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Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government debate -
Thursday, 31 May 2018

Local Government Reform: Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government

At the request of the broadcasting and recording service, members and those in the Visitors Gallery are requested to ensure that their mobile telephones are turned off completely or switched to aeroplane, safe or flight mode, depending on the device, for the duration of the meeting. It is not sufficient to place telephones on silent mode as they will still interfere with the broadcasting system.

The joint committee will now discuss local government reform. On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy John Paul Phelan, and his officials.

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 invite the Minister of State to make his opening statement.

I thank the Chair and the committee for the opportunity to discuss two reports that have been produced to build on the reforms to local government that have taken place in recent years. I am joined today by officials from the Department; Mr. Paul Lemass, Mr. Diarmuid O'Leary, Ms Lorraine O'Donoghue and Ms Áinle Ní Bhriain.

The Programme for Partnership Government sets out a number of requirements relating to local government reform. In particular, the programme envisages the submission of a report to the Government and the Oireachtas on potential measures to boost local government leadership and accountability, and to ensure that local government funding, structures and responsibilities strengthen local democracy. Today's engagement forms part of that consultative process.

To date, the Department has published two papers on this topic. The papers presented today for consideration by the committee address municipal governance, including questions on local electoral areas and town councils, and local authority boundaries where urban development crosses local authority boundaries.

The municipal governance paper sets out a range of proposals to strengthen the current municipal district system within local authorities and to address identified shortcomings, rather than reestablish town councils. The paper sets out a strong rationale for this approach, not least the fact that local authority members, represented by the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA, have not called for restoration of town councils. The AILG would prefer stronger powers for municipal district members, greater focus on towns and a reduction in the territorial size of excessively large local electoral areas, LEAs, which the review of local electoral areas that is almost complete will address. The proposals in the municipal governance paper are based mainly on these objectives.

Some of the specific proposals in this document include measures to reduce the excessive size of many LEAs and ensure that all areas are as coherent and reflective of local identity as possible, including designation of distinct town-based local electors areas for larger urban centres with a population of 15,000 people or more. The work of the local electoral area boundary committees is addressing this issue and will be completed in the middle of June.

The document proposes measures to achieve greater town focus in local government arrangements, especially in larger urban centres where the municipal districts will be retitled town districts or borough districts, with the name of the relevant town included in the title in all such cases, for example, Wexford borough district. Local authorities will also be given a right to petition the Minister to rename a district.

The document also proposes to strengthen the role and capacity of the elected members at municipal district level, particularly in budgetary and local development matters, to promote the economic and social development of towns as well as addressing any inconsistencies in the way the current arrangements are being operated. It is fair to say, from one local authority to another, that there are inconsistencies with the way the municipal district system is being operated. Municipal district members have significant powers but the application of these powers seems to differ throughout the country.

The financial capacity of elected members at municipal district level has been highlighted as being of particular importance. Proposals to address this matter includes the following: restoring earmarked roads funding for larger towns; strengthening the role of municipal district members in the local authority budget process, including aspects such as the general municipal allocation, the schedule of municipal district works, the draft budgetary plan and other relevant budgetary proposals and reports; and bringing greater clarity and focus to the municipal district members' decision-making authority over a range of discretionary funding. There will be an examination of the apparent gap in urban renewal or development funding for some important towns. The role of district members in the local authority budget process will also be strengthened. Funding under Project Ireland 2040, through the regeneration and development fund, will be important in this context.

The second paper is entitled, Local Authority boundaries. In this paper, enhanced statutory provisions are proposed to address the issue of urban development crossing county boundaries. In such instances, the paper proposes new statutory joint structures rather than an alteration of county boundaries or a reliance on existing provisions for voluntary co-operation. These joint structures will focus particularly on the forward planning of the areas in question, and will not duplicate the role of other agencies, for example, those that specifically deal with tourism, inward investment and economic development. Joint structures would have responsibility for the development and planning of the entire area of a town or city that crosses a county boundary such as Athlone, Carlow, Drogheda and Waterford, including responsibility for certain key strategic matters beyond the existing standard functions of local authorities, especially in respect of spatial and economic planning and development. These structures would also have responsibility for transportation strategy, forward planning and land use designation, retail strategy, and any other such matters as both local authorities may agree. Such structures would not, however, have responsibility for delivering existing local authority functions, save in such circumstances as agreed by the relevant authorities. It is also proposed that provision for statutory joint structures would be accompanied by a clear legislative guarantee for the permanent integrity of local county identity and traditional allegiance through legislative provision to copperfasten the status of the cities and counties as territorial units. It will no longer be possible to alter a boundary between two local authorities without the consent of both authorities and the Oireachtas.

I will shortly bring papers to Government on local authority structures and governance. One paper will set out for further consideration a range of proposals on local authority governance, and leadership and administration, which are referenced for consideration in the Programme for Partnership Government. These proposals will address the tenure and role of mayors and chairs, ancillary governance structures and processes, and other measures to enhance council effectiveness.

A further paper will specifically deal with legislation on the extension of the boundary of Cork city and consideration of the report of the Galway expert advisory group. In the case of Galway, the expert oversight group has endorsed previous recommendations for amalgamation of Galway city and county councils, to take effect not later than 2021. The oversight group recommends that the councils, as currently constituted, should continue for the purposes of the 2019 local elections.

Other specific measures recommended by the oversight group includes measures to strengthen municipal districts in general and increased resourcing to enable them to realise their full potential. This recommendation dovetails with the recommendations put forward in the municipal governance paper. The group also recommended additional measures to address the deficiencies in human resources and financial resources prior to the merger process.

In December 2017, the Government decided to proceed with the extension of the Cork City boundary, as recommended by the advisory group, and agreed a revised boundary delineation recommended in the implementation oversight group's report in December 2017. The general scheme of a Bill to provide for the Cork boundary alteration, and arrangements related to its implementation, is being submitted to Government. The scheme will address the need for detailed planning and implementation of the reorganisation process, and the role of the respective local authorities and the implementation oversight group. The legislation will also address the timing of the transition from both a financial and operational perspective.

Two local electoral area boundary committees were established on 13 December 2017 to review, and make recommendations on, local electoral areas in advance of the 2019 local elections. The policy objectives of the review are to reduce the size of territorially large LEAs, and to designate urban-focused LEAs around the larger towns to enhance good local government. In doing so, the committees will have regard to the results of census 2016. The two committees have received more than 370 submissions so far and submissions are still being received in respect of Galway city and county. The committees are due to complete their reports by 13 June 2018.

In the coming weeks, further policy papers will be submitted to Government and, thereafter, proceed to this committee for its consideration. These papers will examine in detail other local government issues, including those identified in the programme for Government, namely, local authority functions, particularly through the devolution of centrally held functions and powers, leadership, including directly elected mayors for cities, and governance of our cities in a manner that will facilitate their planned and sustainable future development, in line with the objectives of the national planning framework.

I do not wish to pre-empt these policy reports or our future discussion on the matters therein. However, I anticipate that the report on political leadership will consider the issue of full-time, full-term mayors or cathaoirligh. It will also examine the possibility of the direct election of mayors for Ireland's cities. In doing so, it will consider the division of executive and reserved functions in local authorities, and examine alternatives.

