Green Paper on Local Government Reform: Discussion.

I welcome the delegations that have come to the meeting to discuss the recently published Green Paper on local government reform. We have representatives from the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, the Association of County and City Councils and the Local Authorities Members Association. I thank them for attending today's meeting. The format of the meeting involves a brief presentation from each of the delegations, followed by questions and answers.

Before commencing your presentations I wish to draw your attention to the fact that Members of the Oireachtas have absolute privilege but the same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I understand Councillor Cáit Keane will make the presentation on behalf of the Local Authorities Members' Association. Councillor Keane may proceed.

Ms Cáit Keane

On behalf of the Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA, I thank the committee for welcoming us to this meeting. LAMA has set up a working group that has prepared a discussion paper on the Green Paper. The former has been circulated to every council member. The working group has requested responses and comments on the paper prior to LAMA's submission to the Minister. To facilitate ease of communication, we have established an e-mail address at Verbally, one can contact a LAMA representative. We have encouraged LAMA representatives to attend all information meetings so that they can revert to us with an informed opinion on the Green Paper.

Last Monday, LAMA met the ACCC and the AMAI and has agreed joint submissions on agreed topics. We have scheduled another meeting for 23 July. I preface it by saying that the LAMA executive will meet on 5 July, but will not sign off on any issue until well after that date because the submission will not be made before 31 July. It will not be possible to get agreement on everything, but we will approach the matter with an informed opinion.

On the issue of a directly elected mayor for Dublin, which is raised on page 3 of the Green Paper, the programme for Government is committed to having a directly elected mayor for Dublin by 2011 and "possibly" for other cities at a later stage. As committee members are aware of the contents of the Green Paper on this subject, I will not outline anything. LAMA will make final recommendations on this. The issue of a regional, directly elected, full-time and salaried mayor for Dublin seems to be coming to the fore in our initial discussions, including some agreement for a directly elected mayor in other cities. However, this matter must be addressed by LAMA. The elected mayor should be an additional member.

I am a LAMA member of South Dublin County Council, which has established a committee to consider this matter. After that consideration, it can be negotiated by the full council. The Dublin group will meet in July to determine whether we can make a full submission, but the question is up in the air.

The overall consensus is that the powers of a mayor are important, as there is no point in having a ceremonial role. There has been enough of such. The principle of subsidiarity by transferring the balance of power from the centre to the councils and from the manager to the elected representative is high on the agenda of elected members. Thus, the recommendation of the transfer of additional powers from the executive to elected mayors must be spelled out. The current proposal is loose and all councillors are concerned about what is coming down the track. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

While recognising that efficient delivery of services based on economies of scale across counties is working in Dublin for certain services, such as waste and water, it is important to bear in mind the principal of subsidiarity and that the transfer of responsibilities to local areas where there are no cost advantages to regional provision must be a priority. LAMA will make a submission on this. Any function of local authorities and their members not deemed by law to be a reserved function is an executive function. For many years, the reserved functions of elected members have been reduced further and further while those of managers have been increased.

The Dublin regional authority, which comprises representatives from Fingal County Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, South Dublin County Council and Dublin City Council, has made a submission on the Green Paper recommending direct elections to it in respect of all of its members. It has also suggested that a directly elected regional mayor would lead to coherent governance across the wider Dublin area, with a metropolitan mayor's office under the auspices of the regional authority. Agreed strategic devolved functions would be outlined.

The Green Paper's recommendation in respect of SPC chairs has a five-year term. LAMA has discussed the matter and, in its final recommendation, may agree to it. The Green Paper acknowledges that more than one option regarding directly elected council and city mayors could be applied in different circumstances or that certain options could be tested on a pilot basis. Unlike in other situations, one can revert from a pilot basis. From initial soundings with LAMA members, there does not seem to be overall agreement on the question of directly elected mayors among the counties. The question of municipal or city authorities other than Dublin having directly elected, full-time and salaried mayors may be agreed for implementation, which will be stressed by the AMAI in its representations. LAMA may also recommend this measure, but the executive must agree to it on 5 July.

As the balance of power between the manager and the elected representatives has been a recurring theme, I will not discuss it. The ending of the dual mandate has had an impact on the role of councillors, with most considering that they are under more pressure to provide services to their constituents on local authority issues. The operation of local governance, with increases in the number of meetings and the requirement to take time off work, makes it more difficult for elected members to perform their functions. The Green Paper identifies a range of financial supports provided for councillors in recent years, but a recurring theme noted in our consultations is the increasing workload in meetings and a more demanding electorate. Councillors should be properly remunerated with pensions.

