if senior positions are located in Mullingar? Does he anticipate that persons at lower levels will be promoted ahead of their time, so to speak, without the necessary experience to take the relevant positions? How does he perceive that the Department will function and operate if the current proposal is pushed through?

As regards decentralisation, the Minister's Budget Statement in December included what I regard as a get-out clause, which has scarcely been mentioned. He stated that no contracts could be entered into at provincial level without the corresponding building being either sold or leased at Dublin level. To the best of my knowledge, the site of the headquarters of the Department of Education and Science on Marlborough Street includes three listed buildings, a Gaelscoil and at least one other function. How does Professor Bannon marry the Minister's statement on property disposals with relocating to the provinces?

I am in favour of decentralisation. In light of the statements emanating from the Government in the past week, does the panel believe decentralisation is finished before it has even started? As a result of Better Local Government we brought in directors of services and so forth. The process is now known as "Bitter Local Government" and "Dearer Local Government" because it costs more and resulted in internal fighting about the allocation of jobs. This will happen again with decentralisation.

Professor Bannon

Deputy McGrath raised the issue of contracts, an added complication. One must return to the drawing board on this matter and bed down the issues of relocation within a wider framework of governance reform. The issue of contracts will not arise in the short term. Will Deputy Ring repeat his question?

My question was whether recent statements by Ministers indicate that decentralisation is finished before it has even started.

Professor Bannon

It would be a tragedy, and it is a danger, if the proposals as announced on 3 December 2003 do not proceed and we walk away from decentralisation. We need to look at ourselves in a European context, including, God help us, the context of the United Kingdom. While the UK should not be a model, it is streets ahead of us. It is not for me to say in precise terms what the joint committee should do but in my opinion it should get hold of all the correspondence on the Lyons report and its recommendations and examine what our neighbouring island is doing. There is a century of difference between what it is doing and moving bits and pieces within the jigsaw of government.

Dr. Walsh

Our problem in this regard is that we do not have a document which describes what the Government is trying to do. Eoin O'Driscoll's commission reported a couple of weeks ago on the national enterprise strategy. I have read the document carefully. It is well thought out and coherent and I support and understand it. However, I do not have a document to describe what the Government will do other than a list of towns and numbers associated with them. When we attack the most fundamental aspect of our democracy, namely, the way in which we govern, and propose to slice the State into nine different parts without a document setting out the reasons, I get very upset.

I am also upset because since December I have been approached by household names who have retired but who made the country we enjoy today. They have told me that my statements on this matter are great and that I am very brave, which suggests something awful will happen to me. When people who are national treasures are distraught about the prospect of damaging the core of central government, I get upset.

Last year I was asked to chair a commission on creating an overarching framework for the knowledge age for research and development. We heard from experts from Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada and then produced a recommendation, after which the Taoiseach and Tánaiste appointed the chief science adviser. Behind this decision was a most disturbing analysis. We discovered that 11 Departments are spending €2.5 billion on research under the national development plan.

Visiting Finland we found not only that education and enterprise people are not located in different towns but that they walk up and down the street strategising together to make Finland better. The essence of our report was that we had to bring people in Departments even closer together to ensure we get an agile strategy for knowledge age policy related to research. I am greatly concerned by the thought that we will disperse a number of these Departments around the country without any documentation, reason or justification. I am hugely enthusiastic about the idea of moving thousands of public servants out of Dublin who do not need to be here, but they should be brought together in a cluster perhaps on the western corridor so that Galway, Limerick and Cork can come together over the next 20 years and create a potential counterpole to Dublin. Michael Porter, who is the world guru on these matters, says the future of regions is all about healthy regional cities. God knows the three western cities are not even connected by a decent road to help them work together.

Mr. van der Kamp

I shall first respond to the issue of whether there was a plan and if there should have been a plan. I was more surprised than most when the Minister announced this in his budget speech because I was a member of the expert advisory committee on the national spatial strategy and, to my knowledge, this did not come up and was therefore very surprising.

I have no knowledge about the amount of research or planning that was done or whether there was a detailed assessment etc., but I reject the suggestion that this was a scatter-gun approach, as was mentioned after the announcement; that this was just spreading people all over the constituencies so that everybody would get something. There is definitely a logic in terms of the fit between the locations and the Departments.

In answer to the question, I do not know if it could have been better. As part of the national spatial strategy it would have been very exciting to do some kind of analysis as to whether Sligo or other towns would make good centres based on careful analysis. It would have been very interesting and it would also have illustrated very well the idea of polycentric urban development which was the starting point in the national spatial strategy. This would have been an example of implementing it, but it did not come up in the advisory committee.

In terms of the traffic congestion problems in Mullingar, although it may sound perverse, if there is traffic congestion between Longford and Mullingar, that to me is evidence that the balanced regional development strategy is working. It is not just Dublin that has problems but they exist elsewhere as well. Of course it also illustrates that public transport is very poor but that can be improved. I do not think the fact some of the settlements are smaller will mitigate against the feasibility of public transport because it would be part of a network. The critical idea is that the towns and villages would be connected.

I do not feel I am competent to comment on whether it will happen, if it has already happened or if it is fair to ask an Accounting Officer to do this. It may well be that it will never come to anything but that does not take away the excitement I felt when I heard it announced in the budget speech.

Professor Bannon

Deputy Richard Bruton asked some questions to which I did not respond. The British approach in the Hardiman and Lyons reports looks at risk assessment and the concept of resource gain, in other words the cost savings as opposed to communications damage. There is quite a sophisticated econometric and economic analysis behind what they do.

I welcome the strong points made by Dr. Walsh and Professor Bannon about the use of the term "decentralisation" and the fact that this is a complete and utter misnomer for what the Government is proposing to do. Clearly the Government has in mind the relocation of civil servants which is a very different idea to decentralisation. We probably have the most highly centralised national Government of all European countries and correspondingly weak and completely ineffective local government. That is the real issue of governance that needs to be tackled in this country.

It is not particularly relevant to use the example of developments in the Netherlands, given the completely different system of governance. That country has strong local government where most of the decision making takes place giving rise to a slimmed down national Government. The account that was given of what happened in The Netherlands is a very attractive idea with which I would not disagree.

To locate different types of activity in different regions seems to make absolute sense but that is not an argument for what the Government is proposing to do here in terms of relocating a very centralised Civil Service. The reality is that this is a political stroke. There is no other way of describing it. It was used to distract attention from a very lacklustre and flat budget. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the budget process. There was no logical reason for the Government to announce it on budget day. My concern is that Government members are whipping up the whole phoney Dublin versus the regions battle on the basis that some of the regional Deputies are claiming to have delivered locally to their constituents and, as it were, taken jobs from the Dublin area. As a Dublin representative, I would very much welcome proper balanced regional development. There is far too much pressure on the eastern seaboard and there is a need to look at the development of the country in a strategic way and to take tough decisions about how development, industry and elements of Government activity should be relocated to the west. They are the kind of tough long-term strategic decisions that have to be taken, not stroke politics which this relocation plan is about. It is particularly stomach churning to see this crass attempt being made to claim credit for being part of divvying out the goodies that go with bringing jobs to regional towns. It has been done in a way that has no basis in logic and it is certainly not in the interests of the development of the Civil Service.

I am particularly concerned at the Government's cavalier approach to the public service in general and the fact that it seems to regard it as its own personal slush fund with which it can do what it wishes. It can break it up in whatever way it wishes, and can relocate members of staff to particular constituencies at will without there being any logic or strategic plan underpinning those actions. I am very concerned that this is extremely likely to lead to fragmented government. We are all too well aware of the difficulties that arise when Departments are not talking to each other or not co-operating. It gives rise to fragmented policy. This will be all the more marked if we have Departments in different parts of the country where senior staff will get few opportunities to work together to create what we say is needed, namely joined-up Government thinking. The relocation of Departments to different parts of the country will work very much against the kind of joined-up thinking that is required.

I am also very concerned about the potential for the severe loss of expertise from Departments and different State agencies if this plan goes ahead. I accept that certain administrative and clerical jobs or work can be transferred from one Department to another. If it is a matter of filling out forms or processing applications, a great deal of that work can be done by staff in any Department, but there is also a great deal of work that is highly specialised and where expertise has been built up within State agencies. I refer, in particular, to agencies such as the Equality Authority, the NRA, the Food Safety Authority and Bus Éireann. People in those agencies do a particular type of work. One cannot just say that a person working in Bus Éireann today will be working with the NRA or the Food Safety Authority next week. It is just not possible to do that. One cannot switch staff at will in those specialist agencies. It is quite clear that no thought whatsoever has been given to this. The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, seem to think people can be moved around and that if there are not enough takers in a particular agency they can be obtained from some other Department. It does not work like that. If we proceed on that basis we will end up with hugely weakened Departments and State agencies. I do not think any serious consideration has been given to this by the Government or those Government Deputies who are doing a lot of shouting about the number of jobs they have delivered to some of their towns. No thought has been given to the potential for serious damage to the Civil Service and State agencies.

I am also concerned about the implications of this plan for civil servants and their career prospects. In a particularly dangerous development, the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, is suggesting to people that if they go along with the Government's plan they will do well in their careers. He is telling them that if they opt to stay in Dublin they must take what goes with that and they will not go anywhere career-wise. A clear message is being given that if people want to climb the career ladder or progress through promotion they must hop to the Government's tune and agree to move. This is not open Government; it is not a proper way to deal with the Civil Service. It has serious long-term implications in terms of the type of people we will have in senior positions in Departments and State agencies.

I am also concerned about the fact that the Government appears to have paid little heed to its own spatial strategy in deciding to where it will relocate Civil Service jobs. I agree with Professor Bannon's point that if this plan is implemented we will end up with an even less balanced country than we have currently because there will be a Los Angeles-type distribution of settlement, with the greater Dublin area sprawling out as far as Mullingar. I do not think this is in the interest of the development of the country. It will do nothing for the western seaboard either.

In recent months there has been an unhealthy trend in Government statements about the relocation plan. I am particularly concerned about the issue of local recruitment. The recent provision for State agencies and Departments to recruit locally and privatise their recruitment of civil servants is a backward step. It brings us back to the days when one had to join the local cumann or prove for whom one voted if one wanted a job. There is a real danger that with local recruitment and the privatisation of recruitment in the regions, the locally favoured employment agency will be doing recruitment and everybody in the region will know that one must kick with the right foot if one wants to get a job in a Department through that agency. That is a real danger and something that should be resisted at all costs.

We need to learn from the experience of previous decentralisation programmes. For example, as public representatives we all accept that the relocation of the Department of Social and Family Affairs to Sligo has been extremely successful. The people who were transferred to Sligo are, by and large, dealing with applications for different entitlements. That can be done in any part of the country and it works successfully with lo-call rates for people calling Sligo. I want to see this kind of relocation of Departments where it is appropriate. I support earlier relocations which are working very well.

