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Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government debate -
Wednesday, 13 Dec 2017

Local Government (Establishment of Town Councils Commission) Bill 2017: Discussion

At the request of broadcasting and recording services, members and visitors in the Gallery are requested to ensure that for the duration of the meeting their mobile phones are turned off completely or switched to airplane, safe or flight mode depending on their device. It is not sufficient just to put phones on silent mode as this will maintain a level of interference with the broadcasting system.

Item No. 6 is detailed scrutiny of the Local Government (Establishment of Town Councils Commission) Bill 2017. I remind members that we will have two sessions today where we are considering the Bill proposed by Deputy Shane Cassells. The Bill was referred to the committee for consideration and today's meeting will involve detailed scrutiny of the Bill.

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Deputy Cassells to the meeting. Before we begin, members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

It is my pleasure to be here this morning at this meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government to discuss my proposals for the Local Government (Establishment of Town Councils Commission) Bill 2017.

Earlier this year, the Dáil debated my proposals on Second Stage of the Bill and I set out the rationale for the re-establishment of town councils in Ireland. Along with this opening statement I have attached an explanatory memorandum, setting out the nuts and bolts of how the Bill would operate. I was a member of my local town council in Navan for 17 years and my county council in Meath for 12 years so I know the immense benefit of good local government in people’s lives. Equally, I can see how large urban areas have suffered since 2014 as a result of the abolition of town councils.

This is evident during the preparation of budgets as anyone who has been a councillor would know. Spending in a dedicated urban centre has now been assimilated into the county spend and a small discretionary budget has been put in place instead. It is nothing more than a smokescreen, and a poor one at that. Areas are being thrown the crumbs from the local property tax table and councillors who received nothing for their area in the past are expressing gratitude as a result. For councillors in areas that never dealt with substantial local budgets before and subsequently see a few euros being spent in an area, there is now a belief that this is positive local governance.

However, for those who served in former town council areas, the situation is even worse. They previously dealt with the consideration and passing of budgets worth many millions. These have now been eradicated and it is down to a contribution of mere thousands. The context of why I am proposing the Bill is important. As I said when the Bill was introduced, people are going to ask why we want to see something that was gone come back into existence again. Our towns are under threat not just from economic forces, but from planning, whereby people and employment zones are being forced through overarching plans to base themselves in our largest cities. Through the loss of their statutory planning and budgetary plans, our towns are left at a distinct disadvantage in trying to promote their town centres.

Throughout my time on both Navan Town Council and Meath County Council, the financial position of both bodies could not have been more stark. Navan Town Council always recorded a surplus in its revenue accounts during that period. In contrast, Meath County Council was in debt to the tune of over €10 million. When as a town council we wanted to proceed with projects to enhance our large urban town, such as major street refurbishment and in particular the construction of a multi-million euro theatre and arts centre, we were able to leverage funds with the banks because we had our own financial independence separate from the county council. Consequently, by raising finance through new local funding streams we were able to demonstrate to the banks that there would be a dedicated source of funding provided in order to repay those bank loans. At the same time, they would not have touched the county council with a stick. Politically, and this is the crucial point, because we were a stand-alone statutory body, it was possible for this piece of business to be conducted by the nine elected members of the people of Navan, and not the county councillors from other electoral areas.

What I have noticed since the abolition of town councils is that plans such as those I have just mentioned or expenditure for town centres have become increasingly controversial and difficult to pass at full county council meetings. Councillors from other areas are objecting to what they see as preferential treatment for town centres. That should not be the case. Large urban centres, where such a large proportion of local property tax, commercial rates and other parking and revenue charges are raised, deserve to have statutory bodies. This ensures that spaces where people live are enhanced and given dedicated service to ensure they are viable places to live, work and enjoy recreation.

Planners at local and national levels love to spin the infamous buzz words of towns in which people can live, work and play. I listened to them for 17 years on a council. However, they seem to forget them anytime plans are compiled. People are condemned to live in soulless suburbs without any of the necessary social facilities which makes a town a community. Local democracy works best when the public representatives for the area have proper powers to deliver the best results for those they represent. We have one of the weakest local government structures to begin with in Europe. That is a proven fact. Effectiveness has been radically diminished since the abolition of town councils. This is not party political because it applies to us all. Any officials trying to say that this is not the case are simply protecting the status quo. They are listening neither to the people of these towns nor indeed the Deputies and Senators who have spoken passionately on this subject. I thank all the Deputies, across party political lines, who supported the Bill on Second Stage in July when some very positive and passionate contributions were made in the Chamber.

We have one of the most centralised government systems in the Western world. This is a point that has been factually proved by Dr. Seán Ó Riordáin from the local government information unit, LGIU. We also have one of the lowest levels of public representation in Europe. In France, there is one public representative for every 118 people. Denmark, a country which is similar in size to our own, has a ratio of one public representative to 1,115 people. However, in Ireland that figure is one public representative to every 2,815 people. The only country with a ratio nearly as bad as ours is the UK where it is one to 2,660. The point that we are overrepresented by politicians was used as a rationale for the eradication of town councils. The statistics show that we are not.

I will finish with some comments made my colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, who spoke in the Dáil Chamber on this Bill.

He explained how he started off his political life on the town council of Passage West. It was not a large town council and did not have a massive budget. However, Deputy McGrath made the crucial point that its very existence ensured that a town manager, a town engineer and other members of the executive had to bother to come to the town at least once a month and present themselves before the members elected by the people of that town to explain deficiencies in service and outline how they were going to fix them. That simple practice alone ensured there was accountability for local people. That no longer happens.

We need proper and full accountability and strong local governance. I seek to ensure that we put that back in place and give a vote of confidence to local councillors in running the affairs of their local towns. I do not want to see the towns where people live starved of funding in a system that is already starved of funding. I note that a delegation from the Association of Irish Local Government came before the committee a couple of months ago to set out its views on that very topic.

This Bill is the first step in putting back in place a town council system that will be fit for purpose. I acknowledge the deficiencies that existed in the previous one. It will ensure that the people living in the urban centres of this country, be it in Tralee, Drogheda, Bray, Kilkenny or Navan, will get the special focus that can only be delivered through the re-introduction of our town councils.

I thank the committee for allowing me to speak this morning. I welcome any questions members may have.

I welcome Deputy Cassells and thank him for coming. Rather than questions, I have some comments to make. We are dealing here with the Local Government (Establishment of Town Councils Commission) Bill 2017. I do not think we have local government anywhere in this country. Rather, we have local administration. That includes city councils, county councils, municipal districts and anything which we pass off as local government. I include in this what was envisaged under the Putting People First programme of 2012, that massive document which is just paper. Half of it has not been implemented. It is very important to make that point. We need to look at the overall structure of local governance and local government because we do not have any such thing. We have local administration.

I wish to raise a number of key issues. We have a weak local government system and we need to acknowledge that. I am all in favour of subsidiarity and making decisions on the ground in communities. That may be through representative councils, residents' associations or any form of engagement and consultation with groups of people who are concerned with their community and want to make it a better place to live, work and play. That can only be positive and we must encourage it. Often in politics we tend to keep that space to ourselves and keep people outside. If they are not in the political system, we do not seem to think they have a valid contribution to make to communities and that is something we ourselves all need to address.

This question goes back to the function of local government. It also touches on the issue of devolved powers to local government. Coming in here a year ago, I thought I would be meeting and talking to people who were really seriously interested in devolved powers. The parties in the political establishment do not want to devolve powers to democratically-elected people even within their own party structures. That is saying something. The relationship between central government and local government is always challenging and while there must be a certain amount of central control, there must also be subsidiarity.

The big issue is really the financial autonomy of local government. People must have the capacity, the ability and the preparedness to pay local taxes for local services. I have always advocated for a local council tax. I never apologise for that. I do not agree with the local property tax, which I think is a grossly unfair and inappropriate tax. However, I fully advocate a local council tax for council services. That is another issue. Unless we address the issue of funding for local government, this Bill, or any reform of local government is not going to go anywhere. It is very important to say that.

I commend the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. It prepared a research document which we all received, namely, a detailed scrutiny pre-hearing briefing paper. It is excellent. I only had a brief look at it this morning but it is worth mentioning.

I wish to respond to one or two points in Deputy Cassells's address to us today. He said that local democracy works best when public representatives for the area have proper powers to deliver the best results for those they represent. We all agree with that and it is worth saying again.

In conclusion, I am fully supportive of the Bill. However, unless we address the issue of funding for local government and devolved powers by the Government and all of the political establishments in these Houses, we are not going to make much progress. That said, I wish Deputy Cassells well and he has my full support.