For many, these factors have made the role of a councillor unmanageable. I draw the committee's attention to the number of resignations, most notably in Dublin City Council, but also reflected elsewhere. On South Dublin County Council, two young councillors who could not keep up with the council's demands resigned in as many months. We must ensure that not only retired personnel are capable of devoting time to local government.

The question of full-time councillors is mentioned in the Green Paper, with a subsequent reduction in the number of councillors. LAMA has not decided on this matter, but there seems to be no enthusiasm for the proposal for all councillors to be full-time per se. Getting leave from work is also mentioned, as is the recommendation of a full-time corporate policy group. However, this matter must be discussed by LAMA. Diversity in membership is an important point to bear in mind because one could rule out several valuable people who, due to reasons of other work, would not be able to join a council full-time.

An independent secretariat for councillors for research purposes and so on has been recommended. LAMA's members find making submissions such as this one difficult because they must conduct research themselves.

The Green Paper notes that, while there are more than 1,500 local councillors, there seems to be no great call for the number to be increased. It is noted that a move to reduce numbers in areas with small population to compensate for increases elsewhere could give rise to significant opposition. The Green Paper states that there may be arguments for some minor adjustments to reflect, for example, population changes within the Dublin local authority areas. Given that every city has experienced a considerable increase in population, this issue is coming to the fore and must be examined. We will press this point in our submission.

The Green Paper comments that the system of financial support for conference attendance "may need to be revised to encourage more in-house training, reduce incentives in the system which encourage undue travel, and ensure fuller participation in conferences". LAMA believes that ongoing councillor training is necessary and that regular self-development and community development courses should be provided. However, the methodology for their delivery must be outlined. With other representative organisations, we have agreed to prepare a joint submission to the Minister on this issue. We will have further meetings in this respect. Remuneration, compensation, increases in representational payments — or whatever methodology to ensure participation — and incentives for training and development are important.

I respect and appreciate the opinions of the AMAI, which is the representative body for town councils, and stress its work. We may express particular biases when we discuss each other's counties or towns. My comments refer to the initial findings of LAMA's working group regarding new town councils. The impression is that the area committee system is a positive feature of local government that should be further strengthened to enable area committees to carry out their role more efficiently and effectively. The further devolution of functions for appropriate functions to be delivered on an area basis must also be considered. There does not seem to be any eagerness or appetite to provide for further urban or town councils, even in areas where the population has increased dramatically.

The Green Paper outlines a number of options around encouraging civic participation in local government decision making, such as participatory budgeting, petition rights, plebiscites, town-area meetings, community groups and participative and representative democracy. It has been agreed that we and the other bodies will make specific joint recommendations in this regard. Diluting the power of the councillor must be avoided at all stages.

Members all know about the importance of serving the needs of the citizen. Customers' charters are in vogue in many local authorities. It is important that what is written down in them is implemented and regular revision is necessary. We may even recommend putting this on a statutory basis. Recruitment and staffing policies is another area exercising the minds of our members.

On the issue of regional governance, I spoke about the Dublin Regional Authority, but LAMA has noted that the larger gateway cities such as Limerick, Cork, Galway and Waterford are referred to in the Green Paper as another option. That is another matter altogether. This matter is the subject of serious discussion in LAMA. It is not necessarily the case that what goes for Dublin would definitely go for other major regions. The only comment I can make is that initial soundings do not appear very positive. The Green Paper suggests a pilot scheme in, for example, the Limerick-Shannon area. As our LAMA secretary is Limerick based and one of our four working groups is Clare based, we might be well qualified to comment on this, but again we could be accused of being biased.

With regard to local government and national Government working together, the Green Paper refers to the link between the Department and the City and County Managers Association. It identifies the requirement for constant effort to ensure that results come from this engagement to ensure that good initiatives and ideas are followed up and implemented. Councillors and members also have good ideas. Where is the equivalent link for members? The question of a statutory system of consultation should be provided between national Government and local government for members and this is under consideration by LAMA.

Where initiatives being introduced by central government impose new obligations on and cause great difficulties for local authorities, the implications of these obligations, as stated in the Green Paper, "should be clearly set out. In particular any additional costs for local authorities should be set out." The Green Paper does not mention the provision of funding following the setting out of these obligations. That point that needs to be considered.

The role of a separate legal adviser is under discussion by LAMA for recommendation.

On the issue of the Local Government Commission and boundaries, the LAMA executive has not met since the recent review was published. Suffice it to say local government was not to the fore in its recommendations. Dáil constituency boundary lines took precedence over any consideration of area based governance, as was the brief given. If the establishment of a Local Government Commission reflected some of the same attitude as a boundary commission, it would not inspire confidence and would need careful consideration on whether the provisions, as already outlined, which provide for the commission could be repealed and new processes put in place. LAMA will make a considered response on this.