I look forward to returning to this forum in the near future to discuss these papers and the upcoming legislation in more detail. I am confident that the measures outlined, combined with those in development, will significantly enhance the capacity of local government to deliver effective, efficient and quality services to all citizens.

I thank the Minister of State for his opening statement and call Deputy O'Dowd to comment first.

I thank the Vice Chairman for allowing me to comment first because I must leave shortly to attend another event.

I welcome the Minister of State to the meeting. He has extensive experience of local government because he and I have discussed the future of his area and mine on many occasions. I know the difficulties he experienced in Waterford and, regrettably, they are exactly the same difficulties that I have with the programme that he has outlined.

I recognise the effort that is being made to engage constructively. My point is that the town of Drogheda, as designated by the Central Statistics Office, had a population of more than 40,000 when the last census was taken. Even though there are more people in the town of Drogheda than there are in counties Longford and Leitrim, there is no local government structure in the town. Counties Leitrim and Longford have a full administrative structure, including county managers, senior engineers and planning authorities. We do not have that in Drogheda. We are part of a county that has a rapidly growing population as a consequence of the Government's decision to designate towns like Drogheda and Dundalk as regional growth centres. I believe they are different from the municipal districts and extended municipal districts that are designated in the Minister of State's papers. There are huge issues attaching to local control and decision-making in Drogheda. I will not talk about Dundalk because I do not live there.

I ask the Minister of State to take it from today's discussion that there is a need to review the position in respect of towns with populations in excess of 40,000. When Galway was made a city, there were 37,000 souls living in it. Even though Drogheda now exceeds that number, it is proposed that it will merely have a municipal district council. The increased powers that the Minister of State intends to give to such councils are not good enough for the people of Drogheda. The current proposal is not acceptable. The problem is that between 4,000 and 5,000 people who live in east Meath were included in the town of Drogheda for the purposes of the census. Given that there is extant planning permission for over 5,000 homes to the north of Drogheda, the population of Drogheda will exceed 50,000, which is the level needed to be designated as a city, in the coming years. An urban area becomes a city when its population reaches 50,000. I understand from the CSO that the development in the County Louth part of the Drogheda area that will happen over the coming five or six years will bring the population of Drogheda to 50,000 by 2023. Drogheda will be a city, in effect, at that stage.

I appreciate that the Minister of State and I have discussed this issue previously. I do not expect him to give me a decision today. Perhaps discussions between elected members and departmental officials could be opened on foot of this meeting to prepare for Drogheda to acquire city status. I refer to the special local government reforms that will need to take place separately from the joined-up Meath-Louth proposal that currently exists. I do not think that will deal with the problem. I welcome the new powers being proposed by the Minister of State to strengthen local government. A town that is going to be a city within ten years and has been designated by the Government as a regional centre must have the capacity to govern itself and be accountable to itself. This involves having a manager and an engineer resident in the town. They need to be accountable and responsible to the local council. The municipal council does not hold the officials to account, and that is what is missing in all of this. I do not mean any disrespect to anybody when I say that. The problem is that there are no officials with direct responsibility for the area. I do not say that as a criticism of the manager, who is excellent in every way.

I thank the Chairman for his indulgence and I apologise for having to leave. I ask the Minister of State to respond to the important points I have made.

I suppose I have sympathy for the points the Deputy is trying to make. I understand what he is saying about Drogheda, in particular. It was the first place I visited as Minister of State.

Deputy O'Dowd brought me to Drogheda after I was appointed as Minister of State with responsibility for local government. The Deputy has spoken about the projected increase in the population of Drogheda over the coming years. This is a good example of how the municipal district structure functions better in some local authority areas than in others. In many local authorities, there are designated officials who act as engineers, in effect, for certain towns. They might have wider responsibilities within the local authority, but they are held to account at municipal district level. Equally, in some local authorities directors of service are appointed and given responsibility for specific municipal districts. In effect, they act within that district with some of the responsibilities of a local authority manager or chief executive. It varies widely across the country. I agree with the Deputy's point that a growing town, which is designated under the national planning framework should receive special resources to enable it to develop properly. I will talk to my colleagues in the Department about towns that are projected to grow in population to more than 50,000 over the 20 years of the planning framework. There are not many of them around the country.

We will discuss how extra resources could be given to such towns. The Deputy is really talking about a management structure.

There is not going to be any change in the idea of municipal districts per se. I do not see why the idea of supporting the municipal districts with functioning management structures at local level cannot be dealt with under the planning framework. I will speak to my colleagues about that. We have included a new provision that will allow a joint structure to be put in place in respect of any town with a population of more than 15,000 that crosses a county boundary. I understand the Deputy's argument that this will not be sufficient for Drogheda. I envisage that this whole new structure will play a significant role in the proper development of the cities and towns across the country that cross county boundaries. There are some examples of good co-operation, including Carlow town. Laois County Council and Carlow County Council have co-operated for years. The local authority in Carlow provides many local services in the Graiguecullen part of County Laois that comes right into Carlow town. Sadly, that has not been the case in most other places across the country. These new structures are specifically designed to ensure neighbouring local authorities are forced, in effect, to co-operate with one another on planning, land use, transportation and the designation of where development will happen in the future. Such matters comprise just a part of a town's responsibilities. I will talk to my colleagues about whether additional resources can be given under the national planning framework to towns that will soon exceed 50,000 in population.

While I welcome the Minister of State's response, it is clear that it does not go far enough. He will have expected me to say that. The difference is that the Minister of State is listening. I welcome that very much. It is important to have a Minister of State who listens. I think we have put a cogent argument to the Minister. A municipal council will never do the business. We need a city management structure. I appreciate that we can start the discussion by putting cogent, sensible and incisive arguments to the Minister of State. I thank him for his comments.

I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. I thank him. I do not doubt his commitment. We have soldiered together. I think we were both elected to local authorities in 1999. I have known about the Minister of State's commitment to and track record in local government for a long time.

I have read comprehensively the local authority boundaries paper that has been circulated to the joint committee by the Minister of State. It deals with municipal governance districts, towns and local electoral areas. Although there is a lot of repetition in it, many good points are made in it too. They seem to merge into each other and overlap. That is the nature of local government. The paper features an outpouring of ambition and ideas, but it is clear that not everything in it is going to happen. I found it hard to decipher the difference between what people fed into the consultation process - I refer to the wishes of people, including elected councillors and policy makers in local government - and the recommendations of the Minister of State. I presume this is a process of engagement.

I think I know what the Minister of State is about. He has an opportunity now to correct me if I am wrong. The first thing I took from the paper was a suggestion that the Local Authorities Members Association and, in effect, the Association of Local Government in Ireland are not banging down the door for the re-establishment of town councils. The Minister of State mentioned this issue in his address to the committee this morning and, again, he can correct me if I am wrong. As the suggestion in the paper is totally inconsistent with what I am hearing from councillors, I have to ask whether there is a deficit between them and their representative bodies. I know they are tuning in to this meeting. I am consciously calling on them to clear this matter up.