I also want to give my full support to this. I sat on Carlow Town Council for about 18 years. I could see the difference that the loss of the town council made, because I sat on both the county council and the town council. I will give an example. In Carlow, we originally had a €14 million town council budget. We then had what was called the "roadblock grant". I am sure members are aware of this. It came as a block grant of €400,000. Then, all of that was gone. It was as though we did not exist anymore. It made a serious difference to the town. Our town lost out so much in the structural funding and upkeep. It was as though everything had gone, overnight. I blame the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Phil Hogan, who represented my constituency, for abolishing the town councils.

I had real concerns because the financial report stated that a saving of €15 million was made from the abolition of town councils. This is all about funding. We need to have back the town councils and their budgets. We need to make sure the councils themselves meet every month. While we now have what are called municipal meetings, they are totally different. They have no comparable structure. The old structure incorporated rates and other sources of money, which constituted funding that would stay in the town.

Furthermore, my own local authority in County Carlow was originally a 21-seat council. There are now 18 seats. There were also cuts there. I agree that work is needed all over County Carlow but when the town's interests are trying to compete among 18 councillors concerned with the whole county, it does not work. It used to be the case that the town council had its own budget. The reality is that we need to get town councils and their funding back.

I must note I do not see Carlow town mentioned in Deputy Cassells's submission. I am sure he will put it in next time, because it has a population of nearly 27,000. I will be looking to ensure that Carlow is included. Deputy Cassells will have 100% of my support. It is crucial that we get back the town councils.

Senator Murnane O'Connor should not worry. We do have Carlow on the list.

I did not see it at first sight. I was just checking.

I am not a member of the committee but I am thankful for the opportunity to speak. I support the proposal by Deputy Cassells. The Labour Party was in government at the time and it was a mistake to abolish town councils. We acknowledge in our party that it was a mistake. However, they do need to be reformed. That is the main point I wish to make. Some very small places had town councils and large places did not. My native county of Limerick had no town councils under the old system and yet it includes large towns like Newcastle West, Abbeyfeale, Kilmallock and Castleconnell. Limerick had no town councils whereas much smaller places in other parts of the country had town councils.

My question is whether Deputy Cassells has a figure in mind as to how large a population should be to justify having a town council. We need to be precise on these matters. It has to be a system that is fair to the whole country and is not just ad hoc.

I agree with Senator Boyhan on the need to provide real powers and real funding. However, I note that during the mid-1990s, a devolution commission was established. It made a number of recommendations on the devolution of powers to local authorities, not just town councils but county and city councils as well. However, the recommendations were never implemented by any Government since then. There is a reluctance from central government to genuinely devolve powers to local authorities. There is also a problem with local public representatives. It is a big step to go from being able to support one's constituents in everything on a local council to being obliged to make decisions about how one allocates the budget. I was on a twinning committee at one point with a town in Brittany. I was chair of that committee, and we visited the town in question.

The local councillors made decisions and, for example, a local deputy mayor was in charge of the roads or housing budget. The councillors had to make and stick with decisions regarding on what they were going to spend the money and they could not support everything. A cultural change is required at local and national level. I hope that the Bill will lead to a genuine decision to implement change not just in respect of town councils but also in regard to giving genuine powers and responsibilities to local government because we are very much out of step with other European countries in that regard.

May I respond to those points?

I did not notice that Deputy Ó Broin had indicated and I apologise for that. Do you wish to speak before we revert to Deputy Cassells?

Yes. Some of what I have to say ties in with the comments of other members. Deputy Cassells is correct that we have one of the most centralised systems of government and weakest forms of local government in Europe. It is a tragedy that in the history of the State we have probably produced more commissions and reports on local government reform than anything else. Political parties are always very strong on reform when they are in opposition but very reluctant to introduce reform when in government. That applies to all political parties. That is partly due to the fact that once one gets into central government, one is very nervous about giving away power to local authorities, in particular those which central government does not control.

Deputy Cassells is also correct that there are many examples of good practice across the European Union. I probably know Spain better than others and it has a very strong system of town municipalities that control not only services but also traffic police and have a range of powers. The value of that is that local people identify in a very civic-minded way with those services and the taxes they pay for them and it creates strong community cohesion and identity, as Deputy Cassells said. What is also done well in such countries is the division of powers between local, county and regional areas such that councillors are not reduced to looking after the closest area to where they live but, rather, as Deputy O'Sullivan stated, are able to understand their role in delivering local services and, more strategically, in terms of the management of inter-town or inter-parish realities. They are also independently funded and there is no point in us seriously discussing the reform of local government powers unless we find a way to give local government an independent means of raising revenue. That is a far more difficult political nut to crack but if it is not done one will have the situation, as is currently the case in many local authorities, whereby many councillors are quite comfortable not having power or revenue-raising responsibility because they can then take credit for everything that is good and blame the manager or Minister for everything that is bad. Deputy O'Sullivan is entirely correct that such a cultural change is as much the responsibility of political parties and local councillors as it is of central government. That is directly related to why this is a good Bill because it does not just concern returning to the status quo in terms of town councils and is not just saying one should turn back the clock and go back to what we had. That is because if the Bill is to deliver the kind of system Deputy Cassells outlined in his presentation, we need town councils and local authorities that take executive control over their budgets and programmes such that elected representatives are not simply advocates but, rather are decision makers with whom the buck stops. The Bill is a very good one. One could have put forward a Bill that would result in a return to the status quo but Deputy Cassells has not done that. Rather, he has created a process that would allow us to seriously consider all the reforms that have been mentioned and that is one of the many reasons Sinn Féin supported the Bill on Second Stage.

I have some questions on areas of the Bill on which members may wish to tease out potential friendly amendments on Committee Stage in the spirit of the Bill. On setting up a commission, if one wants the commission to go a certain way one must give it directional terms of reference. If we want strong local town councils with executive functions, that must be outlined in the terms of reference such that the commission does not have a blank sheet but is moving in that direction. If we want to consider a more continental style of local government with executive government decision making and independent revenue raising, that must be contained in the terms of reference such that the commission will come back with options. That could be a useful addition to the Bill.

The proposed number of commission members is probably too small. Given the complexity of the issues involved, three members is very few. One does not want a very large commission but, for example, as the Bill stands only one representative would have business or community development experience and one might want a little more than that, without making the commission too unwieldy. It would be useful to have a member with international experience, be that a person from overseas or with academic experience in the area, who could draw on what works in those positive continental or Scandinavian models. A timeline would be of benefit because we know from history that commissions often go on for very long periods.

A huge body of research has already been done. Deputy O'Sullivan mentioned one report but there has probably been a major Government-sponsored report on the reform of local government every decade since the foundation of the State. Something that is very time limited, such that the commission is given terms of reference but told it has to come back within------

A provision of six months is included in that regard.

Perfect. That is a period I would support.

We need to be realistic in terms of costs. The commission needs to consider what costs would arise from its proposals, which need not necessarily constitute new burdens on the Exchequer. If one is devolving power from existing statutory bodies, one can devolve the powers, staff and budgets with them. During yesterday's debate on the Electoral (Amendment) (Dáil Constituencies) Bill 2017, when Deputies were discussing the re-establishment of town councils there were proposals for revenue-neutral ways of doing so because one would be taking what went into local authorities back out of them and that should be considered.

I would like to hear the response of Deputy Cassells to some of those suggestions for expanding the Bill but it is a very good piece of work. In common with many Second Stage Bills that come to pre-legislative scrutiny, I would like the Bill to quickly go through pre-legislative scrutiny and go to Committee Stage in order that it can be progressed because I cannot see how anybody in government would not at least be willing to progress the Bill in order that we could get an Opposition Bill through all Stages before the Dáil term ends.

I also thank Deputy Cassells for putting forward the Bill this morning. I will start on the same point as Senator Boyhan, namely, the Putting People First document on restoring local democracy and restoring power to local councillors. Very significant spin was put on that document and it was never going to achieve its aims. It put in place the local property tax to fund local authorities. That was to be the new model that was going to fund local authorities and restore power to councillors. However, if one considers the local property tax that is collected, local authorities have no control over 20% of it, which goes back to central government. There is then a baseline figure that the Department has set for each local authority and the Government takes control of any surplus above that. No local democracy or accountability was left to local authority members. If they increase local property tax, any additional revenue above the baseline is taken from them. In that regard, nothing was achieved in terms of restoring local democracy.

As regards the abolition of town councils, I come from a different background to that of Deputy Cassells, as I have county council but no town council experience. In the case of County Wicklow, Bray, the second biggest town in the country, had a very good working town council, in particular the housing and planning sections. The merger of the town council with the surrounding area has damaged the delivery of social housing in Bray, is affecting the planning system and is clearly not working. My area, Wicklow east, encompassed Wicklow Town Council. The only place that has suffered from budgetary changes since the change is Wicklow town, not the rural part of the county from which I come. My rural area and others now benefit from the creation of the municipal district that includes the former Wicklow Town Council area. Rural areas are receiving funding that was originally decided upon and spent by the town council. There is a lack of investment in the towns because the funding is being diluted across the whole area. The same situation pertains in Arklow, which has been merged with a huge rural geographical area and the same pot of money is being spent across the entire area. The only area in Wicklow where the new system might be working is Greystones, which is a very tight and confined area and has almost held onto its town council area. It is probably working there but it is not in other areas. To return to Deputy Cassells's point on local democracy and representation, we have to be honest with people and say the abolition of town councils was a mistake and we should look at the representation we have.