However, we all have experience of Departments that have been relocated that do not work well. For example, I have had serious difficulties with the Department of Education and Science recently. In trying to pursue a number of educational issues I needed to speak to senior staff, but it is a regular occurrence that when one looks for them they are unavailable because they have travelled to Dublin. That means that they are out of the office for two or three days every week and it is impossible to do business with them. There are serious questions to be asked about travel and the cost of travel. No consideration has been given to the fact that large numbers of civil servants will be criss-crossing the country on a regular basis.

I support the points made by the witnesses about the need to learn from the experience in other countries. That is something the Government has failed to do in this and many other areas. We have seen the good and the bad in other countries. It is foolhardy to ignore that information and knowledge. The Government should use it. I fully support Dr. Walsh's point about the need to approach the issue of regional development in a strategic and planned way and the need to develop a counterpole to Dublin. One of the critical things the Government must do if it is serious about shifting development to the western seaboard is to play a part by putting in place the kind of infrastructure that will encourage development. We have seen this in terms of the absence of good road developments in the west and the absence of rail links between the western cities. It is an unattractive place for people to consider relocating to. The Government must play its part and put this infrastructure in place if it wants to achieve a particular end. There is no point in saying, as the strategic rail review stated, that housing and jobs should be developed first and then the rail line will be provided. It simply does not happen like that. The Government must take strategic decisions and put in place a transport infrastructure, from which development will follow. To do it the other way is to put the cart before the horse.

I am not a member of this committee but I hope that the two days of hearings this week and the later hearings planned for September will have a favourable outcome. Dr. Walsh has already made nine or ten suggestions which are hard to argue with. I would be interested to see how the committee might dispute any of them. I hope that at the end of the process, the committee will come up with clear recommendations for Government. From comments by Ministers in recent days, which demonstrate that Government members realise the plan for relocation is not so popular with the electorate, it seems there is some backtracking. The spin seems to be that the timescale is not as tight as originally proposed and that the process may take several years — the Taoiseach said this yesterday. It would be the worst thing for the country and the public service if this ill thought-out plan were to go ahead at a snail's pace and were dragged out over the next seven or eight years. We would end up with the worst of all possible worlds: a poor plan, delivered over a long period, which creates much uncertainty within the Civil Service and the Government generally. Early decisions must be taken. The Government should go back to the drawing board. It should learn from the experience of other countries and take the advice provided by people with expertise, something it failed to do at the beginning.

Before I call Deputies Twomey and Ferris, I must point out that it is my intention, as Chairman, to formulate an all-party committee report at the end of our deliberations in September. The content and the question of how far we go in the report will be decided at that stage.

I welcome the visitors to the committee. As a politician, I support decentralisation. My constituency covers County Wexford and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is destined to be moved there. The preferred location for a new headquarters has already been announced by the Minister of State in that county.

It has been six months since we debated the Finance Bill 2004 and the issue of decentralisation has been topical ever since. Many members of this committee regarded the three year timescale as a bit of a joke because it would never be possible to move 10,000 people out of Dublin in that time. Only now is the point being conceded by the Taoiseach. Since this debate began I have asked about the problems encountered in the decentralisation of other Departments in recent years but have received no information. Some of those who will address us later have been relocated and may be able to fill us in on that. All three speakers say this was launched without a plan, that there was no background, no objectives, no plan, no prior evaluation and that it is evident that it should be based on research. We are very concerned about the high financial cost and the loss of expertise. People allude to this when they discuss decentralisation but nobody gives any clear pointers as to how it might happen.

Decentralisation is intended to cover approximately 53 locations with, in some cases, small groups, of 30 or 40 people, moving to what might be regarded as isolation from the general Civil Service or regulatory bodies with which they may be involved. In some cases whole regulatory organisations are moving while in others some civil servants are moving and some Departments. The speakers have given their view of what they regard as balanced regional development. We are here to establish if the Government plan as announced last January for nine Departments and 53 locations will work. Having read the plan as it was announced can the speakers state categorically in which areas it will fail and be the antithesis of good management of the public service? If some areas fail will there be a domino effect for other relocation areas where the whole plan could unravel over time? Are there aspects of the plan that will work? Will it work or will it fall apart over the next couple of years?

The speakers have put themselves in the eye of the storm by coming before us because this is the information we want. As the experts, the planners and strategists, do they see the programme falling apart or do they see positive aspects to it? We are only politicians and will support it for political reasons.

I thank the three gentlemen for their presentations. Sinn Féin fully supports decentralisation, or relocation of Departments outside Dublin. We support decentralisation of power with real authority given to local authorities. The programme announced by the Minister for Finance is a relocation programme which can be beneficial to the regions where it is offered, and to the capital. The Government's approach, however, has not been properly planned. There has been no proper consultation and it was timed as a pre-election initiative. The Minister has admitted that 2006 was chosen because it is the year before the next general election. The Government's bad planning and lack of consultation with civil servants make it impossible to fulfil the promise to decentralise 10,300 posts by 2006. The Taoiseach effectively conceded this point yesterday.

Mr. van der Kamp stated in his article in The Irish Times in support of decentralisation that commuting has become part of the Irish lifestyle and is not always negative or avoidable. Does he agree that commuting is not the problem but rather the undeveloped nature of our public transport system, especially outside towns and cities? In my county, as in all of rural Ireland, there are vast areas not served by any public transport whatsoever.

Dr. Walsh stated in his submission that the proposed programme appeared to have been hurriedly prepared and to have bypassed the normal process of analysis and consultation. What form should this process have taken or should it now take? He also commented that the decentralisation group report suggests a lack of understanding of what ICT can accomplish. Can he elaborate on that?

Professor Bannon stated in his paper under the heading "Service Activities: Concentration in Dublin" that if the relocation programme is to be implemented without a radical rethink one of the major impacts is likely to be further expansion of the greater Dublin area. Like most people, I understand that the decentralisation process is designed to help curb the over-expansion of Dublin. Can Professor Bannon explain why he thinks it will lead to further expansion?

Mr. van der Kamp

For clarification, I agree The Netherlands has a good local government system and that the Irish system is very centralised but this decentralisation plan has nothing to do with local government review. We should not confuse the two issues. It is not devolution. The title is wrong but it is nothing to do with a local government review, which is also necessary. I have long advocated local decision-making and a centralised system does not preclude this. A poor local government system is not an impediment to this — they are separate issues. Perhaps having a national body in one's town can contribute to better local government but that is informal and long term. For example, Wexford benefits from the presence of the EPA, even if only through having senior civil servants living in the town, from the point of view of housing etc.

Agencies with a specific role, for example, the aviation authority, are more likely to succeed than Departments. Locating the Department of Education and Science in the midlands has the potential to work given that some education functions have already been relocated. The Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government is an interesting case. While I cannot see into a crystal ball, it might work in Wexford. That is all I can say given the available material.

In an ideal world commuting should be effected by public transport in combination with private transport, it is not a case of either-or but of both. We all drive cars and need them but we do so in conjunction with using public transport. It is difficult in small towns to create viable public transport systems for commuting but everyone in those towns has a car and creating a larger employment base in a town can improve the viability of a public transport system.

Dr. Walsh

There will be no cataclysmic event but there will be a confused situation with bits and pieces of Departments here and there and no coherence whatsoever. I am concerned that the opportunity to move 10,000 civil servants out of Dublin, which I believe can be done, has been lost. No strategy to create a counterpole to Dublin has been formed. This could happen. It is happening in the UK with a counterpole to London being created in the north of England, along the Northern Way.

Regarding the planning process, I have chaired an international commission on the over-arching structure for research which was completed in six months. We had fantastic advice from some of the best countries around the world. The decentralisation proposition is much more important than that. I envisage an international commission, chaired by an international figure, working to a tight timescale of six months. If 10,000 civil servants are to be moved out of Dublin, we must discover what must be done to make Ireland a better place and improve its central governance. The question where ICT ends and begins is very clear. If one does not attend a meeting in Brussels, from a different location one can listen to it and make the odd comment. However, everyone knows that what happens before the meeting is more important than what happens at it, especially if the issues are crucial. One simply has to be there. Filling out, say, a social welfare form can be done through ICT. Crucial policy decisions, however, must be made with human interaction in a vibrant way.

If I may Chairman, I will leave copies of my plan of action for the committee.

Professor Bannon

Reference has repeatedly been made to organisations that have moved out of Dublin. However, a careful inventory needs to be done of which organisations have moved, which stayed and which are now back in Dublin. One highlighted example is that more people are working on the UCD campus than elsewhere. As somebody who has worked on the science of office relocation for 30 years, there is no doubt that office decentralisation can be used strategically to bring about a better country and society. Taking the Swedish example of 30 years ago, I am dubious about the economics of moving a huge amount of work unless it contributes to a strategic objective of development. I know this is easy for me to say and that politicians have a different role to play. However, the strategic justification is crucial.

I do not want to see this initiative die. I hope with the assistance of the committee it will move forward. As a professor of planning, my reading of relocation is that it ultimately leads to more centralisation. The more bits and pieces there are scattered around the country, the greater the need for more control functions to monitor what is happening. It ultimately brings more important functions back into Dublin. The national spatial strategy is not an à la carte plan as there are five themes in it. From watching it over the last two years, the one theme that is not being picked up, as it involves choices, is the issue of the gateways. Decentralisation gives the golden opportunity to advance the gateways as counterpoles. How many gateways are needed can be discussed until the cows come home. However, moving only 12% of the total jobs to the gateways, such as Athlone and the midlands, does not suggest that there is any strategic component to the policy in planning terms. I have the misfortune of being old enough to have been on the Buchanan report as well as working for the NSS. In my lifetime, the main trend in Dublin’s expansion has been extending its share of total population and spreading out along the arteries to Portlaoise, Mullingar and Athlone.

I welcome the three eminent specialists and it was a great pleasure to listen to them. However, as a Senator I take a different view to theirs. From looking at politicians under a microscope, I am generally impressed. Members, particularly those in the Government parties, come from all around the country. Ministers and Deputies have specialist knowledge of the problems in their own areas.

With all due respect, Professor Bannon referred to Mr. Lemass and the Buchanan report. However, I wish to draw upon two good examples. Seán Lemass was a politician with vision. If the academic Buchanan report had been implemented, we would not have had the Celtic tiger. Few academics — I am sure Dr. Walsh will agree — could have prophesied the Celtic tiger. However, it was the politicians who made the decisions. Mr. Lemass was the first to stop protectionism. Continuous Government policy has been to go for international investment when it was contrary to conventional wisdom. I recall when I studied by night at University College Dublin, the conventional wisdom was that multinational companies would be bad for Ireland as they were seen as exploitative etc. However, consistent Government policy had the vision that because we did not have an indigenous industrial base, it had to be imported. The development of indigenous industry is much more difficult at this stage because a robust indigenous base is needed to go hand in hand with it.