Clearly, they are representing these councils so they need to square that themselves. It is not a matter for us. We need to know from them if it is the view of their memberships that they are opposed to the re-establishment of town councils or are we saying, in a more fine-tuned and nuanced way, to bed down the current system - I can see Mr. Lemass smiling at me - and let us look at it again after the full five year roll-out? I would be inclined to agree with that. I am happy to say this on the record. We need to be clear about that because it is an important point.

The Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA, and the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, are very formal organised representative bodies that do a good job in representing councillors. How can we link them into the consultation process around the vision the Minister of State has for local government? It is important to have an ongoing consultation process. These are only two aspects of the bigger picture being planned by the Minister of State but we need to engage with those bodies early in the consultation. Perhaps the Minister of State will outline the timeline as he sees it. We are running into the local elections in June 2019, unless the Minister of State is going to tell us something different. I take it the date is the statutory deadline. We are, therefore, on for that.

It will be May. Perhaps the Minister of State could confirm this in his response. How does the Minister of State envisage the legislative process? Before I move on to more of the focus points, how does the Minister of State see this committee involved in it? I am delighted he is here today to update us on the brief, but what role does he see for the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government? I am aware that local government and electoral reform come under the remit of the Minister of State, which is an important relationship. In the coming months, will he consider setting out a programme for engagement with us? It has to be a meaningful engagement for us and for the Minister of State. Will he please elaborate on that?

I welcome very much the Minister of State's comment that it will no longer be possible to alter a boundary between two local authorities without the consent of both authorities and, indeed, of the Oireachtas. This is a positive move because far too often in places such as Cork and Galway we have seen the heavy hand of the Custom House. I am not saying this is so, but there is a perception that the boys in the Custom House have decided to chop us all up. It is worth reiterating. It is a strong point that has come from the Minister of State's comments today. Will the Minister of State please confirm if 30 June 2018 is still the target date for the roll out of the boundaries? People are waiting and they want to know so they can make arrangements and consolidate their positions. This is understandable for politicians.

In his statement the Minister of State referred to A Programme for a Partnership Government. Clearly in the programme for Government there are a number of key objectives, including the Minister of State taking over this area, in which he will focus on some key deliverables. Will he speak about the issue of directly-elected mayors and cities? How will this happen, or not happen? Will there be plebiscites? Are we going to engage with people on the matter? I am against the idea of directly elected mayors. I do not necessarily see it as a good thing. There are a whole range of people who could stand who might have no experience or interest in local government and who could become popularity contestants for mayor. While I would not say it was good, I have a fairly regular and positive relationship with the council managers and the chief executives and I get the distinct impression from them that they are against the idea also. There is a problem with that. We need to sit down with the chief executives and councils and see what is best for us. It should not be the case that just because other places in the EU have directly elected mayors then we should have them too. Would it work here? The Irish local government system is unique in Europe. The system here is very different in its connectivity. I would caution against the idea of directly elected mayors. If the Minister of State decides to proceed with the idea, it would be important to look at the issue of plebiscites. How would the consultation happen? We had an outcry over the four local authorities in Dublin some years ago.

On the devolution of new powers to local authorities, it is all great talk. Before I came here, there was much talk about the great things to be done, such as devolving the powers, but we have become even more centralised. One of the greatest tasks and challenges for the Minister of State is to work on how we can devolve more powers from central government to local government. With that power, however, comes responsibility. Will the Minister of State talk to us about that? I fully agree with his comments on reducing the size of electoral areas.

I will conclude on a matter on which I have battled for a long time. The Department strategy says that there will be a review, involving consultation with the AILG and LAMA, of the supports provided to councillors to enable them to do their important work. The Minister of State knows where I am going with this; I want to talk about remuneration. For those who do not know, directly elected sitting county and city councillors receive €16,500 per year for what is effectively a seven day working week. A councillor is part parish priest, part social worker, part counsellor and a whole lot of other things besides.

And an engineer and a planner.

And everything else. The remuneration is an appalling recognition of the work these people do in our communities. There are more than 900 councillors sitting on local authorities around the State. The Minister of State has given a commitment to these organisations that he will set up a committee and appoint an independent chairperson. Is the Minister of State in a position to tell us today if the independent chairperson has been appointed and what is his or her name?

I know the name but I am not in a position to say it yet.

Can the Minister of State at least tell us that he has a person? Has he or she agreed to do the job? What is the deadline? The Minister of State will be aware that previous Ministers have said that it is either up to the Minister for Finance, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, or another Minister. We must stop playing games here. These elected local authority members are entitled to know. A promise was given to them that there would be a review of their pay, remuneration and allowances. In his very first conference the Minister of State gave a commitment that he was going to set it up, and mentioned Hallowe'en. Can the Minister of State share with us what he will do in this regard?

I am also interested to hear the Minister of State's intentions around soft supports for councillors. It varies from county to county with some councillors without electronic systems or mobile phones. Others have office support within their county halls but there is an inconsistency in supports and services for elected members, who are ultimately about representing their communities.

I welcome the Minister of State's comments. They are very important and there is a lot of material that needs to be deciphered. Through all of this we need to set out what the Minister of State's vision is for local government, whether we can support him in that and what the legislative process is for bringing it about.

I thank Senator Boyhan. The Senator said at the start that my reports were lengthy but he managed to touch on every aspect of local government in his questions.

Thanks for that.

It was repetitive but they were good points.

Does that apply to the Minister of State too?

On the specifics, 30 June still stands for the review of the local electoral area boundaries. On the local government elections, a decision was made at European Council level that the weekend of 23 to 26 May next year is when the European Union Parliament elections will be held across the EU. Ireland will have an opportunity within that window to have our local and European Parliament elections on the same day, somewhere in that space.

The Senator was correct when he referred to LAMA and AILG specifically as not wanting the re-establishment of town councils.

I want the Minister of State to tell us that.

I am telling the Senator now. We consult regularly with those organisations and they speak on behalf of their memberships when they speak to us in formal discussions. They make the point, which was made by the Senator, that the municipal structure is working but needs to be bedded down and given more strength, powers and responsibilities. They do not want to unravel the changes that were made because they believe the new system could work better and they support that. This was the stated position of LAMA and AILG whose memberships are across the board from all political parties and groupings. We meet with them regularly for ongoing consultations.

With regard to the remuneration review for councillors, there is and will be ongoing consultation with both of the representative organisations. It is important that this happens. I have met with them on a number of occasions and will continue to do so into the future.

On the remuneration review group, we are virtually at the stage - hopefully, in the next two weeks - of completing the terms of reference under which the group will operate. There is a tic-tac process between the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the local government section on the terms of reference.