I thank all members for their comments, all of which I will try to address very quickly.

I agree with Senator Boyhan, particularly in respect of the finance issue because it is the key difference between what was there previously and what is there now in terms of the effectiveness of the municipal district system. When this was debated in the Dáil, many plaudits were given to the municipal district system and people said it was great. It is not. The lack of financial independence scuppers any opportunity to make substantial change. Anyone who has served on a local authority knows that unless one has financial independence and budgetary powers of significance, one cannot change people's lives or one's community. One is merely talking around those things. The power resides with the executive and that does not change. That is fundamental. Many people have asked if we could not look at a model whereby we would reintroduce them without going into the messiness of bringing back the budgetary system to town councils. If they do not have budgets, they are not effective. The Senator nailed the funding issue in that context.

Senator Murnane O'Connor obviously has extensive experience. We served together at the same time and she also nailed it. Navan and Carlow had similar budgets of approximately €10 million to €11 million. Every Government in the history of the State has been guilty of the following. The old block grant system never kept pace with the changing demographics of town populations. As a town of 32,000 people, we had the crazy situation of getting a block grant which was smaller than the grant provided to smaller towns in Cork because the methodology used in the Customs House to apportion block grants was outdated. The old boundary system did not keep pace with the expansion which took place in the 1990s and 2000s. As a result, large towns were in receipt of block grants that were much smaller than those provided to towns nearly half the size down the country. I welcome the comments of Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and I thank her very much. She had a couple of specific questions regarding population. Within this, we refer to section 185 of the 2001 Act, which sets out a threshold of 7,500. We have only used that as a guide and it will be teased out at the commission. That is why I was not too prescriptive.

On the night of the debate, Deputy Penrose spoke on behalf of the Labour Party. While he did not scold me, he asked why I had not come forward with a straight proposal to bring them back in. The fighter in me wanted to say "Yes, let us not set up another commission and just seek re-establishment", but I have acknowledged the deficiencies in the previous system. As such, there is no point bringing something back which had major deficiencies. The only way to tease that out is through the proposals I am bringing in. Even when we had the debate about bringing forward this Bill, people in my party got cross because the 7,500 threshold might exclude some towns that were included previously. Using the previous CSO statistics, I have set out a table which shows that there are 56 towns with a population greater than the 7,500 threshold in Ireland. As such, keeping with section 185 of the 2001 Act means 12 towns which did not previously have councils would be eligible. In my county, Navan is obviously a big town, which is fine, but there are also Kells, Trim and Ashbourne. The latter has exploded in size and is right on the border with Dublin. Ashbourne was the second biggest town at 8,000 but it did not have a town council. As such, this will be looking at the new Ireland and new urban centres where national and regional planning have created new towns which need that special focus.

The value of town councils is that they allow us to be serious about the communal spaces people in other countries enjoy. At the planning level, one can identify that and ensure that we have, according to the buzzword that bugs the hell out of me, "sustainable communities". No planner is implementing that in a real sense but that is where one will have it because it will be teased out at a development plan stage with local councillors who know their areas.

A comment was made about looking at examples from the Continent. Deputy Ó Broin mentioned the Spanish context whereby councillors have what are almost mini portfolios. Navan was twinned with two towns in Italy when I was mayor. Only that I was elected to the Dáil, I might have made it a hat trick. The towns were Bobbio and Broccostella, with which we have historical links, including through Columbanus in Bobbio. People from these towns cannot understand the system when they come to Ireland. They cannot get their heads around it. When we go to their towns, we see that the mayor appoints a mini cabinet and that councillors have regard to a housing portfolio and a transport portfolio. The people of these towns are not looking for executives they cannot find because they know which councillor has responsibility for what. If something is not working, that is the person to whom they go. That is proper accountability. While I know some people give out about the American system of government, I have a huge grá for it. There is huge value in that sense of real accountability in one's system of government.

I completely agree with Deputy Ó Broin that we have many commissions, but I hope I have answered as to why we went for this model as opposed to just coming straight in. The Deputy is right that people talk up a good game in opposition. However, I am extremely passionate about this because I know that when it is done right, there are real, positive benefits for the people who live in towns. However, I hope that if we are ever in government, I will have the courage of my convictions to back up what I am saying today. It is something I have been saying for a long time and I do not want to have to eat my words. I want to stand by what I am saying. Deputy Ó Broin mentioned Spain and we had the same examples in Italy. He mentioned the traffic police. I see the local mayor directing police in local towns.

As to the funding model, the local property tax did not exist when the town councils were dissolved. We were still in the household charge scenario and the block grant was a major thing for towns. It allowed them to carry out little projects which distinguished them when the block grant money came each year. Of course, that was subsumed into county budgets. As such, towns at municipal district level do not have the block grant Senator Murnane O'Connor spoke about to carry out those projects. When the local property tax was introduced, one saw the block grant model vanish. As such, the local property tax was only funding what was there. If the two funding streams had been left in place, one would have had an enriched local government system with twice the budget to start to deliver change that would mean something in a tangible way. It was the biggest sleight of hand in that crossover. Of course, the intricacies of local authority budgets and heads of finance meant the ordinary person simply thought the property tax charge was paying for X, Y and Z. However, it was all just going to the revenue side. In any event, 75% of a local authority budget, if not more, is already earmarked for expenditure which is nailed down before the budgetary process begins. That is a big issue also and it goes back to what Senator Boyhan said about real financial independence. We are kidding ourselves if we do not address that.

Deputy Ó Broin referred specifically to the terms of reference and the language that would direct executive functions. He is 100% correct that it would be very insightful and instructive to set that on course. It might scare the bejaysus out of some of the officials who might be looking in, but I agree that it is the kind of language we need. I also take on board what he said about the membership. The timeline is prescriptive at six months. I welcome what the Deputy says about trying to look at this and expediting the pre-legislative side of it. If we could get this out in January and the commission was established, the Minister would have to lay something before the Houses within six months and deal with this before the summer recess. If we remember the timeline invoked on the dissolution of the local government system, the legislation was initiated in October 2013. It was passed by the Seanad in January 2014 for an election that was to be held in June. As such, if people want to get rid of something, it can be done fairly quickly. As such, there is a real and tangible way, if people are supportive, to deal with this before a local election in 2019.

Deputy Ó Broin mentioned cost neutrality. In the old town council budgets there was a thing called "the county demand" or "county charge". As someone who served on both councils, I had numerous rows with heads of finance. One would come to the end of the budget and see that the head of finance had set down a county demand of X that would have to be paid by the town to the county council to balance the books. These things can work if people want them to because they will find a way to get the money back off one in any event.

Deputy Casey mentioned equalisation. The Chairman very kindly let me contribute to the debate with the AILG on the funding strands of local government. Its representatives set out clearly the issues on equalisation, baseline figures and addressing the deficiencies that exist within it.

I welcomed a group here last month from Clonakilty. When the town councils were abolished in 2014, that group got extremely annoyed, as many of us did. Clonakilty had a town mayor since 1605 and the link was broken by the dissolution. Perhaps as a result of the rebel spirit that exists in that part of the country in County Cork, they said "To hell with that" and used the ballot boxes, polling stations and pencils that were there and held their elections the very next day and elected a town mayor. They hold what they call the Clonakilty town council, which is a community council, and I met them here last week. They are very supportive of the Bill. They said nobody in Cork County Council likes them and nobody will help them but they do not care and they continue to pursue it. I welcome that sense of rebelliousness. The people of Clonakilty are watching proceedings this morning.

Deputy Cassells is very convincing. He made a superb presentation and answered questions. He talked about the commission taking new information in the new Ireland. If this proposal goes ahead, we must take into account that the economy and demographics are changing. Given that there would be more specific demands on them and they would have more executive powers, town councillors would have to be paid. I listened to what the Deputy said and I am very supportive. There would have to be a budget to meet the expectations of the councillors and remunerate them properly for what is being requested of them. It was said that the abolition of town councils saved €15 million and that this money could be used. A much bigger budget will be required if councillors are to be remunerated properly for the tasks they will be asked to do. Will Deputy Cassells comment on that?