I admit that the public presentation of the decentralisation programme was not great. When I heard it during the budget speech, I was delighted. However, I could see knee-jerk reactions from political opponents and those like this delegation. I perceive that Mr. van der Kamp views the plan more benignly than Dr. Walsh and Professor Bannon. Four months after the budget announcement, the decentralisation implementation group's report was published. This group is chaired by a previous president of the ICTU, Mr. Phil Flynn, and is comprised of a former chairman of the Revenue Commissioners and the chairman of the Office of Public Works who will be responsible for buildings under decentralisation. These key specialists admitted in their report that there are challenges. As a businessperson I know that with every challenge there is an opportunity. Some people see challenges, collapse and walk away. However, I support the decentralisation programme.

The presentation of decentralisation after the budget was not sufficiently co-ordinated. I have confidence in Mr. Phil Flynn as the chairman of the implementation group. There are people present who are not familiar with the recommendations regarding human resources and industrial relations issues, the implications for delivery of service, accommodation and the implementation of the planning steps. It is all there for everyone to read. It is good that the three specialists have spoken publicly here today, but in my role as a Senator I believe that politicians must be imaginative, break existing moulds and drive a vision for the future of our country. I disagree on one point with the two Irish people present.

The disloyal Irish people.

I have a problem with the continuous references they make to Sweden, France and so on. Mr. van der Kamp said we have been unique in what we have done in this country. We are a model for other countries. We do not have to slavishly follow others, but have our own unique way. Going by information supplied to me, there is a serious issue regarding physical planning in the country. There is a huge argument within the rural-city divide that British-style villages are being promoted. I would like to talk to Professor Bannon about that some other time. There is a sense that planning in country towns is being done to a British formula. Dr. Walsh would appreciate that outsiders were more appreciative of the Celtic tiger and that around the world people look to us consistently as a role model. I would like to see our country develop in its own unique way. It need not follow the models of other countries. The contributions of these specialists are however necessary and important.

I am substituting for Deputy Finneran. Can the specialists say if the concept of decentralisation is an issue? Do we agree with the concept? I am in politics at various levels for almost 20 years and it is generally agreed that the concept of decentralisation is something which successive Governments have shirked. A difficult decision has now been taken. If we were depending on reports, I have no doubt that the decision would never be taken. It is like the implementation of the smoking ban. People laughed at the notion of it being implemented a couple of years ago but in two or three years' time the question will be asked if people ever smoked in Irish pubs. Making the decision took courage.

I come from a peripheral, peninsular west Cork area. We had a probate office in Cork which was effectively closed for a long time, with everything being sucked towards Dublin. This was contrary to notions held by people like Seán Lemass. The Land Registry now has an office successfully based in Waterford. It could function successfully anywhere in Ireland. Someone mentioned the offices of the Department of Social And Family Affairs in Sligo. Those who come from an area such as west Mayo. west Cork or Connemara realise that for the past 40 years, everything has been sucked into Dublin, which has created huge social problems and other problems related to the expansion of Dublin. The Government was conservative in proposing the decentralisation of 10,000 people. I would have urged it to double that figure, perhaps over a longer period. The decentralisation nettle has now been grasped and the decision will not be reversed. The process may take longer than anticipated but political parties across the divide will recognise the positive step taken. The process may not be taking place in the manner which some experts would say it should be done, but decentralisation is here to stay.

Considering that the peninsular area I represent has in some places shown a 16% population decline, the proposal to decentralise 10,000 people is too conservative. The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and its Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, advocate CLÁR programmes but in terms of time it is much easier for me to get to Washington or New York than to Dublin. Such a trip would take me five hours from Shannon Airport while it can take me seven hours to get from my home to the centre of Dublin. I am here because I have to be here. The decentralisation programme is a positive move and instead of opposing it we should encourage its development so that in 20 years' time rural Ireland will be surviving and Dublin will not be sinking, with the weight and volume of population and building, into the Irish Sea on top of that nuclear plant across the water in Wales. We must be positive. Nine or ten Governments over the years have talked of decentralisation, and this Government has grasped the nettle. We must consider ways of promoting decentralisation as best we can.

Dr. Walsh has been very innovative in the Limerick area and has built a wonderful school of excellence in Limerick. Where does he see decentralisation failing? He spoke of bits and pieces of Departments. Many Departments are already present in towns such as Cavan, Castlebar and others. Under the new programme we will have Fáilte Éireann, for example, in Mallow and we will have the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism in Killarney, headed by the Minister.

Dr. Walsh also spoke of the electronic age and of information technology and noted that the Taoiseach had to meet the heads of Government in order in ensure that the Constitution was not breached. I never envisaged that at any time we would not have Cabinet meetings or human interaction. Under the new arrangements we will have a much more vibrant Government and Departments than in the past. Ministers, for example, are not in the Dáil today. They are in their offices around town and one can communicate with them only by phone or e-mail. In the new situation the Ministers will be sited in the environs of the Dáil where they will be accessible to the Members of the Oireachtas, both Opposition and Government Deputies. That will be much more practical than before.

I do not see where inefficiencies will arise in the new situation. The country will also be much more competitive in terms of public transport. It was noted that the west has no rail service to some of its towns, and the same is true for some of the rural areas of Cork. We will see new developments in public transport by means of the further railway schemes envisaged. Decentralisation will mean a much more cost-effective country because of the encouragement it will provide. In a democracy it is the job of the Government to give the lead in this matter. The approach being taken is very innovative.

I would like to hear the comments of Dr. Walsh. I have followed his career for many years. He is a fellow Corkman, though he has on occasion stolen the clothes of UCC for the University of Limerick.

Mr. van der Kamp

Partly because we do not have any reports or an evaluation, I have no particular opinion as to whether this is a good or bad plan. I am here because I was invited. It is not sufficient to reject this plan simply because it does not comply with the national spatial strategy or because it has not been tried elsewhere before.

Professor Bannon

Senator White referred to Seán Lemass. It was he who introduced what is the current headline statement for regional policy, the concept of development centres, places which in addition to the established centres of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Shannon and Ennis are likely to become the commercial, financial, educational, health, social and administrative centres of each region. That was Seán Lemass's vision. Had it been implemented it might not be necessary to have multinationals in Dublin to the extent that we have them. There might be a redistribution of power and there might be a different distribution of jobs. There also might also be a stronger indigenous sector.

Dr. Walsh

I have not been involved in a knee-jerk reaction. Since December I have been so concerned about this that I have been studying and examining it very closely. I have also been reading the Flynn report very carefully, which is most depressing reading. On all the key issues of concern about how decentralised Departments will interact with the Oireachtas and so on, the statement made in the report is that the matter must be given consideration; it does not offer a solution. The report is reminiscent of a very unsuccessful military leader who, when asked to do something that he did not understand, said that, unable to understand his mission, he redoubled his efforts to accomplish it.

I will conclude on that note. I thank the three gentlemen for their thought-provoking contributions. We will give further consideration to their comments in due course.

Sitting suspended at 12.20 p.m. and resumed at 12.35 p.m.

In this part of the meeting, it is intended to present a regional perspective on decentralisation. We will hear from two locally based organisations which reflect a direct interest in the potential benefits of decentralisation for regional development and two Government organisations with direct experience of the process of decentralisation. The presentations are in the following order, Laois Chamber of Commerce, Westmeath County Council, the Office of the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Mr. John Keys, the vice-president of Laois Chamber of Commerce will commence and Ms Margaret Ryan, chief executive of Laois Chamber of Commerce will follow.

Mr. John Keys

Chairman, members of the committee and ladies and gentlemen, we at the Laois Chamber of Commerce are honoured and delighted to be invited to address the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service on decentralisation. Laois Chamber of Commerce is fully supportive of the initiative, yet the fears and the reluctance of the public servants are understood. We are confident that our presentation will allay these fears and assure the committee and the Department of Agriculture and Food, which is earmarked to go to Portlaoise, of our assistance in the smooth transfer of 500 plus jobs to Portlaoise. Our chief executive, Ms Margaret Ryan will make the presentation.

Ms Margaret Ryan

I am Margaret Ryan from the Laois Chamber of Commerce and I reiterate the remarks of our vice-president. I will read a short presentation, from which I will extract the main points and recommendations of Laois Chamber of Commerce on the implementation of some or all of the proposed initiatives on decentralisation. The view of the chamber of commerce is expressed in this document.

The concept of decentralisation fits well with the national spatial strategy and the national development plan in that it supports the balanced development of regions. In short the national spatial strategy is designed to achieve a better balance of social, economic, physical development and population growth between regions. It focuses on people, places and community development and how best to match people's lives to the places in which they work. I am sure members are aware that Portlaoise was not included as one of the proposed gateway or hub towns, however, it was described in the national spatial strategy as being strategically placed on national road and rail links and as having strong national development potential as a transport hub and distribution centre and/or inland port. Laois County Council, the Midlands Regional Authority, Laois Chamber of Commerce and other private sector companies also support the concept of inland port development for Portlaoise.

The relocation of a Department and Government office entails much more than an office transfer. People are discommoded, usually from their natural environment or chosen location of employment and domestic living. Public service employees are comfortable in this environment, with the majority reluctant to consider ever moving let alone to be forced to decentralise with their present or new employer. Fear of the unknown is one of the main concerns for many public servants, now placed on the decentralisation train to various destinations in Ireland. Without a real model of a complete transfer of a Department — to my knowledge no Department has moved as yet — it is not difficult to understand the concerns of public servants. While some Government offices report on successful decentralisation — we will hear later from some of these — the scale and move was generally supported, with the voluntary return to a home base environment by the vast majority of public servants who are now decentralised. For the present decentralisation initiative to experience even moderate success, the fear of moving outside the capital needs to be addressed. This was reiterated in the earlier presentations.

People may wonder why Portlaoise, County Laois, which was not designated as a gateway or hub town, is the town where it is proposed to locate one of the most significant Departments. County Laois, while having a good mix of commercial business is strongly supported by public sector and semi-State employment. This employment is mainly in the principal town of Portlaoise, with the presence of the prison section of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Department of Agriculture and Food, the health board, the county council, ESB, Eircom, SDS and Iarnród Éireann and schools.

We were excited and delighted by the announcement in November 2003 that the Department of Agriculture and Food in its entirety, with in excess of 500 jobs, would move to Portlaoise. The announcement of the decentralisation of eight or nine Departments and a number of Government bodies, with in excess of 10,000 jobs being relocated to 55 destinations, was made in the Budget Statement. In a subsequent announcement, the decentralisation of the ICT was made recently. The benefits that decentralisation of this magnitude will bring to Portlaoise, a small rural town, are enormous. It will have direct economic benefits with day to day spending on accommodation, be it renting or purchasing accommodation, entertainment, joining the local golf club, etc. It will also have a significant spin-off effect, will promote economic growth and a further vibrancy in Portlaoise.

Existing infrastructure, with Monasterevin being bypassed by the end of this year, will mean that one is travelling on a motorway from Dublin Airport and the greater Dublin area to Portlaoise. There is a very good train service at present and also a possibility of extending the Arrow route. Bus Éireann and private bus operators provide a good service. In addition, Air Coach provides a frequent daily service from Portlaoise to Dublin Airport via the city centre. This affords every aspect of commuting to and from Portlaoise. It also affords the reverse commuting possibility.