It is envisaged that there will be an independent chairman with somebody from the local government section and somebody from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and that it will consult with the representative group of councillors, the broader public service, the management association and people who are interested in local government on not just remuneration but on scoping out the role of a councillor and what it should be into the future. We are talking about taxpayers' money and value for money. We should provide significant financial support to local representatives but in pursuing local policy objectives and what local government should be about, it should not necessarily be a blank cheque. I am not saying that it has been a blank cheque up to now but there has never really been a national scoping out as to what a councillor does. As has been said, one is a priest, a doctor, an engineer or a planner. That group is due to provide at least an interim report by Hallowe'en, which will look to pegging councillors to a grade in the Civil Service. I have not resiled from that position. It is important to do so that far in advance of the local elections because people are making decisions, whether on the basis of boundaries or remuneration, as to whether they will contest local elections next year.

There has to be a point where there are final recommendations and if they are made earlier than 2019, there is the question of their implementation. The Minister of State will consider the recommendations and may accept some or all of them but when will he implement them? I know what he is going to tell me that it will be after June 2019 when half of the candidates have given up and the other half have been defeated.

I cannot give the Senator an answer. The group has not been established yet. I cannot give the Senator a definite-----

What would be the Minister of State's strong recommendation to it?

I will not be recommending anything to it. I will be giving it terms of reference and it will be very much up to it to make its own decisions. I am not that sort of person. If one gives independent people a job they should be allowed to do it. The prospective members of this group would not take kindly to being directed by me or by any Minister.

It is likely to be after 2019.

I want it to provide an interim report well in advance of the elections so that people who are going to stand or are considering not standing will know where they stand, so to speak, in making that decision. An interim report by Hallowe'en is still a big part of that.

In terms of the legislative process, within the next two weeks, the outline of a local government Bill will go to Government. It will principally revolve around Cork and Galway and the issue of boundaries in general. However, following on from that there will be more consultation with this committee when that Bill comes to Committee Stage. It is fair to say the committee is aware of the broad outline of this Bill in terms of Cork, Galway and local authority boundaries in general. There will be a commercial rates Bill, which I believe is still on course to be dealt with before the summer. The committee will be involved in the Committee Stage of that Bill.

In terms of directly elected mayors, this report has not been presented to Government. It is a question that raises its head from time to time and there is significant debate about it but the reality, as far as I see it, is that there has not been any level of political discussion as to what the remit, the functions and the functional area would be, particularly in the Dublin context, of a directly elected mayor. The Government is still minded to proceed with plebiscites in Cork and Dublin on the same day as the local elections.

Yes. That has not changed. I do not want to pre-empt any discussion that might take place at Government level. I indicated in my opening remarks that the report on leadership at local authority level is due to be discussed by the Cabinet within the month.

The devolution of powers is an old chestnut. It is not only devolution of powers but it is the balance that lies between the Executive and the council at local level. We are looking at establishing a new process or formula as to how we should consider functions that should be devolved to local government. In other words, if a service that is provided by a State agency or authority or a Department can be delivered as, or more, efficiently or cost effectively by the local authority, then that is the mechanism that would apply. A general standard would have to reached in order for a function to be devolved to local government. The functions local authorities have is one of the things that comes up for discussion around the time of local elections, in particular. However, I would point out that in some of the discussions with some of the representative groups of councillors, they were unable to provide me with any additional functions that local authority members should have.

Did the Minister of State ask them to go away and consider this matter?

Yes, and I have not spoken with them since.

Have they not come back to him?

I am open to consideration, but there has to be some sort of a mechanism whereby, rather than having the Minister looking at each individual issue as it arises, if there is a process that can look at a function that can be delivered more or as efficiently at local level, then that should apply. We have a very centralised system, and I do not dispute that.

I thank the Minister of State.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss local government reform proposals this morning. I also welcome the Minister of State and his officials and thank him for the engagement in looking at the deficiencies of the system in place. I have said it many times that what was done five years ago was exceptionally damaging to our democracy, in particular the impact it has had on urban areas. Deputy O'Dowd touched on a few of these points but he went extremely lightly over these issues. I hear Deputy O'Dowd on my local radio station day in, day out and he must not have had his Weetabix this morning because-----

He was up at 6 o'clock looking at a water leak, I believe.

As regards the powers, the scope and the efficiency of the representation of the municipal districts, the Minister of State alluded in his answers to Deputy O'Dowd that the director of services can do this or engineers over multiple areas can do X, Y, or Z. However, we are missing that special focus. Directors of services are dealing with macro issues. The Minister of State is aware of this as a long-serving public representative. The directors of services may be the de facto managers, although they are not called that any more, for a large urban area. The director of services is specifically dealing with a brief. There will be directors of services for housing and directors of services for finance and that will be their day-to-day job. They are not specifically thinking about the development of an urban centre. For them, it is one or two meetings a month that they have to attend. What is missing is the role, for example, at town clerk level, which would allow that special focus to happen at an administrative level. Many councillors are saying that they do not have that synergy between themselves and the executive because of the fact the town clerk level has been eroded out of the system. While directors of services are exemplary and dedicated public officials and deal with macro issues - for example, the development of a key piece of infrastructure such as a road or a social amenity - that is the input they have. However, we are missing this other level.

In terms of acknowledging the deficiency, as the paper does, much of its focus is on the reasons for getting rid of town councils, and stating that there were compelling reasons for doing this, rather than on dealing with where we are in terms of the over-centralisation of powers as regards local government, which the Minister of State mentioned. The paper sets out the compelling reasons for dispensing with town councils, including limited powers and limited resources, but on that basis, one would get rid of county councils.

Another reason given was the exclusion of more than 200,00 residents of town suburbs. This could be resolved by extending boundaries. We did this in Navan. We acknowledged that in the boom period a large number of people were not represented by the town council structure. We went to the then Minister with responsibility for local government, John Gormley, and there was an extension of the boundaries so that the administrative powers of the town reflected the real population base of the town. As I said, acknowledging a deficiency and then applying the solution of just getting rid of something was the wrong move. A solution could have been found in respect of this.

The paper states that expanding boundaries would have negatively impacted on county councils. Extending the boundary did not impact negatively on my county council. If anything, it gave people who lived in the suburbs of the town a real sense of engagement with their municipal town hall because they knew where to go. It addressed many of the problems that existed.

Budgets are a significant issue. Without financial autonomy, councils cannot address the issues that people want to see addressed and are nothing more than glorified talking shops, as many local councillors will agree. Let us leave politics aside, municipal areas such as Carlow, Navan and Cork need financial autonomy to address, in a real and substantive way, issues such as roads, housing and social amenities. Social amenities are a major issue. We have created new population areas and people in them are looking to their councillors to provide the social amenities needed.

If the budgets only tinker with the issue and financial autonomy is retained at county council level, there will be no impact. Will the retention of income from local property tax, LPT, within an administrative area rather than at county level be addressed? The Taoiseach said he was open to looking at that at a county level. I would bring it down even further to the town level. On the retention of funds raised within a major urban space, parking charges in a large town can raise a couple of million euro which could be used for the enhancement of the local area. When I raised this issue previously, Mr. Lemass asked if people coming into a town from the country are not entitled to see parking income being spent elsewhere in the county. On that logic, the people of Meath who come into the centre of Dublin to shop should receive income from Dublin City Council to be spent in Navan. That argument does not make any sense.