I agree completely with the Senator. There was a wider debate on councillor remuneration in the Seanad last month in terms of acknowledging the work councillors do and paying them appropriately. We should be unashamedly proud of the work they do. Sometimes that is not said enough. When I started off as a town councillor at 21, the remuneration was £125 per month. I did not care because I was passionate about it. I got involved young and I was passionate about it so it was not for the money. In 1999, there was a change and Deputies were no longer allowed to be members of councils. There was more work involved in the councils in terms of development plans and so forth. It was a very exciting time. When abolition took place, there was a different payment strand for town and county councillors. Town councillors were paid far less than county councillors even though the demands were even more precise because they were living in urban centres where there would be 30,000, 40,000 or 50,000 people. There were more demands on them. I do not want to pit urban against rural. We have many debates in the Dáil and Seanad about the importance of rural Ireland. I am an unashamed townie. There are specific demands in terms of urban Ireland that need to be addressed. That will have to be addressed. We could potentially be looking at the rejigging of county council membership if we are going to reintroduce a strand of local government to try to balance it out. It is something that could be examined but I fully agree with the Senator's point.

I thank Deputy Cassells for engaging with the committee today and we look forward to ongoing engagement on the Bill.

Sitting suspended at10.15 a.m. and resumed at 10.18 a.m.

Our second session involves detailed scrutiny of the Bill with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. On behalf of the committee, I welcome from the Department, Mr. Paul Lemass, Mr. Denis Conlan, Ms Lorraine O'Donoghue and Ms Áinle Ní Bhriain.

At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, members and visitors in the Public Gallery are requested to ensure that for the duration of the meeting their mobile phones are turned off completely or switched to airplane or flight mode depending on their device. It is not sufficient to just put phones on silent mode as it will interfere with the broadcasting system.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I ask Mr. Lemass to make his opening statement.

Mr. Paul Lemass

Before I start, I will introduce my colleagues, Ms Áinle Ní Bhriain, Ms Lorraine O'Donoghue and Mr. Denis Conlan, who join me here today. We are grateful to the Chairman and members of the committee for the opportunity to discuss issues relating to the Local Government (Establishment of Town Councils Commission) Bill and to obtain the committee's important input in the development of policy in this area.

The policy implications of the Bill arise particularly in the context of A Programme for a Partnership Government which requires a report to the Government and the Oireachtas on potential measures to boost local government, leadership and accountability and to ensure that local government structures and responsibilities strengthen local democracy. The programme for Government indicates specific issues to be considered, including the possibility of establishing town and borough councils and reducing the size of electoral areas.

A report has been submitted to Government which will be made available to the committee as soon as Government approval to do so is received. Meanwhile our comments are necessarily restricted. However, it may help this committee's scrutiny of the Bill to outline some of the main issues which emerged in the course of the extensive research and consultations that were carried out in compiling this report.

Clearly, the Bill is designed with the best interests of urban centres in mind. However, the proposals raise a number of policy and practical implications which need to be addressed. An important question regarding the Bill is the implications of the proposed town councils commission for other measures that need to be taken in the short term. In particular, the programme for Government requires that a reduction in the size of local electoral areas be considered. The Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, has welcomed the possible reduction in the size of very large local electoral areas. However, the process proposed in the Bill, including further legislation which would be needed to establish town councils, would almost certainly make it impossible to complete a review of local electoral areas sufficiently in advance of the mid-2019 local elections.

The terms of reference for the committees to review local electoral areas have been agreed, and the committees are about to commence their work. The uncertainty associated with the possible introduction of town councils and the impact of such introduction on the composition of the associated municipal districts would render the work of the committees impossible.

Another fundamental issue is the position of local authority members on the question of reverting to town councils. In the consultations undertaken, the AILG has made clear that it is not calling for the establishment of town councils but, instead, favours strengthening the powers of municipal district members. The AILG has also emphasised that any structural review would be premature until the new structures introduced in 2014 have been allowed a full five-year council term to bed down.

Another key question is what problems or issues could town councils resolve that cannot be addressed at least as effectively through the current integrated system of local government. The research and consultations which have been carried out indicated that there is scope to implement a number of improvements within the current system, notably by measures to: achieve greater town focus in local government arrangements, especially with regard to larger urban centres; strengthen the decision-making role and capacity of the elected members at district level, particularly in the budgetary and local development areas, and their capacity to promote economic and social development of towns; address excessive size of a number of local electoral areas and ensure that all areas are as coherent and reflective of local identity as possible, including designation of distinct town-based areas for larger urban centres; and correct any flaws in the way the current arrangements are being operated.

It is worthwhile examining the achievements of the municipal district system and the questions reintroduction of town councils might raise, including whether the restoration of town councils would justify the loss of benefits of the current integrated system, as reported in surveys and consultation with local authority members and executives. These include improvement in terms of operational efficiency, representational effectiveness, improved governance, more devolved decision-making and organisational and customer service improvements and innovations. Has adequate account been taken of the extent of projects and investment for regeneration and development of towns by many council county councils since the 2014 reorganisation?

It is also important to reflect on the shortcomings of the previous town council system and to consider whether those shortcomings would be addressed through the reintroduction of town council. How could the problems which led to the dissolution of town councils be avoided, for example, fragmentation, weakness, duplication, anomalies, inconsistency and cost, some of which would be increased due to the need to define wider town boundaries and include towns which did not previously have councils? Has sufficient account been taken of the limitation of the former town councils which represented only 14% of the population and accounted for only 7% of local government activity, much of which was carried out on their behalf by the county councils? There are the questions of how to address the negative impact on the county councils, some of which would be reduced to largely rural authorities with much diminished resources and how to avoid negative impact on rural areas which have benefitted from having municipal district status since 2014, for the first time since 1925. Would the additional cost involved represent the best use of resources?

Establishment of a new system of town councils would have significant ongoing cost implications, possibly in the region of €30 million per annum. Are the significant demands and disruption of undoing the recent reforms justifiable, for example, reversing organisational changes, unwinding rates harmonisation in mid-stream and finding additional resources? Is there sufficient specific rationale or substantive evidence for reverting to a town council arrangement? It would be useful to consider these questions and other relevant issues at the committee meeting.

I thank Mr. Paul Lemass for that presentation. Do any members wish to ask questions? I call Deputy Ó Broin before I bring in non-members of the committee.

I am happy to wait until after somebody else contributes.

The Deputy is the first member to indicate.

No, the other speakers can go ahead.

Deputies Cassells and Jan O'Sullivan have also indicated.

I will speak after them.

I call Deputy Cassells.

I thank the members for allowing me to speak first. I extend a warm welcome to all the officials and thank them for the presentation. Its tone, as set out by Mr. Paul Lemass, although perhaps I am being unfair about this, makes a negative assessment of the reintroduction of a town councils system, if I am judging it right with respect to posing questions as to why its reintroduction should not happen, as against posing questions as to why it should happen. If we are setting out on that basis, there is no acknowledgment that the dissolution or abolition of town councils had a negative impact on towns from the Department's point of view.

As I pointed out to the committee earlier, prior to being elected to Dáil Éireann, I was a member of a town council for 17 years and of a county council for 12 years. Therefore, I know the value of having an effective town council system. I have acknowledged that not all councillors across the country worked effectively or delivered the best results but many of them did and those who were proactive and good councillors and good town managers wanted to see effective change, and they could do so because of the statutory budget and planning powers they had and were able to implement in a beneficial way.

I note Mr. Lemass's comment that the uncertainty associated with the possible introduction of town councils would herald this as being impossible. I remember dealing with a town manager ten years ago concerning a change-over in the town plan and he said we could not do that because we would confuse the people if we were to do that with a town plan at that stage. I told him the people were intelligent and that it would not confuse them. We have to take the same approach here. I do not believe it is impossible to do this, far from it. If there is a will, there is a way, and if there is a passionate belief that we could reintroduce this system, we could do it for the 2019 local elections. I pointed out to the members of the committee before Mr. Lemass arrived that it was possible to abolish them in a very short period during the autumn of 2013 into January 2014.

In terms of this proposal being premature, I do not believe it is. The system we have in place is wrong. I do not believe the current structures require a full five years to bed down when after nearly four years, we can see that there are issues with them.

Regarding some of the questions Mr. Lemass posed with respect to reintroducing town councils, he mentioned operational efficiency. To take the example of town engineers, every town had a dedicated town engineer and the people in a town knew they were able to get problems solved by engineering staff based in the town hall. The engineering staff are now based across multiple municipal districts and, as a result, the town councils are suffering. If that is what the Department is calling operational efficiency, then it is a terrible mistake.

I completed one of the surveys, to which Mr. Lemass referred, when I was a councillor. If one asks any urban-based councillor about the current system, he or she will tell one about the deficiencies, in particular on the engineering side because of the way the staff have been spread over multiple districts. That does not demonstrate operational efficiency, rather it demonstrates a poor return for the people they are serving. Issues get missed and town centres suffer. Towns suffer from a lack of a town manager and town clerk because we now have a director of services and everything must be referred to a particular Department. There is no point of contact either for councillors or for members of the public, and that system is not operating well. If people were to talk to councillors, they would acknowledge that.