While we would like everyone in the Department to move to and live in Portlaoise, that is not necessarily an immediate option but it can be a phased one. I am sure that people who are working in any Department commute on a daily basis. They could get in a car, train or a bus and travel to Portlaoise and return in the evening to where their families live. That should be looked at in view of the commuter infrastructure that is already there. Portlaoise has also benefited from the Government metropolitan broadband initiative and is now ready for a full Internet access to all commercial and industrial areas of the town. The strong public sector base already exists there, in particular the offices of the Department of Agriculture and Food, and the town has a rural and agricultural hinterland.

How feasible is the initiative of decentralisation? Having read the papers this morning, one has to wonder. There has been negative press, Opposition parties have not supported it, and even now some Ministers do not see it occurring within the planned timeframe. All of those issues could spell the death knell of this initiative. Laois Chamber of Commerce supports the decentralisation initiative into the regions, but has some degree of scepticism that full implementation of the initiative will be achieved within the timeframe. We submit the following to look at the best way in which this can be done. We do not consider that eight Departments can move within the timeframe so we suggest that a model be created for one area. It has an existing public sector base with a good infrastructure, proximity to Dublin, accessibility and price competitiveness. The OPW has shortlisted one or two sites that are ideal for the Department. Let us put a model into one town and work from there. In other words, the Government should take advantage of the excellent infrastructure that already exists and reap the benefits of the Exchequer funding that has already gone in to this area.

We want to promote the strengths of the positive aspects of decentralisation, particularly the positive aspects of moving to a town like Portlaoise. These include proximity, reverse commute and the existing base. It was never our intention or understanding that Ministers would move to Portlaoise, live there for the rest of their lives and never come back to Dublin. Ministers need to go to Brussels and other parts of Europe. It can be as easy to get from Portlaoise to the airport, as it is from Bray. No town is completely ready for decentralisation, and the other Departments need to look at providing the essential services that are needed. One of these that could be addressed, due to the increased population and the projected increase from decentralisation, is the provision and expansion of schools. That would apply to both Portarlington and Portlaoise.

The biggest threat to real implementation of the decentralisation process is perhaps that it is overambitious, unrealistic and unlikely to be delivered on time. We believe that the models that we propose in making one town ideal will create a public service word of mouth that will filter back. The fact that Portlaoise is a short commute from Dublin makes it the ideal location. We must improve the current infrastructure, promote the positives and address any issues that may be of concern to the people. Most of all, we must allay the fears of public servants that are fearful of moving into what they consider to be rural areas. It is one short hop down the road to Portlaoise.

I thank the delegation for its presentation on behalf of Laois Chamber of Commerce. I call on the next delegation to make a presentation on behalf of Westmeath County Council, represented by Councillor Dan McCarthy, who is Leas-Cathaoirleach of the council, and Mr. Eddie Hynes, who is deputy county manager.

I would like to express my appreciation to the Chairman and to his committee for inviting us here today. As far as Westmeath is concerned, in particular Mullingar, this is an extremely important issue. When this announcement was first made, there was great excitement bordering on euphoria. The reason for this is that we have lost a number of jobs in the last few years. We are fast becoming a dormer town of Dublin. Some people leave Mullingar at 6.30 a.m. and do not get back until 8.30 p.m. That kind of lifestyle is not sustainable in the long term. It has a devastating effect on family and social life. What contribution, if any, can those people make to their local community? We were very excited when this came about. We are now in a situation of equal disappointment. I would be dishonest if I did not mention the fact that in Westmeath, apart from the fact that we are Leinster champions——

Hear, hear.

I am surprised it took so long for that to come out. As a Laois man I wish you all the best.

I know you do. I have to reflect the huge disappointment on this important issue. We believed at the time that there had been forward planning, consultation and consensus when this plan was first announced. It would be a tragedy for the people of Kinnegad, Mullingar, Kilbeggan, Moate, Raharney and Killucan, if this programme was to be sabotaged. On behalf of Westmeath County Council, I urge this committee to proceed with this programme and to be as positive as it possibly can, even at this late stage. The amount of negative publicity on the radio and television every day is having a devastating effect. I now invite our deputy county manager and head of finance, Mr. Hynes, to address you on what we have to offer to the civil servants that we hope will join us in the not too distant future.

Mr. Eddie Hynes

Westmeath County Council is of the strong opinion that decentralisation is good for the county. Over the last twenty years, the council has made many submissions urging the Government to embark on an extended process of decentralisation that would include the county of Westmeath. My submission deals with two aspects of decentralisation. Why does Westmeath need decentralisation and what does it have to offer the process? As I am conscious of the time limits imposed on us, I will be specific.

Westmeath needs decentralisation to contribute to the social and economic life of the country. That goes without saying. The provision of some 500 additional Civil Service jobs in Westmeath is important. The presence of such a large number of employees will have knock-on effects in the wider economy. Another important point is that these types of jobs will provide a more balanced job market to an area such as Westmeath. We have different people with different expectations. This is another career path which will be open to the population of Westmeath that is generally not currently available.

As our Leas-Cathaoirleach said, we have a considerable number of daily commuters to Dublin, particularly from the eastern part of County Westmeath, a number of whom already work for State and Government Departments. This type of long distance commuting is not sustainable. Decentralisation would be a more appropriate way of forward development. The proposals as outlined give some practical expression to the national spatial strategy. Westmeath is part of a gateway town and the Government must give practical expression to the national spatial strategy. If the Government does not lead the national spatial strategy will not work. Decentralisation can accelerate the process and, perhaps, kick start it. Bringing Government close to the people is important. People must see government, it cannot be a distant activity in Dublin. Even though Westmeath is only 50 miles from Dublin, distance is important. Local government is important and central government acting locally is important. Those employed in decentralisation would bring cross-fertilistion both to the civil servants themselves and to the native population. Different people have different ideas and cross-fertilisation generally promotes the betterment of all.

We have to do some catching up in Westmeath although we have had some decentralisation in the past. However, in recent years we have been left behind. This is an opportunity to redress that issue. New people would add to the cultural and civic development of the county. We may even get a few more football players. These are the reasons we believe decentralisation is good. Westmeath was selling decentralisation inwards to Dublin.

What have we got to offer the decentralisation process? We are a relatively small county but one that is growing rapidly. How can we attract top civil servants? Everybody says we can decentralise relatively simple tasks but we are looking for more than just processors. We want the brain power, the Ministers and the real power decentralised. What have we got to offer these people? Geographical location is suitable given that we are practically in the centre of Ireland. Two hours will take one to any part of the country from Mullingar or Athlone. We have a good solid infrastructure, much of which has been put in place in recent years. We have new motorways, and water and sewerage systems are largely in position. Further expansion will need further investment. Westmeath County Council is capable of doing that in the next few years if required. At present there is adequate infrastructure in place.

Housing is important for employees. We have a large variety of housing types — rural based, urban based, apartment based and semi-detached housing — and our costs are competitive. Typical costs would be 40%, 50%, or 60% for similar houses in Dublin. That is a big incentive, particularly for younger people starting off.

On the education front, primary, secondary and third level institutions are in place. On the issue of health, the services could be better, as in other areas, but a regional hospital is based in Mullingar. Also we are close to another regional hospital in Tullamore and we are not too far from Dublin. We have an extensive and rapidly growing retail outlet. Much development has taken place in Mullingar and Athlone and fine centres of retail activity have been built up. While one may work and live in Mullingar one does not have to go to Dublin to shop, it can be done locally. This is a strong selling point with both towns.

We can look to Athlone which has had decentralisation in the past. It has worked well for the town of Athlone and the Department of Education and Science and central government. In more recent times, communications broadband metropolitan rings have been put in place in Mullingar and Athlone. Currently, natural gas is being rolled out.

There is a great willingness on the part of elected representatives in Westmeath to facilitate and co-operate in every way possible with decentralisation or relocation. We want an end to the present situation, which I have already spoken about, of being a dormant town of Dublin.

Hear, hear.

This will not be the final solution to it but the contribution that decentralisation will make to Westmeath and to Mullingar, in particular, will be enormous.

Thank you. We move on to the next presentation which will be made on behalf of the Office of the Revenue Commissioners. The office is represented by Mr. Liam Irwin, assistant secretary, and Mr. PatMolan, principal officer, who are based in the Collector-General's Office in Limerick. Is that the same Mr. Irwin whose name appears on so many letters? Am I seeing the face behind the signature at last?

Mr. Liam Irwin

I am afraid so.

I was just about to say that.

I invite Mr. Irwin to make his presentation.

Mr. Irwin

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the opportunity to make a presentation this morning. I have the honour of being the Collector General.

The Government announced in 1987 that, as part of its decentralisation programme, 900 Revenue staff were to be relocated to Ennis, Nenagh and Limerick. My own involvement was with the decentralisation of staff to the Collector General's Office in Limerick and I propose to concentrate mainly on this, where the number of posts decentralised was 550, making it the biggest single decentralisation which has occurred to date.

It was obvious from the outset that the project would require an amount of planning and Revenue decided to establish a decentralisation steering group chaired by one of the commissioners to co-ordinate the project. The steering group comprised of senior representatives from the areas of the office being decentralised as well as members from key areas dealing with issues such as staffing, industrial relations, training, accommodation, office equipment, telecommunications and information technology. The group reported to the Revenue board and board approval was obtained for all major decisions. With the benefit of hindsight this high level management of the project was extremely beneficial to the ultimate successful delivery of the project.

Given that the Collector General's Office is responsible for collection of all the main taxes, such as VAT, PAYE-PRSI, corporation tax and income tax for the self-employed, which together account for the vast bulk of Exchequer funding, it was vital to the economy that the decentralisation project would not result in any slippage in tax collection and consequential loss to the Exchequer. That was fundamental to our planning and led to a carefully managed phased approach being adopted to decentralisation to Limerick. This approach allowed management to benchmark performance in the new location as individual projects were transferred, to ensure a minimal disruption in service to customers and no disruption in the flow of money to the Exchequer. This approach worked well in that there was no slippage in tax collection and the office's key performance indicators showed improvements post decentralisation.

Adequate staffing for the new location was a key issue. Initially staff were canvassed on a Civil Service wide basis for decentralisation. It emerged that there were insufficient numbers of volunteers, with shortfalls of approximately 30% for Ennis and Nenagh and almost 50% for the move to Limerick. It was decided to utilise a combination of recruitment and promoting competitions to make up the shortfall. Recruitment for specific geographic locations was used to fill the shortfall for grades at the basic entry level, which at that time was clerical assistant. Special decentralised promotion competitions were organised in consultation with the Department of Finance to make up the shortfall in more senior positions.