On the setting of rates, the Minister of State and I both came through the local government system. Different towns are under different pressures in different parts of counties. Having financial autonomy in areas such as rates would allow major urban areas to deal with existing circumstances.

The paper refers to the benefit of a single financial authority helping to improve the management of debts. I saw in my own case a county council that was mired in debt while the town council administrative area was running a surplus. The financial model was sound as it allowed the town council, an autonomous body that was not mired in debt, to go to the banks and arrange finance and loans to develop social amenities such as theatres and parks. The case made in the paper can be unpicked when we consider examples such as the one I described.

I will address the issue of powers. The paper addresses the shortcomings and weaknesses in the former town council arrangements. It states they made only a marginal input into the overall local government system of governance, service provision and representation. That is a shocking statement. During my 17 years as a councillor, I worked on town plans and county council plans. I saw many positive things happen because of good town development plans. It was good governance and we were able to achieve far greater things. If, by virtue of the national plans the Government is introducing, we are working towards greater urbanisation, we should have a system of government that reflects this objective. We need to strengthen the local government system to give these large urban areas the proper local governance they deserve. People living in major towns - Deputy O'Dowd referred to Drogheda - will engage first and foremost in their local area.

Rows break out every month at the plenary meetings of county councils about where budgets are being spent. That is because major urban centres have not been allowed autonomous budgets. This is becoming a major issue and urban areas are under pressure as a result. Engagement with the Local Authority Members' Association, LAMA, and the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, has been suggested. There is a disconnect somewhere. I met representatives of the AILG several times this year, including last week in Buswells Hotel and in this House, and I was told the paper was a misrepresentation of the AILG's views. The association indicated it was prepared to see if things bedded down over a five-year period. Perhaps the Minister of State was given a different message. I am highlighting what was said to me. The AILG referred to the workload that would arise if a cohort of councillors was removed. Councillors may be telling the Minister of State there is no problem and the system does not need to be changed. However, the councillors who were removed as a result of the abolition of town councils cannot say anything because they are no longer in place.

It is most important to engage with the residents of these areas, for example, people who cannot see an improvement in their estate or town because of the redistribution of funding as a result of the new system. The key point is that councillors with their arses on seats in county councils will be always be happy. It is those who no longer have a seat that will give out. We should stand up for the people living in the towns where councils were abolished. If all parties, including the AILG, were in the same room when this issue was being discussed, we could have an honest debate about proper local governance in the country.

The Minister of State is 100% right on the issue of mayors. There is no point providing for the direct election of mayors - and I am speaking from one politician to another - if we do not give them proper powers. On the question of whether directly elected mayors should have executive powers at the same level as county managers and chief executives, mayors in other parts of Europe operate like a mini-Taoiseach. They appoint a mini-cabinet and councillors have portfolios such as responsibility for social amenities, housing, etc. We could do much more in local governance. Senator Boyhan is right about empowering councillors and giving them real responsibility. If they mess up, local people will know who messed up or made a hames of the delivery of services in the town in question. The same cannot be said of an official because no one ever sees officials. Let us roll the dice, empower councillors and give them the power to deliver services. If they make a mess of delivering services and amenities for their towns, they will be held accountable and lose office at the next election. Councillors can blame officials when things go wrong and take the praise when things go right. It works both ways and we should look at that also.

I will finish shortly. I am passionate about this issue.

The Deputy has spoken for ten minutes already.

This is just like the report of the Minister of State.

On boundaries, I am glad it will no longer be possible to alter a boundary between two local authorities without the consent of both. We have problems as all of us can see in our counties. For example, Drogheda has sprawled into County Meath leading to an attempted land grab. Since then, an attempt has been made to secure city status for the town which would encompass even more areas of County Meath. The proposal is not feasible. This issue must be addressed and I am glad the report makes proposals in this area. I agree with Senator Boyhan that the independent commission must report promptly.

On budgets, the report focuses too much on the deficiencies the authors believe were in the old town council system without acknowledging the major benefits of town councils, including the delivery of good governance. It is fine if people have an agenda that they do not want to see town councils re-established. I want them re-established in certain major urban areas and I will continue to fight in this committee to see proposed legislation in this area progressed. The report attacks the previous system and highlights only what was bad. The failure to consider what was done right means we miss out on the delivery of good services at town level.

I do not think we will ever agree about the reforms of 2014. I have a fundamental view when it comes to voting that one person one vote applies.

That applies equally in local authority areas. The situation that existed in Navan and in many towns across the country, where some people got two ballot papers and others only got one, is democratically unsustainable. I have no great difficulty with the origins of our Victorian system of town governance. I do not see a reason that we cannot integrate town governance into the broader local authority. That will mean additional funds and staff. Many Oireachtas Members have spoken to me about the issue that Deputies O'Dowd and Cassells have raised about having that structure in the municipal district of a town.

I emphasise that the terms of reference of the boundary review that is about to be completed specifically focussed on towns of 15,000 and upwards. Those towns will have their own municipal district. I have visited some local authorities where staff resources have been diverted to municipal districts, but I accept it is hit and miss throughout the county. As part of the strengthening process, we should consider increasing the staffing of municipal districts. Deputy Cassells referred to the role of the town clerk. Significant investment in staff would not be required, but it would be a good idea to have personnel to bring about a little local activity, action and management.

Deputy Cassells referred to the AILG and LAMA and the differences between what he was told and what I was told. It could not have been made clearer to me in any meetings I have had with both organisations that they oppose the reintroduction of town councils and support the beefing up of municipal districts. It was not said in a way that sent out a mixed message. The officials who are present today were with me at those meetings and it was made clear.

I refer to the relationship between the county council structure and the larger towns that used to have town councils. Part of the argument the Deputy made about Meath County Council being mired in debt whereas the town ran a surplus is a good example of why the integration of the financial resources was the correct action to take. The cost of delivering services in large rural areas, in particular, is much greater that it will ever be in a town with a dense population. We have 31 local authorities and that will be reduced by one in the next six to seven years. That is a sufficient number.

That was not the reason Meath County Council was mired in debt.

I do not know the ins and outs but I know when I look across the country and see other counties where the county town does well, and a good example is my own county, Kilkenny city is a strong county town and always has been. There was severe opposition to the abolition of Kilkenny Borough Council which was there for hundreds of years. It should not have been abolished and it should have been integrated properly within the county council structure and the review that is under way will, hopefully, achieve that. I hope we will do the same for Navan, ensure it has its own municipal district and have a beefed-up staff and will be properly integrated into a unitary local government structure throughout the country, rather than returning to the old system where in certain towns with a town council, if someone received 30 or 40 votes, he or she would become a town councillor. I acknowledge town councils could have been abolished and others could have been kept but the principle of having one system of local government rather than trying a mishmash of two, which was what existed, was behind the change. We should make the changes necessary to ensure the reforms work well in practice.