Mr. Lemass posed the question as to whether the reintroduction of the town councils system would represent the best use of resources? I believe it would. He posed the question as to whether it would be justifiable. I believe it would be. He also posed the question regarding its reintroduction leading to a reversing of rates harmonisation. He should talk to the businesses in these towns. The rates base for most town centres was lower than the county council rate. It comes back to earlier points made by Senator Boyhan, Deputy Ó Broin and others regarding the financial autonomy of towns. If businesses in a town were experiencing a hard year, the town council was able to react to what was happening in its town centre, liaise with the chamber of commerce and the local businesses and give those businesses a break in that particular year.

However, if one council is setting the rate for the entire county and that rate is across the board, an autonomous decision cannot be made because there is one rate for all. That was the benefit of having autonomous bodies that were able to make a call based on the best information. That goes to the point of the towns being underfunded to begin with. It has been a useful engagement this morning because we are addressing issues like that. I would welcome the opportunity to engage further.

I thank Mr. Lemass for his presentation. It is important that we look at the questions asked. One proposal that might cause us all concern, if it were to be a problem, is the current commitment to reduce the size of local electoral areas. It is being considered and it is being suggested that if this proposal went ahead, it would delay that process and it would not be possible to do it in time for the local elections in 2019. I do not see why it would not be possible to go ahead with both the proposal to reduce the local authority areas and the commission on town councils. Why would one exclude the other? Perhaps the Department might clarify why the constituencies could not be dealt with in advance of local elections.

The other issue that came up in discussions with Deputy Cassells earlier was the need for budgetary control at town level. Municipal areas at the moment do not have control of their budgets and therefore do not have power. The need for local authority members to have real decision making power was discussed earlier.

We also referred to other European countries. Have models of local government elsewhere been considered? My specific knowledge pertains to France while that of Deputies Ó Broin and Cassells relates to Spain and Italy, respectively. We all have experience of how the systems work in those countries, local government is much stronger and where there are municipal authorities that are much smaller than our county or city authorities.

I accept Mr. Lemass's point in respect of only 14% of the population being represented and that only 7% of local government activity was carried out on behalf of town councils. Nobody is suggesting that we go back to exactly the same old system. I made the point earlier that my county of Limerick had no town councils under that old system. Clearly, it would have to be based on certain population sizes. I ask that the Department have an open mind about the proposal being put forward by Deputy Cassells and to recognise that in other countries, local government is much stronger. People there identify with decision making at local level. In Ireland it is very much around city and county managers and their staff rather than elected representatives having real power and real responsibility. When one has power, one has to take responsibility. That is a good thing for democracy and local representation. Those are my main points.

I am a bit confused about the reference to how the negative impact on the county councils might be addressed. Mr. Lemass stated "some of them would be reduced to largely rural authorities with much diminished resources". I presume the towns would not be excluded from the responsibility of a county council. The proposal is talking about a lower tier that is closer to a local community but clearly, those towns are still part of their counties. I am confused by that comment.

Would Mr. Lemass like to come in here? Further speakers can then come in afterwards.

Mr. Paul Lemass

I will take them in the order they came. In regard to Deputy Cassells' assertion that we have given a negative assessment, we have raised questions. It is unclear to us how the proposal would yield a better result than the current structures, which are largely well received.

In regard to the dissolution having had a negative effect, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy John Paul Phelan, today approved the terms of reference for the local electoral area boundary committees. Part of those terms of reference deals with the issue of establishing urban focus around towns. They state that distinct urban-focused local electoral area or areas, as appropriate, shall be designated in respect of each town and electoral areas, based as far as practical on census towns. There is a range of references in there around building a focus around urban areas. It is recognised that in the past, larger municipal districts meant that the elected members were not necessarily from the towns. The example given is Nenagh-Newport, where of nine elected members only one was from Nenagh. When there is a wide-ranging geographical area, it is always possible that there will not be elected members from the town or urban area. When the local electoral areas are drawn more coherently around the town, which is what I think Deputy Cassells was talking about earlier, the chances of having elected members representing the town on the council is far greater. The terms of reference have been signed off by the Minister of State today. The committees have been established and they are doing their work.

I am jumping around a little here to pick up Deputy O'Sullivan's point on how the local and county councils coexist. The old system had town councils and a county council. The town councils were abolished in 2014 and municipal districts were put in their place. Our assumption on the Bill is that the town councils would be independent corporate bodies. As such, they would not be subsidiary bodies of the county council.

Would there be representation on the county council from the people who live in those towns?

Mr. Paul Lemass

There would be through the county elections, as it currently stands. If there was a separate corporate body called the town council, that would be an independent body running its own affairs. We do not see that as compatible with a system where the entire county is covered by municipal districts where there is subsidiarity and devolved decision making at municipal district level. We accept that some of the local electoral areas are very big. The last terms of reference for the local electoral areas specified that they would have to have from six to ten members. The terms of reference in this proposal allow for a lower number of members per electoral area. That enables smaller electoral areas to be drawn. However, the current system does have devolved decision making from the county to the municipal district within a single corporate body.

If it is proposed to introduce 50 or 60 separate corporate bodies, they would have to establish their own separate corporate structures. The governance and democratic processes associated with them would be independent of the county council. The elections could be run at the same time but they would be independent corporate bodies. That is a bit of a challenge.

We accept that the system is not perfect. However, we have consulted extensively with elected members. We ran a survey in 2015 in which surveys were sent out to all 949 elected members. More than 500 returned the survey. Only 3% called for the return of town councils. The vast majority recognised that municipal districts were working well and a significant number observed that they need time to bed down. I accept fully that there were comments regarding the budgetary processes. That is something we are working on. However, there was no major call for the reversion to town councils. That is what the elected members in the field have been telling us and we had responses from more than 500 of them. We also met the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, recently. It reiterated that it is not calling for reversion to town councils. It would like to see the strengthening of the municipal districts and to see this process run the full term.

As for the example given of an engineer covering a town, if in the past an engineer covered the town and a road scheme was proposed, the town council - because its authority was for the town alone - would make comments and set priorities for the town itself. However, because the town is now part of a municipal district, it is possible to take the entire stretch of road throughout the district and to consider where the priorities are within the entire budget for the entire road across the entire district. That could potentially strengthen the amount of resources going into the town, depending on where the priorities are. Municipal district members currently have a say in these matters as part of the schedule of municipal district works.

Regarding town centre investment, our understanding is that quite large investments have been announced for Navan and Tralee in recent years which seems to suggest that the revenue raising capacity at county level and the ability to put financial proposals together is strengthened when one has a stronger corporate body at county level, enabling one to develop such proposals. This is also evident in Limerick, where an announcement was made recently regarding very significant borrowing to develop the county.

Just on a point of order, the Minister of State, who is from Navan, cited that in the debate but those plans for Navan were put in place during the term of the town council, not the municipal district council and are being funded through the NTA rather the Department, in the context of a strategic transport plan. That plan was put in place when the town council was still in situ and is not a product of the new local government structure.

Mr. Paul Lemass

I accept that point but most of the functions of the town council were performed on its behalf by the county. In fact-----

Again that comes down to the extent of the boundaries that were in place. They did not actually reflect the size of the towns that emanated during the 2000s. Navan was one of the few towns that was given a boundary extension under the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, former Deputy John Gormley. That is part of the wider debate around giving a firm footprint to the urban centres that actually exist now as a result of the building that took place during the 1990s and early 2000s. We must respect and represent those new town centres, including those that had no town councils heretofore.

Mr. Paul Lemass

I hear the Deputy's point. In 2013 Navan town council had a total budget of €9.2 million, over 40% of which was through the county demand charge. In other words, the service was being provided, even after the boundary extension, by the county. The Deputy also raised another point regarding boundaries and this is an issue that I raised in my opening statement with regard to the reintroduction of town councils. Many towns have spilled over their boundaries now. The question one would have to ask in the context of towns like Athlone or Drogheda is whether one would introduce the town council for all of Drogheda or just the bits that are in County Louth or in County Meath and likewise with Athlone. Similar issues arise with other towns around the country.

The issue of customer service was also raised. There is a range of operations out there in terms of how customers are served. It is not a uniform system but local authorities are working very hard to ensure as wide a range of services as possible is available at municipal district level. Additional resources were also mentioned. Additional resources mean increasing costs but part of the goal is to operate as efficiently as possible. If it can be done efficiently through the county, we would see that as a justification for persevering with the existing structures.

Deputies also referred to rates and suggested that if a business or town was having a difficult year, some accommodation would be made. That principle applies equally in the county. I am very aware that many counties engage with rate payers who are having difficulty regarding payment schedules, payment plans and such like. I touched on that a while ago when I was here talking about the commercial rates Bill that is coming through. That is certainly something that can and continues to exist. I also mentioned when I was before the committee previously the proposal for differential rates. The new rates legislation will provide for a situation where, if a county wishes to do so, it can adopt a differential rate to give a rate reduction in certain areas to meet certain objectives of national policy or the local development plan. That opportunity is there.