As regards the staff in Dublin, concern about their future was a key issue as was the issue of the overall surplus which might arise in Dublin. Those issues needed to be carefully managed. The Department of Finance sanctioned a temporary increase of around 1% in Revenue's administrative budget for the period of decentralisation. That allowed for a rolling surplus of some 200 staff for most of the decentralisation period. That helped considerably to smooth induction and transition issues. It gave staff coming from other Departments an opportunity to learn from their colleagues in Dublin and it provided a short window to find new posts for those whose work was being decentralised.

As regards the staff in those areas whose work was being decentralised, it was made clear from the start that decentralisation was voluntary, that nobody was being forced to move and that new assignments would be found elsewhere in Revenue or in the wider Civil Service for those who do not want to decentralise. Constant communication with those members of staff, through their line management and decentralisation newsletters, kept those and other members of staff informed about what was happening. That was vital in allaying their concerns and ensuring that they understood and availed of the options open to them. In the event, the surplus in Dublin was successfully dealt with through a combination of redeployment to fill normal course vacancies occurring in Revenue, transfers under other Departments' decentralisation programmes and redeployment to other Departments.

The provision of office accommodation and equipment, including state of the art IT systems in the new locations was also a major concern. Our accommodation requirements were identified in consultation with the OPW which arranged for the acquisition and refurbishment of an existing office building, Sarsfield House in Limerick. In the other areas earmarked for decentralisation — Nenagh and Ennis — new offices were built. Our internal IT division sourced the information technology and telecommunications systems.

There was a substantial loss of skills and experience in the course of decentralisation. Some 10% to 12% of staff in the Collector General's office opted to relocate. That figure increased to 25% taking into account other Revenue staff who did not do that work but who had a broad experience in Revenue. As a result, some 75% of staff were new to Revenue. A major investment in training was necessary. The training of all staff in the skills and competencies relating to their jobs was a major challenge for us. The skills, competencies and functions being decentralised were identified and appropriate training programmes were designed in consultation with local management. The training was delivered through a combination of formal training mostly delivered by the Revenue training branch with some external support and was backed by an at the desk mentoring programme.

With regard to how we planned the move, every task undertaken by the Collector General's division was profiled and benchmarked to ascertain if it could be carried out more efficiently. As a result of that exercise, significant changes were made to processes, systems and work practices and they were implemented in the course of decentralisation. Among the changes emanating from this process was the much more extensive use of IT and the restructuring of the office on the basis of functions rather than tax heads, which had been the case up to then. Arising from this experience, I am convinced that simultaneous relocation and business process change can be achieved and that this can help to alleviate some of the negatives associated with major change or with decentralisation, such as loss of corporate knowledge. While the opportunity for this type of review and re-engineering will be different for every Department, it is, I am convinced, something that should be definitely considered at an early stage of planning in every decentralisation project.

Overall, my experience of decentralisation has been positive. On the business side, all the functions of the Collector General's office were decentralised without any loss of efficiency or effectiveness and the division has risen to all the business challenges which have emerged in the past decade. For example, our volume of business has grown incrementally over the past ten years, reflecting the strength of the economy and this has been met without any increase in staffing. The number of payments we processed in 1992 when we started the move to Limerick was about 1.2 million a year and by last year that had increased threefold to 3.7 million with a corresponding increase in value from £8 billion at that time to €36 billion last year. At the same time we have made major inroads in dealing with rates of tax non-compliance. We have succeeded in significantly reducing arrears, as can be evidenced by the fact that Revenue debt expressed as a percentage of total gross receipts was at a high of 21% in 1992 and, as we reported recently to the Minister in our annual report, it was 3% last year, which benchmarks well in comparison to other Revenue jurisdictions across the world.

I am not saying the operation could not have been carried out just as successfully in Dublin. I am convinced that the fact that it was decentralised did not lead to a loss in efficiency and that the early decision to use decentralisation as an opportunity to re-engineer our business processes gave us significant value added.

I wish to mention a number of other issues that may be of interest to the committee. My management team plays an active role in the overall management of Revenue, in the ownership of corporate projects and in participating in Revenue networks and on interdepartmental groups etc. There are costs involved in doing this from a decentralised location, mostly the human cost in additional time spent travelling between Dublin and the mid-west. Technology such as e-mail and video-conferencing helps but there are a number of meetings and events where there is no alternative to simply being there. It is however essential for me, my managers and staff that we do this, that we continue to play our part in the wider organisation and that we remain at the heart of the organisation and its activities.

Revenue has consciously decided from the outset to provide a variety of interesting work functions in each of the decentralised locations and we have built on these over the past ten years. We did this in recognition of the fact that many of the staff who choose to decentralise may not want to move again. It is important that in the course of a career they have the opportunity to work in a variety of interesting work assignments.

The final point I wish to make is not unrelated to the previous one. The three locations of Ennis, Nenagh and Limerick have effectively formed a cluster. That has broadened mobility and career progression possibilities for our staff. This was a significant contributor to building morale and ensuring that the large staff of more than 900 which we have in these locations is kept motivated, engaged and effective.

I thank Mr. Irwin for his presentation. The final presentation in this afternoon's session will be made on behalf of the Department Social and Family Affairs. The Department is represented by Bernadette Lacey, director general, and Anne Tynan, principal officer.

Ms Bernadette Lacey

It is opportune for me on behalf of our organisation, with staff dispersed throughout the country not only in a decentralised but in a regionalised way and who provide a local service, to address the committee. That indicates our ability to manage our business with staff dispersed throughout the country but who contribute to the overall business of the Department. In my short presentation, I will outline some of the key issues around the structure of the organisation and how decentralisation has been implemented to date and how we perceive the next phase of it will assist us. There are some issues involved which we view as challenges we need to address, and I will deal with them in that way.

Our mission and goals, as outlined, show that as a Department we have a policy as well as a service delivery responsibility. Since 1986, the policy and service delivery areas have been functionally separated, yet a close link has been maintained between both sections. Therefore, the service delivery area contributes to the development of policy within the organisation and the policy reflects the experience of staff delivering the service on the ground.

Our structures, as outlined, were divided on a narrow social welfare service executive arm basis. Some 3,800 are full-time staff and 900 are working on a work-sharing basis. Some 25% of our staff are already working in decentralised offices; 44% are working in local and regional offices; and 31% are in the Dublin headquarters office. We have 12 headquarter offices, seven of which are in Dublin, and one each in Sligo, Longford, Dundalk, Letterkenny and Waterford. We are dispersed quite broadly across the country. We have ten regions with 58 local offices, and 69 branch offices which are services provided by private individuals to the Department on a similar basis to which postmasters provide post office services. We have five agencies: the Combat Poverty Agency and Comhairle, which are both involved in this decentralisation plan; the Pensions Board, the pensions ombudsman and the Family Support Agency.

We have gone through a number of decentralisations over the last 15 years and have coped well in all circumstances. That is not to say that there were not difficulties and challenges at each one, but we have been able to deal with them and address them. In 1989, we decentralised a number of pension functions to the Sligo office. This was done on the basis that these were mainly long-term schemes where interaction with the customer was less frequent and could be managed either by phone, e-mail or mail. That has proved to be so, to date. Since decentralising in 1989, we have increased the number of staff in Sligo to 552 on the basis of new schemes which have come into play and other developments in pensions — in particular, the provision of pensions to people who had contributions pre-1953 and the extension of free travel to certain individuals. That has led to the increase in numbers in those areas. In each instance the new work has been absorbed into the area with good planning and little difficulty in the long term.

In 1991, we went to Letterkenny with our child benefit and treatment benefit schemes. The numbers have increased slightly in recent times to 190 because we also transferred our maternity benefit schemes in the last number of months to Letterkenny. That was an opportunity where technology has reduced the level of work in the Letterkenny office so were able to transfer the maternity benefit scheme relatively quickly to Letterkenny to absorb the staff in those areas.

In 1993, we went to Longford with a number of long-term disability, illness, carer and other similar schemes. The numbers in 1993 were 178 and have grown to 283 because of new schemes. The disability allowance scheme, which was brought into the Department from the health boards in the mid-1990s, has been absorbed into Longford and is being operated well there. The carer's allowance and carer's benefit schemes were introduced and also placed in the Longford office.

In 1995, we had a small decentralisation to Waterford of 28 people. They are dealing mainly with the PRSI payments for self-employed customers. In 2002, our accounts branch transferred to Dundalk.

The current decentralisation programme planned for the Department is different to anything we have experienced to date, partly because it is part of a much bigger programme which involves sections across the Civil Service and the public sector. From our own perspective, it is a fairly big programme in that we have 1,310 posts to be decentralised to seven locations. That is 20% of the Civil Service posts which are planned for decentralisation, and also includes Comhairle and the Combat Poverty Agency. In this decentralisation programme all headquarters and central section posts will be moved from Dublin to decentralised areas but following that we will still have in the order of 600 posts in the Dublin regional area, mainly in the local offices providing unemployment payments, information and other social welfare services to our customers.

Our new planned headquarter locations are for Drogheda and we will have 525 people moving there. That figure includes 225 IT posts which were recently announced. Some 85 posts will be going to Carrickmacross. At the announcement it was intended that Comhairle would go to Carrickmacross, but following the decision on the IT move to Dundalk, and an examination of some of the Department sections that were moving there, we felt that given the synergies to be gained by moving Comhairle with the Department to Drogheda, we would swap. Therefore, some of the Department sections will now be going to Carrickmacross, while Comhairle will go to Drogheda.

We will have 225 posts going to Carrick-on-Shannon; 25, which is the Combat Poverty Agency, to Monaghan; and 100 to Sligo where we already have a large number of staff — in the order of 500 — which will add to the variety of work in the Sligo area. We have 230 going to Donegal and 120 to Buncrana.

Before I address the issues of those seven decentralisations, I think it is worth looking back at the lessons we have learned from pervious decentralisations in the past 15 years. In general, it is recognised that the service provided by the Department is an excellent one, both to customers and politicians. We have managed to do this type of programme well and have been able to follow up afterwards to ensure that in the long term the situation works.

There are things that we did need to learn from the decentralisation process. One of the first, which was quite a surprise to us, was the fact that for each post we moved we had to make three movements. That was somebody new going into the post, somebody going out and, very often, by the time we went to move, somebody would have been promoted and moved on. We also had the experience — particularly in Sligo but also in some of the other areas — where people decentralised to Sligo and when other towns came onto the plan, they then opted to move on to the next town. That caused a large amount of churn for the Department and, particularly in the Sligo area, required us to put in post-decentralisation support for the people in that office to manage the issues that were arising from the loss of expertise, the constant absorption of new staff and the ongoing training programmes. It is something that we have learned and is something we will address in going forward.

The second thing we learned concerned tailored training programmes. We have fairly robust training programmes within the Department as it stands, but in the context of decentralisation we need specific training programmes. This is because we will be bringing in groups of people in larger numbers than we would normally do in recruiting. These tailored programmes allow us to train people in specific ways. We like to think as laterally as possible in developing these programmes to see what the best approach is, so there are multi-layers of training for staff both in formal classroom situations, on the job, and in coaching and mentoring. We have done it in the past and as part of our future programme it is part of what we are currently developing.