Regarding financial autonomy, I do not want to go into too much detail on the variations in rates because a commercial rates Bill will be before the committee in a number of weeks, which will give autonomy to municipal districts to retain rates within the district if they choose to vary commercial rates and vacancy refunds as well. We are in strong discussions with several different Departments about the allocations they are making to local authorities, including the Department of Rural and Community Development, which provides up to €40 million under two schemes. The villages and towns selected for those schemes should be decided by the municipal district members. There is no reason for it to go to the plenary session of the council. The Department of Rural and Community Development is inclined to agree with us. We should be in a position to make that change. The funding provided by central Government to the local authorities could not, and should not, be devolved to the municipal district. In advance of the formation of the next municipal districts in May 2019, we want to ensure that the allocation that is given centrally to local authorities can be broken down much further to municipal districts. The rows about funding at the plenary session mentioned by the Deputy happen in many councils. Those decisions should be made at municipal district level. The plenary session should be about the wider policy issues for the entire local authority. That was envisaged in the legislation originally and some local authorities keep those funding questions for municipal district level. There needs to be standardisation across the board as to how funding matters are dealt with and how and what issues the plenary session of the county council should deal with.

I welcome the Minister and his officials to the meeting. I would like to focus on the local authority boundaries and, in particular, the boundaries in the south east, which is considered a regional growth centre under Project Ireland 2040. Demographics are changing and it is recognised that economic growth is needed in the area, considering that the unemployment rate has increased over the past number of years. Will the Minister of State provide an update on the alteration of the boundary which would give Waterford city and county effective control of the immediate hinterland of Waterford city, particularly with regard to the north bank and the River Suir and the potential for growth in this strategic development area?

We are singing off the same hymn sheet regarding the south east. It has never ceased to amaze me since I first became a Senator 16 years ago that when investment in the regions was raised, Senators from the west would rise one after the other and support each other and their region and party political colours went out the window whereas that lack of cohesiveness in the south east was always apparent because of the rivalry between different counties. That is grand for the sporting field but it is not a sustainable way to develop the region, an economy or a society. Equally, when one considers the location of our region, it is within easy reach of Cork and Dublin and is accessible via three motorways, two rail lines, and three ports, two of which are of international scale. I was always puzzled as to why we had the lowest average disposable household incomes in the country and the lowest third level attendance rates, even at the height of the Celtic tiger. There was a brain drain. The development of a university in our region has been an ongoing process, but at least the legislative framework is in place now and the two colleges in Carlow and Waterford are working together to bid for university status. Many young people leave our region and do not come back and the reason average household incomes are lower in our region than anywhere else is those who go on to third and fourth level education and earn higher incomes do not tend to return to the region. The region is also highly dependent on agriculture and tourism, sectors that do not tend to generate the highest incomes.

That is why I believe the development of the university which is an agonisingly slow process but which is starting to happen is so important.

On the issue of the boundary, decisions were made before my time that the report outlining the potential for co-operation between the authorities in Waterford and Kilkenny was not going to be implemented. The decision I have made is that we have to force co-operation between the authorities in Waterford and Kilkenny and also between other neighbouring authorities across the country. When I was a member of a local authority almost 20 years ago, meetings did not take place. I live 200 yards from the boundary between Waterford and Kilkenny and there were never discussions on matters of mutual interest and concern. Such meetings started to take place for the first time in the last couple of years. The structure about which we are talking will put that process on a statutory footing.

Senator Grace O'Sullivan spoke about the north quays. It is a landmark development for the region. In the future, when any Government agency, Department or organisation is looking at Waterford in the context of transportation or development, this structure will have the authority to make the decisions on zoning designation, land use and transportation and the economic marketing of areas. Waterford is a good example. The Senator's family are based in Tramore which is not considered under the national planning framework to be part of Waterford city, yet most of the people living there work in the city. I am not saying we should develop the space between Tramore and Waterford city into a sprawl, but one cannot look at Waterford city without looking at Tramore or the Port of Waterford which is in Slieverue, County Kilkenny. The new structure will be able to look at the entire area. On the boundary issue, it was never a runner because of the sense of county identity in Ireland which would not allow such a change to happen. However, that does not preclude us from looking at new ways of developing important regional hubs. Waterford is the capital of the south east and suffered during the recessionary years. Things are now beginning to improve in Waterford city, with the recent development of the Apple Market and the huge potential of the north quays. The new structure has not been thrashed out, but it will be part of the local government Bill which is due to be brought before the Government in the next few weeks and the Oireachtas by the summer. We will have an opportunity to have a further discussion on how it will actually operate in practice.

I want to discuss the issues of council powers and directly elected mayors.

Local authorities have seen their powers diminish year after year in recent times. For 12 years I was a member of a local authority - Cork City Council - and witnessed that diminishment of powers. For example, bin collection services were run by councils, but they were then privatised across the country. Alongside the privatisation of bin collection services we saw the introduction of bin charges. That privatisation has come at a high cost to taxpayers. It is a hidden cost - the cost of illegal dumping. I am totally opposed to illegal dumping, but one does not need to be a rocket scientist to work out that if a service is privatised and charges are introduced which tend to rise over a period of time, there will be illegal dumping and that it will increase over time. However, the private companies have pocketed the profits and the taxpayer is picking up the tab for the massive clean-up operation. I was given figures by officials in the environment department of Cork City Council which indicated that there had been a more than tenfold increase in illegal dumping in the period from privatisation and the introduction of the charges.

Another service that has been reduced is housing provision. In one particular year when I was a member of the council the housing budget was reduced by 90% for local authority house building. The number of local authority houses built in recent years was in the low hundreds nationally. The Government will argue that the process has been reversed and that local authority house building is being ramped up. If it is, it is happening far too slowly, but councils are handicapped by the fact that the direct labour units that were once available - councils had their own bricklayers, carpenters and skilled tradespersons - are no longer available and the work is being farmed out to private operators. The tendering system is holding things up, causing delays in the middle of a housing crisis.

When I was a member of the council, it controlled water services, but we then had the creation of Irish Water. The Vice Chairman is raising his eyebrows because he does not want to get into that topic, but I make the point in passing that it is clear that there was a privatisation agenda. However, it was stymied and blocked by the protest campaign. Nevertheless, control of water services is no longer in the hands of the local authorities. I could go on. I have given as examples waste management, housing and water services. I am surprised that the Minister of State has asked councillors what extra powers they might be given and that no response has been given. I could answer the question very easily and have pinpointed a number of issues straight off the bat. If I had more time, I could go further.

I do not believe the issue of directly elected mayors is totally separate and unrelated. There has been a drive towards market policies, neoliberalism, privatisation and the stripping of powers from local authorities and the issue of directly elected mayors is now on the agenda. Directly elected mayors in cities like Dublin and Cork will be relatively powerful, rising above the powers of councillors to a certain extent as they fashion themselves to having a kind of chief executive officer role. The two things go hand in hand - on the one hand, powerful chief executive officers and, on the other, a neoliberal policy directed at local authorities throughout the State. The people would be far better served if we were to reverse gears and scrap the policy on directly elected mayors and instead gave councils real powers, starting with the restoration of powers in areas such as bin collection services and the establishment of direct labour units in housing departments. We should not just reverse the cuts but also seriously increase the finance available to councils in order that they could get to grips with these issues.