I have already spoken about the LEA process. That process is now up and running and has a timeframe of six months. That process is based on addressing municipal districts and the urban counties that do not have such districts across the entire country. If a commission were to be set up and were to identify a town which should have a town council, what would that do for the municipal district? How can the committee carve out municipal districts and local electoral areas in a county if it is unclear as to whether there will be a town council performing some or all the functions that the county used to perform? That is the uncertainty. That process will take six months. It was signed today so by the middle of June, we will have an outcome from that process. To entertain this while that process is ongoing would make the work of that committee impossible.

Regarding budgetary control, I am aware that some local authorities have set up strategic policy committees, SPCs, to address finance, budgets and related matters. It would be entirely within the gift of local authority members to set up a specific committee to focus on such issues if they so wished. We would be quite supportive of that because it is important that members would take a close interest in the budget and how it is being spent.

In terms of the European model, most have the town plus the hinterland. In France there has been a big move towards the inter-communal model. While they might still have the very small councils, most of the functions are being performed at a broader regional level. There is a 2013 Council of Europe report on this which very much points in that direction. I am not familiar-----

That is the model that I had in mind, or something like that. Maybe we all have different models in our minds.

Mr. Paul Lemass

The municipal district system tries to achieve that, whereby one has the integral corporate body but decision making is at a local level within the municipal district. In the context of the LEA terms of reference, one would expect to see LEAs at a smaller level still, which would enable political representation at a smaller than municipal district level.

The Deputy mentioned that Limerick had no town council which means that essentially, there was no sub-county governance structure in Limerick before the reforms-----

I was not suggesting that was a good thing. What I was saying was that we need equalisation around the country.

Mr. Paul Lemass

Yes, but now Limerick has a number of municipal districts and decisions being taken within the municipal district, which it did not have previously. In terms of subsidiarity and governance at a local level, Limerick is better off now than it was before the reforms were introduced.

Yes, but that does not necessarily mean that the new system is the right model either. Just because Limerick did not happen to have such councils before does not mean that the right thing to do now is to keep the municipal districts.

Mr. Paul Lemass

I accept that. The argument I am putting forward is that the current model can be improved but that it is already delivering significant benefits that were not there previously. I think I have covered all the points raised.

I will now move on with the second round of questions. Deputy Ó Broin is first.

If one thought that the Putting People First reforms were a good idea, then one would not support this Bill. Many of us are supporting this Bill because we did not support those reforms in the first instance. When something is not functioning well, we have a terrible habit in this State of scrapping it and devolving the powers upwards. Nobody was saying during the debate we had earlier, including Deputy Cassells who has produced the Bill, that we want to return to the status quo. Nobody was saying that system was perfect either. The process of the commission as outlined in the legislation would actually give us an opportunity to tease through some of the issues and to implement reform in a better way than is currently the case.

We have talked a lot about municipal districts but those of us who were in big urban councils had area committees and while the statutory functions are not the same, they work in the same way. When the South Dublin County Council budget was being put together, all the expenditure that related, for example, to the roads or housing programmes in the Clondalkin local electoral area were discussed and informally agreed at the area committee. We did not have the statutory function to be able to decide that but clearly a good manager and a good director of service brought that in and sought consensus so that when the final budgetary package in the estimates was agreed, it had already gone through that local decision-making process. That is not on a statutory footing but that is what happens. That is not the same as what this Bill is seeking to do in terms of designated towns. I think that area committee system works very well and that is clearly what is going to happen with the municipal districts. However, that working well does not address the core issues around the towns and the very specific sets of issues around towns and the value of having a sub-county level of governance that deals with those town centres. One can have both of these things if one designs it very well. I am interested in hearing whether Mr. Lemass, as one of the people who designed and is overseeing the implementation of the municipal districts, sees them as operating any differently from the current area committees in the urban councils, notwithstanding the statutory differences in terms of how they are set up. I ask him to outline how he sees the municipal districts developing into the future. If they are to be given stronger statutory powers, is there a plan to do the same for the area committees in the larger urban councils?

The second issue is the thorny question of funding. Mr. Lemass mentioned €30 million as a cost. Back in 2014, when the proposed reforms were being put in place, we were told that the savings would be in the region of €15 million to €20 million per year.

Now the figure is €30 million. I presume, however, that a fair amount of that €30 million is currently being spent in the county councils. Therefore, if there were devolution, some of that €30 million would be relocated. It cannot just be €30 million in addition because some of the functions of the town councils were absorbed. Do the officials have a breakdown of how much of the €30 million is being spent in county councils? How much is new expenditure? When Deputy Alan Kelly was Minister, he said an operational review was to be established in 2015 to consider the savings. When he was asked about this in parliamentary questions at the time, he was never able to state the actual saving. Now that we have had at least two years of changes, could we have more details on this?

I agree with the previous speakers. Having been a member of a town council and a county council for a number of years, I see the benefit of a town council. I am frightened by what was said about all the duplication, the weakness in the system, the inconsistencies and, in particular, the funding. Town councils played a massive role in towns. The budget was the key. A comparison was made with municipal districts. Various issues can be highlighted at municipal district council meetings every month, as in town councils, but nothing gets passed unless it is approved at the county council meeting. Therefore, a decision by the nine officials at a district council meeting who are trying to make a decision for their town will not pass unless the approval of the rest of the councillors is received. I know from several municipal meetings that many decisions made have not been passed at county council level. When one is representing an area that is meant to be like a town council area, one has no power. Unless there is a budget to assist when representing the people of the town, one has no power. One can do absolutely nothing, only recommend. One is not sure one's recommendation will be passed. That is the biggest issue.

I acknowledge how hard councillors work. I worked as a councillor and see the work they do. Many of us here were councillors. To be honest, I do not believe councillors get paid enough. It is very hard to sit at a district council meeting when one knows the budget is gone. In my area, Carlow, we had a budget of nearly €14 million but it is totally gone. The block grants are gone. One must now go into a meeting with no budget trying to say footpaths need to be built and that the town centre needs to be promoted, for example. One cannot do these things anymore without a proper budget. The budget needs to be given back. Having no budget is why the municipal bodies are not doing the job they should. The councillors are doing their best. I do not blame them.

I asked Deputy Shane Cassells about this. When this was spoken about in the Dáil, there was agreement. The Deputies, Senators and councillors can see what is happening. When was the survey of the councillors carried out? We need to re-examine it. The new system is like everything else in that the outcome must be determined. In my area, Carlow, there is a population of nearly 27,000. This is a massive number of people to be looked after in a municipal district when there is no funding. It boils down to funding.

I was going to ask the question about the €30 million per annum. It was said this is the cost. This all boils down to money. Hundreds of councillors have been lost since 2014. We have lost many because of the new regime. In my area, for example, there were 21 sitting on the council and there are now 18. Three councillors were gone straightaway and we have no town council. We now have a municipal district with no budget.

I understand the statement that the regime is new and must be given a chance and that there were faults in the town councils. We all have to learn but a full service cannot be given to an area unless there is a budget. That is where we are definitely falling down. I am a firm believer in town councils and budgets.

I thank Mr. Lemass and his team for coming in today. I read the paper they submitted in advance and thank them for it.

I am conscious that we are dealing with the Local Government (Establishment of Town Councils Commission) Bill 2017 and I want to keep my remarks focused on that. I am conscious of the document Putting People First, produced in 2012. Many of its recommendations were never delivered on. It might have been over-ambitious. It was very much a matter for the Department and the then Minister, who is a very dominant character by nature. This was his thing. He brought it out and claimed it was to be the panacea for local government reform. It really has not worked and we have to acknowledge that. That was yesterday. That was the past and we are now looking forward.

I detect from reading the submission that there is resistance on the part of the Department. The officials are clearly agents on behalf of the Department. They are very capable public servants. The decision is a collective one but I would like the officials to clarify whether they have a sense that the Minister, political people, advisers and the Secretary General are generally supportive of this Bill. We need to hear that, and that is what we are here to tease out.

I said to the preceding witnesses that I do not believe we have local government at all; we have local administration. Until we tackle the issue of local government funding and the power to raise and retain it 100% locally, we will not be doing anything about local government reform.

I am all in favour of local, district and town councils but we have a lot of work to do, as the witnesses acknowledged, regarding existing councils. It is not good enough to say we have to address the existing city and county council structures and the associated anomalies and weaknesses while ignoring the rest. This is because there is a role for different layers within local government. I refer to elected local government officers but also to NGOs, community activists, small groups, Tidy Towns, residents and enterprise associations. All of these play an important role in developing economic, sustainable, vibrant communities in which we can live, play and work. That is really important.