We have also found that we need to be realistic about the time frames in which we can do things. Issues arise when we are moving a number of staff in one particular area. We need to be careful not to try to move large numbers from other areas at the same time because staff will be pulled out of each of the areas for ourselves and other Departments as staff opt for different towns and cities around the country.

We need to be realistic about the length of time it takes to train somebody. People often look at our Department as mainly being a large processing factory and much of the work involves processing procedures. At the other end of the scale, however, there is a need for a longer term absorption of people on policy development and research work. We need to be realistic that while people can be trained fairly quickly in process work, the numbers involved will be quite large, therefore the programme to train them all will take some time. The number of people involved in policy will be quite small but the length of time to train someone in that area will be longer.

In terms of staff we need to be sure we can overlap staff, so that staff members who are leaving sections can stay on for a period of time to mentor or coach people who are coming into jobs. We are aware of the need for key trainers in each location which is moving. We need people who have expertise in a particular function and we must retain those people while the programme is ongoing. We are aware that some of our key trainers will want to decentralise, though not necessarily in the area in which they work at present. We need to ensure we have sufficient key trainers to get the programme to work to plan.

We need a redeployment plan and to be aware of those people who are not moving with their current section — how we will move them on and how to find a location which will suit them for the long term. Given the numbers involved, there will be issues regarding the release and redeployment of staff. Also in the staff area, when staff opt to go to a decentralised location, they must commit to that location for a period of time — we need to be sure they will stay a couple of years rather than moving on to the next centre in order to avoid problems we have had with previous decentralisation programmes — the loss of expertise and the constant training are issues for us.

Resources have been and will be a big issue, and I am not talking about people so much as IT support, facilities, addressing the accommodation issues of staff and making sure the tools we need to do the job before, during and after this are available. During the transition we will likely need more resources than we have currently. Accommodation has been an opportunity in that in each of the previous decentralisations we moved into new offices, so it was an opportunity to purpose-build these to meet the needs of our business. This helped us with our development.

Communication is a huge issue which has been raised already. Certain people have concerns about how the programme will affect them, currently and in the future, and there is a need for us, as management, to ensure our plans are transparent, coherent and that people can see their role within the plan and where the future is for them. We need to communicate to reassure them that the programme works. We need a quality assurance plan to make sure the service does not get worse or degrade in any way during the transition phase and that is something we have expertise in doing in other areas.

As I said about Sligo and some other areas, we need post-implementation support. We need to get all of this right to understand how much support people need after moving to a particular location. There is also the sense that if we over-support people can feel we are nannying them, so we must be aware of getting this right. The other thing we need to get right is the dedicated central support team. That is a team which will keep an eye on the whole programme across the Department to make sure all the pieces fit together and that we are timing and sequencing things properly.

The decentralisation programme, as announced, provides us with a number of opportunities. In terms of our structures the programme is a catalyst for us to look at the whole Department to see how we are organised and structured. We do that on an ongoing basis but this is an opportunity to stand back and see how the work is done. In the context of the proposals, there is a northwest axis, through Monaghan and down to Drogheda, which the Department will be working along. There are opportunities there to see how the work of various areas will fit together. In terms of staff it is an opportunity to provide more mobility for them and one issue with the current decentralisation programme is that when people move to particular areas they may be confined to that job for quite a long time. Broadening decentralisation opens up more opportunities for people both in terms of promotion and mobility. From the reports of those who have already decentralised, there is a better work-life balance for many people, as they do not spend as long commuting. However, there may be a problem for some of us in reverse commuting if we move to Drogheda, myself included.

In business processes and streamlining there is a catalyst within the decentralisation programme which gives us an opportunity to do a lot more. In order to move the business and make sure it works well we need to review — my colleague from Revenue referred to this earlier — the business process. We have done some of that already. After the event we will have a process manual, guidelines, good training programmes and so on, ensuring the quality of the work and the staff doing that work post-decentralisation will be as high, if not higher, than that currently going on.

I mentioned accommodation before and we expect the accommodation we move into will be modern, purpose-built and will help us to streamline our processes. IT is critical to the business because our systems must operate on a day to day basis and we hope to have the opportunity for a new infrastructure — to improve on the infrastructure we already have, to put in better supports for businesses so we can do our work in a different way, given we will be a different organisation geographically and organisationally. We also want to see video conferencing used more extensively around the organisation. We have had some small pilot schemes but we see this as being a greater facet of our business in future. There is also the issue of telephony, not just for ourselves in communications, but in doing business with customers in the future. Recent studies have shown our customers are keen to do business with us over the phone — that was the preferred channel of communication and with decentralisation we hope to improve our phone services.

The challenges for us are in the main areas on which I have focused — our business continuity, the service quality and continuity, and I refer back to the quality assurance plan — that we would be able to maintain the quality of service to customers during the time. We have a very strong customer ethos in the Department. I can instance the recent postal strike, where the staff rowed in behind us despite having their own concerns about their future. They managed that process very well and that ethos is always there. It is what keeps us going and we need to continue that into this new organisation through the programme of decentralisation.

There are issues surrounding the loss of corporate knowledge which we will have to address. People will leave the organisation who have long experience with it. We must also be aware of the impact on offices which are not currently included in the programme — we are aware that some people in our regional offices have indicated their wish to participate in the programme and we must make sure we can resource them. I have also mentioned staff churn and how we will manage that.

Redeployment of staff and career development must be addressed in the coming months. At this stage we have just an initial idea of where people will go, how many people will opt to decentralise and how to relocate or redeploy staff post-decentralisation. We will need to retain the services of people in Dublin to help us deliver the decentralisation programme. We need to keep up staff morale. We must ensure that people do not become demoralised because they feel they are not valued. We have already put in place a very good communications strategy for dealing with this issue. We need good training and job skills in the departmental culture.

There will be challenges for the ICT infrastructure to ensure we can put in place the infrastructure. It is proposed that the IT centre will move. We must ensure this move will not clash with other moves, because some stability will be required during the process of transition. There are central services which provide services to other areas of the Department. We must ensure these can be maintained during and post-transition, and that the central support functions are re-organised and restructured to meet these.

The successful implementation of the next phase of decentralisation will depend on having a realistic programme, on which we are currently working. A fair bit of work has been done on the detailed plans, including the sequence and timing of the moves, the resources available to us, the management of the whole process and IT continuity. Our guiding principles have been and continue to be to provide service to customers and support for staff, which is what we intend to implement over the next phase.

I thank speakers for their presentations. We will now go to committee members. As I indicated, because the time table is running a bit late, we will allocate ten minutes to each of the parties. As we began the first session this morning with Fianna Fáil members, we will now continue with Fine Gael, Labour, the technical group, and Fianna Fail will be last on this occasion because we were first in the earlier session. Members should try to confine themselves to ten minutes because people have other commitments in the afternoon.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Paul McGrath, who is a specialist in the Westmeath dimension. I thought the presentations were superb. They gave us an important insight into both receiving areas and the management of the issues involved. I would like to concentrate on the management of the issues, because these are the issues we must to understand to make a success of the policy. We are aware that just 7.5% of civil servants propose to move and just 2% in the case of State agencies. I note in the case of the Revenue Commissioners that at the end of the day, only 10% to 12% moved in parallel, 50% were promoted, which was a substantial number and 20% were new recruits. The Minister for Finance has been at pains to say there will be no payments. However, 50% promotions and 20% new recruits implies a substantial fresh investment by the State in making this policy work, not to mention the 1% administration staff, and the 200 staff. Does the Oireachtas need to anticipate substantial promotion demands and new recruit demands? Will this be essential to make the policy work?

I am amazed at the painstaking preliminary planning necessary to prevent a meltdown of experience. Some 90% of experienced staff in Revenue did not move while some of them moved from Revenue, so some of the locked in experience was retained. How difficult is it to capture in a training programme the wisdom, knowledge and networks that have been built up over the years? One might talk about realistic time frames quality assurance and making sure the policy works, but Ms Lacey said that one cannot plan to move too many things at once because it could cause chaos. It would become a totally revolving network and one would not know where the pieces would fall.

In terms of the sheer scale of what we are trying to do, what does past experience tell us about this? We are talking about 10,000 people. If the social welfare experience of three to one is repeated, it will mean there will be 30,000 positional changes within the public service. How difficult will this be in organisational terms? How much time and planning must take place? What we heard earlier is what is likely to succeed most, so we do not need to go over old ground. In strategic management terms, how big a job is involved in decentralising 10,000 people? Given what has been said about extensive pre-planning, realistic time frames, quality assurance, business process and engineering, can we do it simultaneously for all these organisations or is there is a serious risk of overload in terms of human resource capacity or strategic management capacity, which must be scarce in the public service?

I welcome the members of the four groups and thank them for their presentations. The Chairman will note the glow from the Westmeath people, at his expense. We are all going around with a pep in our step these days, so much so that Westmeath people have now taken over the majority of the committee spots. It is an indication of what will happen in the future.

I that context, I want to ask Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Hynes a couple of questions. Mr. Hynes is our financial controller in Westmeath County Council. At Estimates time each year, there is a major problem in terms of trying to balance the books. To what extent will decentralisation help county councils in the commercial rates? State bodies do not pay commercial rates, but is there a compensation mechanism in the rate support grant paid to local authorities and does it reflect the additions to the area? We have the Department of Education and Science and the NEPS headquarters is currently setting up in Mullingar. Will you receive additional money from the central fund based on that? Perhaps you will say a few words about it.

The second issue relates to the establishment of a new Department in a town like Mullingar or Athlone. While the local authority would be very anxious to facilitate and help them out, to what extent could something be rolled out in, say, Mullingar? How quickly could the Department of Education and Science roll out a new premises with the help and support of the local authority? Would you have any views on whether somewhere like that should be located in a town centre as distinct from the suburbs, such as the Department of Education and Science in Athlone, which was slightly out of town and there is no traffic congestion? Have you a view on whether these offices should be located in the outskirts of the town as distinct from the town centre?

Revenue had a difficulty getting staff to move previously and it was obvious that many senior staff did not move. How do you foresee this affecting Departments where headquarters are moving and a concentration of senior staff are taking major decisions? If this experience was carried through to headquarters, how would you see that working? My final question relates to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Ms Lacey referred to the churn and what happened in Sligo. To what extent can we associate the long delays in processing some social welfare applications, like lone parent and pensions applications, which are based in Sligo, with the churn you mentioned as taking place with the movement of people there and people moving on again? Is it because you did not have the staff with the experience to deal with that? Was there a knock-on effect?

Before asking the visitors to answer, as there are few members present I propose each asks questions together rather than going back and forwards.

I welcome the delegations and reiterate the remarks made earlier about the balanced presentations that have been made. I hope we do not do anything to quench the hopes of Laois and Westmeath for large numbers of public and civil servants coming to those areas.