I suspect that we do not agree on many of the issues raised by the Deputy in the first half of his contribution. I come from a very rural part of County Kilkenny and have to admit that in the past ten or 15 years there has been an increase in illegal dumping. There are about 10,000 acres of State forestry just above my home place and the scale of illegal dumping is huge. It is in close proximity to a number of large urban centres and while the local authority does great work in trying to tidy up the mess, there is no doubt that there has been a huge increase in illegal dumping in certain parts of the country and that it is a blight on the landscape.

Generally, local authorities respond quickly. While issues can arise with site ownership when dumping takes place on private property, I tend to find that councils are responsive enough.

The privatisation of bin collection services has been discussed on many occasions. It is true that it is an example of an activity in which councils were previously involved, but they no longer have this power. However, they still have forums in which they deal with waste, water and housing service matters. Some local authorities kept their housing maintenance functions when they lost the broader house-building function, which means that there are still some tradesmen operating within local authorities. A large number of houses came into local authority use at the height of the Celtic tiger when Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 was working reasonably well, if somewhat differently from local authority to local authority. The reality is that after ten years of recession, many builders have left the country. Many people of my age who were involved in the construction sector have left it. As a result of this and the change that took place with Part V, local authorities have been removed from the direct provision of local authority housing. There are many houses at various stages of planning and development across the country. I do not think it matters to the recipient of a local authority house whether the house is built by somebody who is directly employed by a local authority or by a developer on licence or contract to the local authority. The problem is that we do not have enough local authority houses, but more are being developed.

This is the first time I have heard Deputy Mick Barry or anybody from his group speak about the issue of directly elected mayors, on which I have an open mind. I can see that in certain places across the world benefits have accrued from giving a specific person responsibility for some of the functions of the executive. We will have a broader discussion when the paper goes to the Government and is brought back here for discussion by members of the committee. I am not sure directly elected mayors are part of a larger neoliberal agenda in the way described by the Deputy. I agree with Deputy Shane Cassells that local democracy would not be advanced by creating a position without giving it sufficient functions, powers, roles and scope. I do not suggest we could not give additional powers, functions and roles to directly elected office holders in the future, if that is what the Oireachtas decides. I am not sure whether Mr. Lemass has anything to add to what I have said.

Mr. Paul Lemass

I would like to make the point briefly-----

As our engagement is with the Minister of State, I need to obtain the approval of members before Mr. Lemass interjects. Is it agreed that he should speak?

We are always interested in what Mr. Lemass has to say.

Mr. Paul Lemass

The changes made in 2014 gave local authorities a number of powers. In respect of the community function, for example, they were given a hands-on role under the Leader, SICAP and other programmes. They were also given additional enterprise support functions. The funding for local enterprise offices goes directly to local authorities. The question of economic development at local level is probably not discussed frequently enough. The chief executives of local authorities, in particular, are stepping up to take a leadership role in ensuring the various State agencies are co-operating at local level. The regeneration of Tralee town centre is a very good example of this. The Courts Service, IDA Ireland and other agencies were brought together to bring about a very positive development in the town. County councils have been strengthened in these areas.

The Minister of State referred to devolution, on which we have had numerous reports. They have tended to be top-down, by which I mean that they have proposed consultation with Departments to see who would like to devolve something. In the paper, without giving a hostage to fortune, there is a view that an opportunity should be given for bottom-up dynamic devolution. It would enable people to identify the potential for the local authority to play a role in the provision of services at local level. This different mindset might give a little more momentum to the devolution agenda. It might be considered in the forthcoming paper.

I understand Deputy Shane Cassells would like to make a further point.

I thank the Vice Chairman for letting me back in.

I would like to ask the Minister of State about the proposals related to local authority boundaries. He said in response to questions asked by another member of the committee that the new statutory joint structures, under option 3, will be placed on a statutory footing. He mentioned that the structures would encompass zoning powers. I have not seen the word "zoning" used in this context previously. Option 3 originally referred to a focus on spatial planning, which suggested to me that it would involve planners working collaboratively. The Minister of State specifically used the word "zoning".

If I did, it was in error. I was talking about land use designation rather than zoning.

Okay. If these structures encompass statutory powers, will there be collaboration among senior planners only? When plans for these areas are being compiled, will the affected elected members from the adjoining municipal areas come together in a room to try to reach agreement?

Okay. That is a progressive way of doing business. If we are being honest with one another, we know that there are tensions on both sides in all of the areas mentioned in the report. It all boils down to where resources are being spent and where resources are coming from. That is where this is really being driven. People in Drogheda say people coming across the border from County Meath are accessing their services, but they are not getting any of the funds raised from the local property tax on the Meath side of the border. The Minister of State has provided an outline of his plans to address such deficiencies. Perhaps he might flesh out how it would come to pass. He has dealt specifically with spatial and transport planning. We both know what is at play. An attempt is being made to acquire resources. That was specifically at play in the scenario in my home county. People on one side could see significant resources being raised on the other side. It was all about where the money was going.

If I used the word "zoning", I emphasise that it was unintentional.

Zoning is a function that is reserved separately for each authority. Equally, responsibility for the raising of finance through commercial rates or the local property tax will remain with individual authorities. These groups will be set out in the local government Bill that is due to be discussed in the coming weeks. It is possible that additional powers will be given to this structure if that is agreed to by both local authorities. I have mentioned as an example Carlow where there has been a long-standing agreement for 40 years on shared services. I envisage that this group will have these responsibilities in that area. In other places throughout the country it is about performing functions that are not being performed or that are being inadequately performed by local authorities. I will mention as an example the transport infrastructure along the border between Waterford city and County Kilkenny which is the scenario I know best. Traditionally, there has been just one bridge in Waterford city centre because the River Suir is so wide. I hope a joint application for funding to enable the development of the second bridge that is needed will be made by Waterford City and County Council and Kilkenny County Council in the near future. Issues such as the practicalities of traffic flow have to be considered. The proposals made by Waterford City and County Council, as they stand, stop at the boundary. The proposals made by Kilkenny County Council, as they stand, stop at the boundary. There is no integration of the plans on either side. This applies not just to transport but also to retail and spatial planning.

Is it envisaged that someone at departmental level who is independent of both authorities will act as a chairperson to knock heads together?

I reiterate that the process is at an early stage and that nothing has been finalised. The current regional structure might have some resonance with the general public in the greater Dublin area but not in the southern region of the country which extends from County Wexford to County Clare.

Equally, however, there are three specific former regions, the south east, the south west and the mid-west that are in that area and I envisage that rather than creating a new structure at that level that the management and the organisation of the regional authority would play the role of getting people to put their heads together, whether locking them together or tapping them together. We do not need to create a full new back office, but there must be some capability in the regional structure to act as the head knocker.

There is a great deal happening and much is proposed to happen. There is the local government Bill, the Private Member's Local Government Accountability Bill 2018. We need to be mindful that the local elections take place in 2019.

There could be many elections in 2019.

We might have a few before then. We might have a few this November.