I note that Mr. Lemass mentioned the terms of reference for the review of the local government boundaries. We know they have been agreed. They were just published today and people are already talking about them. I still believe we should go ahead with this work because this Bill is very important.

Mr. Lemass said a survey was carried out. Out of over 900 city and county councillors, how many actually completed the survey? What was the nature of the engagement with the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG? I would like to go away from here today with a very clear picture of the Department's understanding of the positions of AILG and the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA. What engagement was there? What did the representatives say to Mr. Lemass? They are representing people. Sometimes between its delivery to the Custom House and its coming back here, the message gets a bit lost. I want to go away from here with a full understanding of the level of support. Am I right in hearing Mr. Lemass as saying there is a need to park this for a few years and bed down the system? I want him to say that to me if it is the case. I am not hearing that message from some of the representatives. We need to sort that out and be on the one page in that regard.

In principle, I believe this is fundamental legislation. Clearly, it may require tweaks. I get a sense across all the political divides in the Houses that there is broad support for this initiative. I would really like to hear from the delegates about the survey and the key remarks on the feedback therefrom. Second, I would like the delegation's understanding of what AILG and LAMA have asked for and mandated.

Mr. Lemass posed a series of questions at the end of his speech. They were all very good and valid. We are here to ask some questions and not necessarily to answer them but I would like to attempt to do both because it is a two-way process. I would like the answers to the questions. Clearly, someone teased out the possibilities referred to in the questions. I would like at some stage, not necessarily today, a written response from Mr. Lemass outlining his thoughts on those questions. Considering that he has raised them, he has clearly been thinking very extensively about this issue. I would like him to share his conclusions or thoughts on these matters.

I thank Mr. Lemass for the presentation this morning. The survey that was carried out indicated 500 councillors replied in a positive manner on the municipal districts.

We are certainly not getting that vibe in any shape, manner or means.

As I come from a rural area, I have never served on a town council. Before I came here I served on Wicklow County Council for two and a half years and participated in two budgetary processes. In that time I could clearly see that rural areas had benefited at the cost of towns which suffered significantly as a result of the process. The deputation referred to efficiencies, effectiveness and improved governance. There is, however, no point in achieving efficiencies if they result in the loss of services. There has been the loss of services in town council areas. At the municipal district budget meeting we divvied up the discretionary fund of several thousand euro and there was a significant loss to towns. A number of services were lost and completely forgotten about. In Wicklow town there was no waste bin service on a Saturday and a Sunday, although such a service had always been included. Local representatives keep these small items at the top of the agenda. Only two of the original town councillors now serve on the municipal district council which has six members and the focus has been removed completely from the town to rural areas. Most of the funding year in, year out is now going to rural areas at the expense of town councils. I honestly believe the system is not working. Bray is the second biggest town in the country, yet there are no social housing projects at stage three, four, five or six. If the municipal district system had not been put in place in 2014, I can guarantee that the housing section in Bray Town Council would have had projects before us today. I come from a rural area that is getting the benefits from the municipal district council, but it is at the cost of town councils. The national planning framework puts the emphasis on the building up of towns, yet we are reducing local democracy in towns and potentially reducing investment in their core areas.

I understand some of the points made by the deputation about finance and funding. We had a debate on commercial rates. Earlier this morning we had a debate on the proper funding of local authorities, an issue which has to be addressed. The local property tax has failed in what it was meant to do, that is, to restore local democracy. The Government controls the top 20%. We have had an argument about the baseline which has not been reviewed in over seven years. The Government controls anything earned above it. That brings us back to the fundamental issue - the funding of local authorities.

I will probably be a lone voice on this matter. I welcome Deputy Shane Cassells's Private Members' Bill and do not question its bona fides in any shape or form as it is trying to improve the situation. Like many members of the committee, I served on a local authority for well over a decade. I was a member of the same local authority as Senator Victor Boyhan. While the area did not include a town council, I formed the view that local elected members did not have the powers that they should have had. I would prefer to focus on empowering them to do more rather than move back towards town councils.

I also formed the view that, as Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor mentioned, councillors were not paid enough. Being a councillor is a full-time position which warrants a full-time salary. I would prefer to have people and supports in that structure rather than dilute services. That is what the Bill would result in. I also believe it would bring us back to the duplication of services and bureaucracy which can delay the process, especially in the provision of housing. Numerous houses are being built in Greystones. I think it all depends on the part of a town or a county in which a person is living.

With regard to the Putting People First plan, it is still early days. I fully recognise that there are problems within it. When we go through a process, we have to put up our hands when something is not working and fix it. It is too early to move back towards town councils. We need to streamline the system further. I would see no problem in appointing a local authority official instead of a town councillor in particular towns. At least that would create a direct line of responsibility or point of contact, rather than adding another person or several people to the bureaucracy. The aim would be to provide for some direct contact with residents in the local areas affected.

My fear is there would be a duplication of services. It is not so much about the cost which would probably be met from local budgets. The problem is an additional burden would be placed on officials. It is like what happens in the HSE when people apply for grants; it all depends on the district in which a person is living, but invariably it comes from the same pot of money. I would prefer to see a streamlining of services and local councillors acting in a full-time capacity and being paid in a proper manner. That would reflect the powers they deserve to have. I would prefer to see that structure being strengthened to give them more powers rather than move back towards what would be a diluting of the system somewhat.

I am happy for the committee to discuss this issue further and tease it out. As I said, I do not doubt Deputy Shane Cassells' bona fides. As I was not a member of a town council, I am not speaking from experience. However, I was a member of a county council for 12 or 13 years. There were area committees and strategic policy groups that allowed members to specialise in particular areas. I was a member of the planning and housing committee. While we did not make decisions on budgetary measures, we outlined policy measures that should be taken by the county council. I would prefer to see direct lines of responsibility and direct points of contact rather than add more people to get answers.

Mr. Paul Lemass

I will try to take the questions in the order in which they were asked. I will address first the point made by Deputy Eoin Ó Broin.

The mindset is to ask what people are seeking to do through the reintroduction of town councils that cannot be done under the current system. If there was a real stumbling block, we would have to look at it. If something is broken, let us fix it. However, it is our sense that in general, at the high end, municipal district councils are working well, although I accept this is not uniform across the country. There are 95 such councils and they are not all at the same level. However, it is my sense that they are working well. There are still area committees in the city with informal arrangements.

Reference was made to sub-county governance structures. That is exactly what we are trying to get at. The idea is to retain a single corporate entity but operate with significant powers at sub-county level. Decisions made by a municipal district council do not have to be discussed at plenary council meetings. Committee members have raised an interesting point in that regard. One of our concerns is not so much that the legislation does not provide for powers at municipal district council level but that actually powers are not being used in their operation. At plenary council meetings there is talk about street lights being broken, dog fouling and such matters which really should not be discussed at such meetings. The goal in plenary session is to have more strategic conversations about the county development plan and the budget, etc.

There is a concern that not all of the municipal district councils are fully using the powers available to them. There was a survey in which over 500 elected members participated. One of the questions asked was how satisfied were municipal district council members that they had a working knowledge of the reserved functions available to them in discharging their functions. The figure for those who were either very satisfied or satisfied was 62%. I accept that that leaves a figure of 37%, of whom 20% were neutral and 14% dissatisfied. Therefore, some work remains to be done in this area in terms of the provision of education and training. However, two thirds of municipal district council members are either satisfied or very satisfied with their working knowledge of the reserved functions available to them. That is a significant body of members.

That would suggest a significant body of 500 people. Likewise on the question, "How satisfied are you with the management and operation of meetings of municipal district members?", 84% responded as being very satisfied, 9% were neutral and 7% were dissatisfied. One would have to take the sense that it is not irreparably broken even if there are things we need to address.

In response to the question, "How satisfied are you that the relevant agenda items are being discussed at meetings of municipal district members rather than being discussed at plenary council level or other forums?", 56% responded as being satisfied. We accept it is not perfect, but this is evidence based on more than 500 elected members who returned their surveys. Therefore, it is a hard evidence base on how the municipal districts are working. It is available on the Department's website.

When was the survey carried out?

Mr. Paul Lemass

It was early in 2015. It was summarised and concluded early in 2016. It took a while to get through the whole process.

On some of the other points, I accept the point about strengthened budgetary powers at municipal district level. These are provided for in legislation. We would have some concerns that the draft budgetary plan at municipal district level is not working as well as it needs to. Likewise, once the budget is agreed, we would be keen to see the schedule of municipal district works working more actively.

The €30 million referenced in the paper is additional money. It would cost €30 million more. The kinds of functions that would end up being duplicated would include revenue collection, support to the local government auditor, training, HR, payroll, administration, support to elected councillors, legal services, compliance with the Official Languages Act, property interest register insurance issues, register of electors, organising local elections, procurement policy and freedom of information, FOI, requests. Each independent corporate entity would have to do all these corporate functions that are currently done by one central body.