The presentation by Revenue and the Department of Social and Family Affairs were particularly valuable as examples of decentralisation since 1987-89. It seems that what we have already, and what is being proposed, are two different types of decentralisation. One is the decentralisation of executive operations, local and regional offices and services, while here we have decentralisation of what the Minister calls whole decentralisation — the transfer of complete Departments, including Ministers and senior management. That is a horse of a different colour in many ways. We see with the Department of Social and Family Affairs that 25% of the staff were decentralised, meaning 75% were not — 44% went to local and regional offices, while 31% remained in the headquarters in Dublin.

There were three staff movements for each decentralised post, and as we saw from Revenue, 10% to 12% of people were willing to accept the offer of decentralisation voluntarily. Clearly there are massive problems of logistics and staff movement involved but the work has been done for almost 20 years and it has been done successfully, with no loss of service from Revenue or the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

That is the nub of the question — can decentralisation take place as proposed? Has the three year timeframe proposed by the Minister gone down the tubes? We will not say there has been a U-turn, given Deputy McCreevy is heading off to Europe, but the three year timeframe looked suspicious to me — it looked like the period left to the present Government, from 2004 to 2007. The redeployment, which is what was at issue, would have taken place within that period and there would have been job opportunities dispersed throughout the country coming up the next election. Is it technically and logistically possible to accomplish this? Can training and accommodation needs be dealt with in the timeframe involved?

I represent the Dublin Central constituency, which has experienced depopulation in the inner city for as long as the west of Ireland has experienced it. People have been dispersed to the suburbs — Tallaght, Clondalkin or Blanchardstown — by successive governments, which process is only now being reversed by the emphasis on inner city development and integrated area plans. Only in the last half-dozen years has the population increased in the inner city and we are seeking to maintain that population.

There are two headquarters in Dublin Central. one of which is the Garda HQ in the Phoenix Park. Why should the Garda HQ go to Thurles when 60% of the crime takes place in the capital? That is not going to go away. I am glad it is not going to Donegal, but what is the particular importance of Thurles? In the spatial strategy it does not function in terms of being a hub. Portlaoise is not portrayed as a hub either though it should be a gateway town. Also, why should the Department of Agriculture and Food be moved to Portlaoise rather than the Prison Service, which is going to Longford, a county with no prisons? Again, Dublin has nearly three quarters of the prison population. What is the purpose of decentralisation when the functions and services will remain in a particular area? While decentralisation is good in principle, is the idea of decentralising everything from the city a good idea?

The Department of Education and Science is also in my constituency, which is going to Mullingar, making Westmeath the net beneficiary of decentralisation from my area. Senator O'Rourke will be well aware of the Department's location from her time in office there.

And all the times Deputy Costello came to see me.

Indeed, and always came out with something in my hand — a cup of tea and a biscuit. The Department has just completed a massive refurbishment of its offices, purposely done on foot of a decision taken eight or nine years ago to develop an inadequate office with prefabs and so on. Now we are told willy-nilly, that it is to be relocated to another area. I am not knocking Mullingar but this indicates a total lack of planning. This is a dispersal of jobs rather than an integrated spatial strategy or proper planning of operations for in a gateway or hub town. It has been done without consultation or planning and will be enormously difficult to put into effect. Some of the decisions have not been made with any logic or purpose. I am not against decentralisation but I am against ill-planned decentralisation carried out with a lack of consultation.

I thank Deputy Ferris for allowing me to go first because, like other members, I have a prior arrangement. I thank Ms Lacey and Mr. Irwin because for the first time the committee has heard the problems which may be encountered in moving 10,000 civil and public servants out of the city. However, they showed it can be done and at least they are realistic, saying there are great costs involved. It is interesting that 900 jobs required a turnover of staff of 200 to be available. You also mentioned the loss of expertise of 25%, pointing out the good that came out of it — that faced with huge problems you were able to reorganise your service so that at the end of the day we see an improvement. That is something we should include in our report, namely, that all Departments, whether decentralising or not, should look at what they can do to improve their efficiency.

With regard to members of the chambers of commerce and the county council, I am from County Wexford and support decentralisation but sometimes we seem to believe that the world revolves around our county or constituency. It is important that the witnesses take into account the substantial efforts required to make decentralisation work. It is easy to see why it may fail or extend beyond ten years.

Mr. Irwin and Ms Lacey represent two important sectors in society, namely, politics and business. If we are to make decentralisation work, groups such as theirs need to formulate policies on a national basis. These can then be used to sell the benefits of decentralisation to the Civil Service and public service workers who will be asked to move out of Dublin. They must make clear the benefits workers will gain from decentralisation.

One will only get a taste of what is required from the joint committee, even though many of its members are proactive on the issue of decentralisation. Major problems must still be surmounted before the joint committee will be able to make crystal clear the benefits of decentralisation in its report. I ask the witnesses to impress on the national organisations of chambers of commerce and county councillors the necessity to get this message across because we must all work hard if decentralisation is to succeed. I thank Mr. Irwin and Ms Lacey for offering clear cut ideas on the areas in which problems will be encountered and how we can start to resolve them.

I thank members of the delegations and reiterate Sinn Féin's position of support in principle for decentralisation both in the relocation of Government and in giving democratic powers to local authorities. It is important to hear the views of representatives of local government, chambers of commerce and Departments with experience of decentralisation.

We have a major problem with the Government's approach to the decentralisation project which was not properly thought out or planned. As a consequence, the entire project may have to be scaled down to the disappointment of many areas in which expectations are high. While I hope this will not be the case, it is a worry. From recent comments by various Ministers, in particular the Taoiseach in Galway yesterday, it is clear the timeframe will not be met.

I have a number of questions for the representatives from counties Laois and Westmeath. What preparations are being made for a large influx of families to Portlaoise? With the town set to benefit from 400 jobs, it is possible that 1,200 to 1,500 people will move to Portlaoise Similarly, as many as 900 people will move to Mullingar, which will benefit from 300 jobs.

I am especially interested in housing. As everybody is aware, we have an ongoing housing crisis with local authority waiting lists increasing and so forth. The possibility of large numbers of families moving into an area will have a significant effect on the price of housing. I make this point because young people have been priced out of the housing market in many areas. The problem occurs not only Dublin but also in the countryside where young people are unable to compete in buying sites for housing not to mention building a house. This will be compounded by an influx of new residents and we, in north Kerry, will face the same problems as the people of Laois and Westmeath.

Have the chambers of commerce and local authorities examined the issue of housing in the context of the relocation of Departments? What measures will or can they take regarding house prices? Is it possible to curtail price growth by, for example, making land available?

As regards previous decentralisation projects, how long was required to complete the project following its announcement? What process of consultation with staff took place? What was the experience of relocated staff in terms of housing and education for their children? Did difficulties present, notwithstanding take-up, as regards people moving into new areas? For many people the move from a big city environment into a rural area is a major cultural change. What effect did this have? Was a survey or other study done on the impact on children of relocation from one environment to another?

I am not a member of this joint committee but I am a member of other committees. I am very happy to attend the proceedings today and I congratulate the Chairman, members of the joint committee and staff on inaugurating this excellent debate on a very interesting topic. As we will all become involved in the debate, we should have full knowledge of the issues. These meetings are an example of good use of the committee system. I am aware the Chairman tried to hold hearings on the subject earlier.

I thank the witnesses for attending. I heard the contribution on County Laois in my office and was present for the presentation on County Westmeath and the contributions by the Revenue Commissioners and Department of Social and Family Affairs. I was struck by their clear accounts of the approach they took to decentralisation, what happened, how they surmounted the obstacles placed before them and the manner in which they continuous have an eye on mentoring, training and supporting in both the central and local environments, all of which is vital.

We should not take the crude, common approach of asking how many people can move to specific locations. Decentralisation is a significant task in terms of resources of the mind, as opposed to money, which are required to address the task in hand. It is important that this is the approach taken.

The Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social and Family Affairs are to be applauded for providing templates on how to approach decentralisation. I thank them and the Portlaoise Chamber of Commerce for their submissions. They mark out a strategy much different to any that have been written about on decentralisation thus far. Skills are required and there must be a willingness to address challenges. Rather than deciding what cannot be done, it is important to adopt a can-do approach. It is clear, however, that decentralisation remains a major task.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, and the Cabinet were right. While members may say I would say that, I am well able to make critical comments. If one does not set oneself an objective, one may as well go home. What general goes out to fight without an objective? What CEO of a company does not have a business plan and objectives towards which he or she works? The same applies to producing a Green Paper or White Paper on education or any other issue. One sets out a framework, objectives and a desired timeframe and works towards achieving one's goals within this framework. This is what the Government has done.

While it is clear that decentralisation is a complex task, addressed in a thorough manner it can work harmoniously, particularly for the customer. The voluntary nature of the process should be cited and underlined in every single document relating to relocation and redeployment as one cannot move people wholesale. People have lives, communities, children, families, challenges and aspirations and the process must, therefore, be voluntary. Having said that, major advantages stand to be gained for the customer of services delivered by the relevant Departments. I am aware that they are both different opportunities.

Deputy Costello raised the point that the Department of Social and Family Affairs is one that affects people everywhere, which is not the case with all Departments. The model adopted can be changed and moved if the prime objective is to benefit the customers of that Department. We should also be thinking of the public.

If the Department of Education and Science is moved to Westmeath — which I hope will be the case — we will then have a cluster. I take the point made by Mr. Irwin. We think Athlone is the county town but it is not, although it is a bigger town than Mullingar. However, Athlone should have been represented on the deputation. Both members of the deputation are from Mullingar. The towns of Athlone, Mullingar and Tullamore create a cluster.

The first decentralisation to Athlone took place in the late 1960s when 300 civil servants from the Department of Education and Science were moved there. My late brother, the former Deputy Brian Lenihan, was the Minister for Education at the time. In my time there was a further decentralisation to Athlone. It was not easy. I remember the challenges facing us in education. The Department will now operate in the three towns that are named as gateway towns — Athlone, Mullingar and Tullamore. The central office will be in Mullingar.

I accept that great improvements were made to Marlborough House but they were needed. As Deputy Costello is aware, it is a preserved building of great historic importance and one could not have left it poor condition. It needed to be addressed.

It has also been expanded.

It needed to be done. As the Deputy is aware, we did the school within the building first and it is beautiful. The cluster idea is a good one from the point of view of mobility in terms of transfer, promotion and getting to work. It is appropriate that it would happen in that way.

I was greatly impressed by the customer focus and staff development of the two Departments that appeared before the committee. Staff benefit from a mentoring process and ongoing training. Life does not stand still for anyone; people need to be trained and retrained on an ongoing basis. The person who thinks he or she has nothing more to learn may stay at home because there is a great deal to be learnt.

Chambers of commerce have been vital to the process. It is not a matter of extolling the beauties of each place. County Laois is beautiful, as is County Westmeath. People are well able to find out what is available. The Internet is very helpful in regard to information on lakes, rivers, cinemas, theatres, schools, hospitals and so on. One can easily find out the mileage between towns on the Internet. We are all used to technology.