There are many people in local government thinking of getting out. The Minister of State will know, if he is honest that his own party is finding it difficult to get candidates. An increasing number of people want to run as independent candidates, which is amazing. That is resulting from the politicisation of people in local communities and on significant national issues. I am amazed at the number of inquiries I am getting.

It is important that we consult these people and their representative groups as much as we can throughout the process. It should be done in modules because there is so much going on. LAMA and the AILG are the representative bodies and they enjoy enormous support in the sector among the elected members. That is perhaps the best vehicle to do all that. It might just be best to have modules specifically targeted on legislation. I have attended many meetings where they talked about everything else bar policy. Sometimes it is nice to have really focussed discussions on policy and local government. The local government elections are taking place in May 2019. It is important that the candidates know as much as possible. I do not wish to dwell on the remuneration issue, but it is important. Many local authority members representing political parties are leaving, particularly young women with families, which is sad. Much of this is down to economics and the time they can commit to serve and whether they can afford to stay at it. Most people are not doing it for the money but they are now saying their partners are telling them to get a life, get a job where they are paid and valued for 40 hours a week, not 60 hours a week. People who want to stay in this business are crying out for support and they need to know what is being planned for them, sooner rather later. If the Government is not going to pay until later, they need to be told that. They need to know what to expect if they were to go forward again.

The objective, which is still on course, is that this remuneration group will produce an interim report by Hallowe'en, which will offer a route or a mechanism to link the pay of councillors directly to a grade in the public service.

Will the Minister of State publish that report at Hallowe'en?

Yes. The Senator's point is correct. Whether it is related to boundaries or remuneration, people are entitled to know in advance before they make decisions on whether they will stand.

I do not deal with these matters on a national level, but there is no shortage of people looking to run for the Fine Gael Party in the local elections in County Kilkenny.

That is good news.

It is not just about the remuneration; it is about pension entitlements and other supports. Some local authorities provide secretarial supports. The Taoiseach in his initial discussions with me about this matter was adamant that local authorities should provide not just secretarial support but research facilities. That might mean one person in a local authority who can check the statute on XYZ and find out where the reserved function or the executive function lies at local authority level. Those matters will be considered by the oversight group. It is not just the level of pay but also the issue of expenses. Councillors are linked to the general Civil Service expenses regime but also they need to be linked to similar schemes that exist for Oireachtas Members. They are all based on the one level of remuneration but councillors should be treated like every other public representative and members of the wider public service.

I wish to comment on the process. Let us revert to the establishment of the municipal districts and the town councils. Bray, in my area, has a significant population of between 25,000 and 30,000. There is a critical mass of people where it does not make sense to have a municipal district. The issue is identifying that figure. There are large populations in Bray and even in Wicklow town, which is getting close to 15,000, and the system gets bogged down in trying to implement measures. Not only do they have to be agreed to a municipal level, they then have to be forwarded to local authority level to be adopted. That delays and stagnates the process. Deputy Cassells mentioned a point that I had never thought of, which is that town councils were never allowed to expand the population in their area. For example, the population immediately outside of Wicklow town was 50% of that in the town. The town council was not allowed to expand because the county council wanted to maintain its commercial rate base.

On the issue of finance, it did not matter whether a town council or a county council ran a deficit, the issue was how it was managed. That was down to management, not down to the status of the council. We had bad county councils and we had bad town councils but that was down to the management of finance in both fora. When one reads the documents, it appears the Minister is half indicating that we can call a municipal district with a population of 15,000 a town district. He is replacing the word "council" with "district". Are we reverting?

The Minister of State states that he will give town councils more financial powers and more financial autonomy. Equally, he made a statement there would be efficiencies in going back to one finance system. If each municipal district has financial autonomy and is given powers in respect of commercial rates and parking charges, together with changes to the local property tax, we are going back to the same financial model. The Minister of State is giving them the strength. I am not too sure why he will not say there is a move back to the town council model in what is being put before us here.

There is a critical population level at which the county council structure does not work and, therefore, significant powers and resources need to be given to a municipal body to tackle that. It is not working in Bray in respect of housing, rent collection, and planning, especially in respect of the town plan. Two processes have to be gone through to get anything done.

The point the vice chairman has made is virtually identical to the first point that Deputy Fergus O'Dowd made. There are similarities between Bray and Drogheda in that sense. I will certainly talk to my colleagues regarding the planning and development proposals under the national development plan and whether further resources can be given to the districts with towns that have experienced large development and where significant development will take place in the next few years.

The Vice Chairman also struck the nail on the head in respect of what we are saying about towns. We are not going back to town councils, partly because some places had town councils and others that were much bigger did not. Some boundaries did not reflect the modern reality of towns but a town should not be seen in isolation. Most towns have a natural hinterland. What is envisaged in the review that is about to be published on 13 June is that the natural hinterland will be included with the town and that it will not just end at an arbitrary town boundary that might have been fixed in the 1950s, and that additional fundraising powers, as well as spending powers, will be given to municipal districts. It is a halfway house in comparison to what was there previously and some of the changes that were made.

However, the primary issue was the lack of democracy in giving some people two votes and others one. That is fundamentally wrong. What we are trying to do, and what I hope and believe that the report due on 13 June will achieve, is a proper merger of town governance in one local authority. A total of 30 is a sufficient number of local authorities for the size of the country. Wicklow had town councils in Arklow, Bray, Greystones and Wicklow.

Greystones was only a town commission.

No, it had been made a town council. The commissions were abolished 15 or 20 years ago. They were all made town councils. However, the Vice Chairman is right in that it was originally a town commission. There were five local authorities in Wicklow, which did not make sense. I do not know the population off the top of my head, but I am guessing it is about 140,000. One local authority is a proper governance figure for that population. It is now a question of trying to tweak the changes that were made in 2014. We might need more of a yank to the changes that were made in 2014 to get them to be more responsive, particularly from a town governance point of view.

As Deputies O'Dowd and Cassells said, even concerning housing issues, trying to get through two layers of government to get an answer slows everything down. The issue is agreeing the critical population to move to a different level and provide an improved service.

What are the next steps in the process? When will the outstanding reports be published?

They will all be published before summer. We will have a local government Bill and the reports before summer. I expect to be back to the committee before summer.

There is one question I meant to touch on. Colleagues have asked me to raise this and they would murder me if I did not. Galway city and county-----

Does the Senator mean his councillor colleagues?

My colleagues, friends and councillors in Galway city and county. The great old Progressive Democrats stronghold is still out there in the guise of independents.

As has been said, "They haven't gone away, you know."

What is the plan? Clearly there is a process under way. Will it be implemented in the short term?

I cannot answer directly. I will report to Government on Wednesday, when, hopefully, a decision will be made.

What type of decision will be made?

Senator Boyhan will be aware of the report that was published by the group.

The Government will make a decision on that report and on further actions or otherwise on foot of that report.

I thank the Minister of State and his officials for attending and engaging with the committee. A number of reforms are ongoing in the area of local government, and we will probably meet again to consider the topic further. As he said, he might see us before the end of summer.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.24 a.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 June 2018.