Many of the local authority HR functions are not carried out at the local authority level. There is a service level agreement arranged by some other county to do it on behalf of the counties. The same thing can apply with town councils.

Mr. Paul Lemass

It could, but we are developing a service catalogue to look at the range of services local authorities provide. The range is between 300 and 500 services. A considerable amount of work is involved in setting up a memorandum of understanding or a contractual agreement and monitoring and oversight of an agreement for 500 different services. For example, in County Wicklow if town councils were to be set up in Bray, Greystones and Wicklow, that would be three separate corporate bodies, each of which would need to set up a memorandum of understanding for all of the 500 services with the county. That would then have to be monitored on an ongoing basis. The current structure within the municipal district allows that to be done within the same corporate body without having to go through all of these separate corporate functions and without having to have separate accounts, auditors or anything like that. It is possible to deliver-----

However, we are not starting with a blank sheet of paper. We had a body that existed efficiently for more than 100 years. I have cited how the town councils in my area operated with a surplus when the county council was mired in debt. These things used to operate efficiently. We are not starting with a blank sheet of paper to analyse that.

I would prefer to allow Mr. Lemass to answer all the questions without interruption. None of us was interrupted when we were asking questions.

Mr. Paul Lemass

I will revert briefly on the issue of towns balancing their books while there is a deficit in the county. One of the issues that has been flagged to us as a benefit of the municipal district system is that it benefits the full district. There is a sense of fairness about this. A town raises commercial rates and parking revenue, but that revenue does not come exclusively from inhabitants in the town. Commercial businesses thrive because people from the hinterland come into the town to shop which enables them to pay their rates. The parking requirement in a town arises partly from people from the town, but largely from people who come in from outside the town. From the perspective of fairness, it does not seem unreasonable that the district should benefit from the revenue raised.

I have been through Deputy Ó Broin's issues.

In response to Senator Murnane O'Connor, the draft budgetary plan at municipal district level is intended to be the vehicle through which the budget is localised to the municipal district. We will look more closely at how well that is working and try to make it as effective as possible. I mentioned the schedule of functions devolved to a municipal district level. Our concern would be that the powers exist but are not being used in all cases. When we ask the more effective councils - we contacted those in Tipperary as recently as yesterday - the list of functions performed and services available at municipal district is hugely impressive. It may well be a question of implementation, but the 2014 Act allows for a wide range of functions mandated to happen at municipal district level and an additional suite of functions which can be delegated by the plenary to the municipal district if necessary.

As part of our current reform work, we are looking at a proposal on devolution. After Christmas we hope to develop a paper on devolution to look at more functions. We agree with the Senator that we would like to see more functions performed by local authorities.

Block grants were given by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. We would be happy to see a reversion to block grants being given to the municipal district area if that were possible.

On the level of engagement with the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, we had meetings with the AILG about three times in the past six months, including one as recently as three weeks ago. It was also heavily consulted on the survey and signed off on the survey. The clear message was that it was not calling for the restoration of town councils. It believes that the current system needs to work the full term before it can be reviewed. That is clear and unequivocal from the AILG.

What about the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA?

Mr. Paul Lemass

We did not engage with LAMA on the basis that the recognised policy lead is the AILG, with LAMA being more of a representative body for councillors. That is the reason we went with the AILG.

I think the departmental officials should talk to LAMA. It plays a massive role-----

We should let Mr. Lemass finish. The committee will decide where we want to take this. I presume we will call in representatives from LAMA and AILG.

Mr. Paul Lemass

In response to Senator Boyhan, if something is broken, we want to fix it. Our objective is to have the most effective form of local government. We believe in the huge potential for local government and we can see it happening in the enterprise support area and the community development function which work well in most local authorities. We would like to see more functions devolved to local authorities. This Department would be very supportive of increased devolution of functions to local authorities.

If our approach to the Bill appears a little negative, we want to understand the implications because we and the local authorities will be charged with implementing this and making it work. We have real concerns that putting this in place would be extremely challenging and extremely disruptive to other processes in train.

The Senator also mentioned community engagement and municipal district engagement with town teams and fora. We have recognised that. We will be making proposals for how town teams and fora engage formally with the municipal district structure in order that people are very clear on the initiatives that are taking place and the role of the municipal district in that.

I mentioned the survey of in excess of 500 local authority members and what it called for.

I wish to be clear that the objective of the reform was not to achieve a saving but was about reducing duplication and administration. I gave the example of all the corporate functions - that is only a small subset of them - that would need to be replicated five, six or seven times in some of the bigger counties. Counties Tipperary and Kildare could end up with seven town councils. Replicating all those corporate functions six or seven times would result in a significant cost increase. I reiterate that it would be additional cost of the order of a minimum of €30 million.

In response to Deputy Casey's questions, I read out some of the questions on the survey. On the suggestion that towns have suffered, the whole country has suffered from the economic decline. I would be concerned about conflating the introduction of municipal districts with the suffering of the towns. We are seeing investment in towns now and towns recovering under a municipal district structure. I am not sure if it is reasonable to conflate fully the issue of town decline with the introduction of municipal districts.

The Deputy asked about having the bins in Wicklow town emptied on Saturdays and Sundays. Budgets have to be agreed and priorities set. That is a reality of agreeing a budget in a local authority. If there were a town council, the people would still have to pay for the service. If bins are to be collected on Saturdays and Sundays, it has to be paid for, whether it is agreed through a town council or a county council.

There may not be what the Deputy perceives to be an adequate level of housing development in Bray. I know Greystones, however, and there is a building site on every corner there.

That is not the sort of housing to which I was referring. I was referring to social and affordable housing and State-led construction, not private. Bray is the second largest town in the country. It had its town council which was working perfectly well. All local authority services, including housing, were then merged with Wicklow County Council. It has lost a significant amount of ground and momentum. It may never get that back because the focus is no longer on a town the size of Bray but on the whole county. I accept efficiencies were gained but they were at the cost of services.

Mr. Paul Lemass

I would argue that having a stronger corporate centre helps. By way of example, the recent local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, round is a complex process. I am not sure it would be feasible to have a level of expertise to develop applications for LIHAF across 70 or 80 different corporate bodies. However, if one has 31 local authorities, one has a central finance function which should be in a position to make proposals for LIHAF. I am sure some counties are benefitting from LIHAF. One needs a strong central core finance function which is centralised and has the expertise.

Nobody is arguing against that. We have 31 overarching local authorities. They are not stand-alone municipals. People are talking about working within other structures.

Mr. Paul Lemass

If they can work within another structure, then there is not a significant amount of distance between us. The districts can perform that function. The district is a sub-county level of governance working within the same structure. One could have LIHAF proposals for any town in any county, developed by a county council for that town.

Bray is larger than some other counties.

Mr. Paul Lemass

That is a separate debate into which we could get.

The terms of reference of the local electoral area, LEA, reconfiguration will also focus on large towns like Bray with a view to having a tight municipal district drawn around the town. One would expect to see Bray having its own municipal district on foot of that.

On fundraising and the local property tax, LPT, the Thornhill report is on the table. The Department of Finance will review the process in 2018 and we will be part of that. Issues such as the baseline will be on the table as part of that process.

The other major source of funding for local authorities is rates. I spoke to the committee about them several weeks ago. We believe there is significant potential to make that instrument work more effectively. Once we have that sorted, at that point we can say definitively whether there is an ongoing deficit. However, we are leaving €150 million on the table which has to be fixed first.

The point about empowering elected members rather than going to town councils will also be touched on in the report due after Christmas on other aspects of leadership of local government and political leadership. The Council of Europe welcomed the changes introduced in 2014 and highlighted the fact they had eliminated duplication of functions and representation.

As regards direct contact points, I agree there may be opportunities to standardise the service approach across municipal districts. It is certainly something on which we will look to engage with local authorities.

I mentioned the 16 scenarios which Mr. Lemass posed in his paper. What are his views on those valid and interesting areas? We are asking questions but Mr. Lemass seems to be asking them too. Somehow we need answers or thoughts. Will Mr. Lemass flesh his thoughts out on this? I know it is Christmas but maybe he could send them to us in the new year. I would like to see the thought process behind this.

Mr. Paul Lemass

Many of these issues will be dealt with in the reports waiting to go to the Government.

Given that Mr. Lemass raised these specifically, will he send us some detail on those scenarios?

Mr. Paul Lemass

I would be happy to further engage with the Senator on them.

I would be happy to engage too but, if we had a paper, we could tease it out and use our time constructively.

Mr. Paul Lemass

We will have 300 pages of reports on their way to the committee in due course. This exercise would have prompted these.

I thank the departmental officials for attending the committee today. We will have ongoing engagement on this and the committee will decide whether we need further scrutiny on this. I am sure we will hear from various stakeholders on this and the departmental officials might attend again.

The joint meeting adjourned at 11.25 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Thursday, 14 December 2017.