When it comes to moving, civil servants will have wonderful challenges and opportunities for better delivery of services. The tone of this meeting is optimistic and I am very hopeful about the process, although there has to be more working out of the mechanics of the matter. "Mechanics" is a crude word which I did not really intend to use. There needs to be more working out of the various levels of communications between people and the voluntary element must be paramount.

There is no doubt Ireland will be a better place as a result of decentralisation. Customers will be better served and civil servants will have a better quality of life. There will also be a far greater sense of integration and recognition that Departments are not just Dublin-based and that one must go there cap in hand every time one is looking for something, which is what happens, but that there will be other areas of the country to which one can go and find a high level of service. As I will not be here tomorrow I would like to get a transcript of proceedings so I can continue my interest in the matter.

I will call each group for a brief response. The presentations were very good. We found them illuminating. Points were made which may have been of relevance to each group. However, it is 2.15 p.m. and we had hoped to be finished before now. I invite Laois Chamber of Commerce to give a brief response to the question of how prepared the town is.

Ms Ryan

We have a very progressive local authority which has a forward planning section in place. Rezoning, housing, an office for the OPW and motorway infrastructure are all in place. We consult with them on various committees and we are confident that existing infrastructure can and will accommodate the new situation.

We compliment the two Departments that have decentralised on their customer focus and continued quality service. Lest any of us forget, if there are job losses — County Laois knows all about job losses or relocation, which happened recently to eastern Europe, and lack of inward investment — people have to either source employment elsewhere or go on the dole. Public servants have a somewhat privileged situation in that their jobs are secure for life. Moving 40 miles down the road with an excellent motorway is hardly discommoding that many people. It is not a case of moving to outer Mongolia. People need to realise that this is a tiny island.

Somebody asked how quickly we can do this. This comes back to forward planning. I think it could be done much more quickly if the focus is put back on the entire Department to allay the fears that only a certain section will move, which could be the lower sections and that career opportunities would stop at a certain level. That needs to be addressed as it will not progress the movement of full Departments.

Deputy Bruton referred to learning from past experience and additional costs. Again, wearing a private sector hat, which is the area we represent, we are never of the opinion that efficiency and quality of service is 100% dependent on further staffing costs. We may have shied away from certain matters such as the use of information and communications technology. Our insular view that everyone has to have face-to-face meetings where they shake hands and make decisions on policy developments is very much alien to the thinking of the private sector. The private sector does business nationwide and worldwide on a daily basis and never shakes the hands of those with whom business is done although transactions are carried out on a commercial and profitable basis.

On the question of Portlaoise and the ideal model, the Government has pumped a significant amount of money into it so let us reap the benefits from that. A good Department should be put into Portlaoise. There was a comment as to why the Department of Agriculture and Food should go to Portlaoise. My answer is why not, we are already there and the area is a rural one? Dublin has very little to do with agriculture. We are ready for it. We are confident we can do it and believe the model will work.

I agree with Senator O'Rourke. Of course there are huge challenges in this. We are very lucky in County Westmeath in that the forward planning section of the county council has put various programmes in place for some time. We already have two sites; one on the periphery of the town and one in the centre of the town.

I see no problem either in regard to housing. We are going to build a new bypass around the town. In fact, we opened the tenders for it yesterday and hope to see it getting under way by around October. It is envisaged that on one side of the bypass there will be 2,000 houses. These are being planned for. Almost 2,000 houses have been built on the west side of the bypass.

We will have a problem in the area of primary education. In fairness to the planning section of the county council, it has provided the necessary sites. It is up to the Department of Education and Science to provide the schools. The challenges are there.

Deputy Ferris made a good point in asking what we have done in addition to planning, which has been going on for some time. We have never got down to discussing this in detail because of lack of consultation before the announcement was made and the lack of agreement in the various areas. Westmeath County Council would be delighted to make the necessary arrangements. We would be happy to investigate the resources we can put into this and what we can expect from the different Departments to make sure it goes ahead. As regards the support grant, I will have to hand over to the man who keeps us on the straight and narrow.

Mr. Hynes

It is a disappointment that central Government and Departments do not pay commercial rates to local authorities. We feel this is an historical imbalance and decentralisation will only make things worse. As a representative of a local authority I believe the State should pay commercial rates to the local authority in whose area it operates. Departments consume local resources when they reside in an area. It is an unfair situation vis-à-vis other commercial sectors operating alongside. Commercial activities must pay while Departments do not, although their consumption of local resources is equal.

The timeframe for the roll-out of decentralisation in the two towns involved was mentioned. We have had discussions with the senior management teams of the Departments involved and with the OPW. If we get the green light we are ready to receive these offices. We have practical measures ready to roll as we speak. Sites are available. In the matter of housing, apart from the planning side and the provision of infrastructure, SLIs and so on, the local authorities have actually bought property. If decentralisation does not happen it will not be pleasant, although we will survive, but we are showing the level of our commitment. We are putting our money where our mouth is. We have already put provisions in place on the assumption that decentralisation will happen within a reasonably short time.

Mr. Molan

Deputy Richard Bruton asked about the number of promotions in Limerick. Perhaps I should put this in context. The move to the mid-west was the third move of three, with Ennis and Nenagh coming first, followed by Limerick. By the time of the Limerick move, many of the pool of volunteers for the mid-west had already moved to Ennis and Nenagh. The number and cost of promotions for the Limerick move is probably not an accurate reflection of all the other moves. It was a unique situation and the costs were unique also.

The loss of business experience in the Limerick move was mentioned. This had to be carefully managed. There is a positive side, as we always emphasise in that it gave us an opportunity to recruit a large number of highly educated, highly motivated and IT-literate staff, whom we still have. We always look on the positive side of things.

There is currently an embargo on recruitment.

Mr. Molan


I thought the Departments were bound into an agreement to reduce their staffing levels by 5,000 from the existing complement. Can Departments recruit against this background?

Mr. Molan

At the moment I am concentrating more on our experience of the move in the last ten years. A question was asked about the impact of the loss of senior staff. A sufficient number of staff at different managerial levels volunteered to give us the cover that was required. Some of those posts were promotions but there was a level of experience.

Deputy Ferris asked about the impact of decentralisation on families in terms of education, housing and so on. I can speak about this on a personal basis. I am positive about the housing and education standards in Limerick. I am not aware of any survey in this area but I would not cast any doubt on the standards of housing or education experienced by any of my colleagues.

The question about the timescale between the first announcement and the completion of the project was a hard one.

Mr. Molan

The timescale was quite long. There was a period of about four years between the Government's announcement and the first move to Ennis. The bulk of that time was taken up with acquiring the land and building the premises, but once the premises were ready the staff moved in within a few weeks. The same applied to Nenagh and Limerick. The move to Limerick took place a long time after the initial announcement, but it was the policy of the Revenue Commissioners that the move would take place in three phases: Ennis, followed by Nenagh, followed by Limerick.

The Limerick office is the biggest decentralised office. From the time the first staff went in after the four years' preparation, how long did it take to build up the full complement? I presume hundreds did not go in on day one.

Mr. Molan

The project was carried out on a phased basis, with three distinct phases. The time lag between the first and second phases was between six and eight months and the third phase, which was staggered, took place about ten months after that and went on for about a year and a half. Some of the units that moved during this phase were quite sensitive and the move had to be carefully managed.

I will ask a hard question. Is it the case that it took about four years to set things up in terms of building and so on and it took two to three years to move the staff after that?

Mr. Molan

That is correct.

That is why we are here, it is to get answers such as these.

Mr. Irwin

To add to that point, no timescale was imposed. Perhaps the approach would have been different if there had been.

My colleague has covered most of the points raised. As mentioned, the moves to Ennis and Nenagh had left the pool of volunteers for Limerick smaller than expected. When we did the first trawl for Limerick, things looked dismal. The comment in the office, in the Civil Service generally and in the media was that it could not be done. The collection functions and the amount of money involved in the issue of tax compliance were too critical and the number of volunteers was too small. However, the project was successfully achieved, albeit over a longer period than the proposed decentralisation. Innovation was required in terms of training for the transfer and re-engineering the business. That was very important. The issue of how to phase the moves to minimise disruption was also important.

It is not beyond the capacity of the Civil Service to deliver a good product. The scale is different — only 900 people were transferred from this office, compared to 10,000 in the proposed decentralisation programme — but the model is there to be followed. It will work differently in other Departments and in policy areas. Experiences such as ours and that of the Department of Social and Family Affairs shows that it can be done on a large scale and it can be made to work better than it did before.

Deputy Richard Bruton asked how difficult it was in terms of size and time. It is difficult but I have set out our criteria for successful implementation. The critical points are time and sequence. Behind that will come the resources, staffing and so on. We have submitted a five year plan, given the staff numbers we are required to move and the number of locations involved. That plan does not yet include our IT move.

Does Ms Lacey mean that the Department is working to a five year plan?

Ms Lacey

We have submitted a five year plan to the decentralisation implementation group.

It has been submitted and is not a three year plan.

Ms Lacey


Would Ms Lacey comment on the promotion requirement and the new recruit requirement that were features of the previous decentralisation programmes, albeit that perhaps 50% and 20% are exaggerations?

Ms Lacey

In designing our plan we were aware of past experience and acknowledged that we would not get all the staff we needed within our own resources or even within the Civil Service and we would have to recruit. In Sligo, 127 places were filled by promotion and 192 by lateral moves of people within their grades. In Letterkenny, 51 were promoted and 125 moved within their own grades.

How many posts were filled by recruitment? Will the Revenue Commissioners tell us how many of the 900 were recruited?

Ms Lacey

We recruited 115 in Sligo and 70 in Letterkenny. Following the announcement of the decentralisation proposal in April 1987 the first move to Sligo was in July 1989 and the final move in November 1989. We effected the move in two tranches. The first move to Letterkenny was in November 1990 and the second in March 1991. I do not have dates for Longford with me. The announcement for Dundalk was made in 1990 and the move came in 2002 so it took approximately three years.

Deputy Paul McGrath referred to the churn. This occurred at the early stages after the move. It has not been an ongoing feature. When we moved to Sligo, the office was the first to move into the north west and when other decentralisation plans were announced in that area staff chose to move to other offices in the region, including our office in Letterkenny. We had to address that but it is no longer an issue for us.

In our experience most of those who have moved in previous decentralisation programmes were young and single and had different accommodation needs to families. There were opportunities for the local authorities in the designated areas to provide accommodation and many of our staff were able to build their own houses.

That covers most of the questions raised. The main point is that our plan is focused on moving in a timeframe which will not affect the quality of the service we deliver.

On behalf of the committee I thank all those who contributed to today's meeting. We have found it helpful and beneficial. Some points made today have not been made before in public and they are an important contribution to the debate on decentralisation.

The committee will resume its discussion on decentralisation tomorrow at 10 a.m. when it will hear from the delegation from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, comprising representatives of unions whose members have a direct interest in decentralisation.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.35 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 29 July 2004.