On the issue of finance, recommending local taxation right before a local election, which may be laudable, might be problematic. It is noted that a new Commission on Taxation has been established. The proposal regarding a betterment tax is noted for consideration. The section on collection efficiency in the Green Paper is also noted, namely, that any form of local taxation would have to be examined in the context of efficiency of collection, ease of payment and adjustments for the less well-off. It is stated in the Green Paper that such mechanisms may be difficult to put in place at local government level, but I will not comment further on funding other than to say that the current needs and resources model of funding, which helps inform the allocations under the local government fund, needs a radical overhaul and for transparency to be built into it. There was reference to discretionary decisions on funding in the Green Paper, which we would welcome, subject to agreement by LAMA.

On the issue of ethics and expenditure limits, it has been agreed that a joint position from the representative associations will be submitted on this. From discussions it is considered that expenditure limits should be put in place for local elections. On-line exposure for members, as outlined in the Green Paper, was a strong concern expressed by many members.

Local authorities should be given more co-ordinating roles where other agencies are involved in service delivery. We have heard of the vast number of agencies, quangos being another name for them, exercising the minds of all members. I will finish on that note.

On behalf of LAMA, our chairperson, Mr. Billy lreland, who had to leave, the working group in attendance, Councillor Tom Costello, Councillor Colm Wiley who had to leave, John Carey and Councillor Alan Mitchell, I thank the members of the committee for listening to our presentation. We will take any questions members may have on it.

I thank Ms Keane for her presentation. I invite the president of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, Mr. Dermot Collins, to proceed with his presentation.

Mr. Dermot Collins

I am joined by my colleague, Councillor Patricia McCarthy. I sincerely thank the Chairman and members for affording the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, AMAI, this opportunity to present its case on local government reform.

As members will appreciate the AMAI is primarily concerned with the future of town local government in Ireland. We have already submitted a detailed submission to the consultative committee, a copy of which members will have received. I do not propose to detain members by going through the 20 pages of that submission, given that they have a copy of it.

The AMAI, is delighted that local government reform is back on the table and we hope that on this occasion it means business. Too often in the past we were promised reform and ended up with the lifeblood being sucked out of local government.

In the past 15 years, Ireland has changed from being a rural to an urban-based society, largely because our economy has changed from agriculture to one dependent on industry and the services sector. The Ireland of 2008 is a different place, which recently has seen an annual population increase of more than 2%, or approximately 100,000 people, each year. The economic and population growth of the past 15 years has taken place largely in the towns and suburbs. This makes a sound tier of sub-government all the more critical.

The former Taoiseach faced up to this challenge by setting up the task force on active citizenship to examine how best we could involve all our citizens in their communities. That group clearly identified that there was a disconnect between the citizen and the political system, particularly in urban areas. We now have a golden opportunity — perhaps the last opportunity — to address this issue in the reform process. The consequences of not acting will be to end up with communities that have no sense of identity or belonging, like our nearest neighbours. We must all work together and change the local government system for the better. If we do not avail of this moment in time, we will live to regret it.

Despite the scenario I have described, in recent years life has been sucked out of the town local government. The trend is to centralise the system, super-size the units of local government and create a greater distance between the citizen and the system. That exercise in empire building might be welcome for creating an ever-increasing, highly paid local government establishment but it flies in the face of democracy and serving the citizen, which is the purpose of local government.

As we speak, work is under way already to remove the housing function from all borough town councils throughout the country. The citizen must have their housing needs dealt with locally and by a system to which they feel close. This measure is being taken without any consultation with the elected representatives affected by this attempt to remove their powers.

I thank the committee again for this opportunity and appeal to the members, as our fellow democratically elected representatives, to consider carefully what is best for our society and democracy when the committee eventually comes to legislate on local government reform.

I invite Mr. Tom Kelleher, president of the Association of County and City Councils to make his presentation.

Mr. Tom Kelleher

On behalf of the Association of County and City Councils, ACCC, I welcome the Minister's attempt to improve and strengthen local democracy. The ACCC, has participated in the Minister's consultation process. Throughout the winter and last autumn three of our members — Mr. Michael O'Brien, Mr. Aodh Flynn and Ms Connie Hanniffy — contributed hugely to the Minister's Green Paper consultation process while at the same time retaining contact with the members of the association, ensuring that the link between a Minister and the practising councillor on the ground is maintained.

The association recognises the changes that have taken place in this country during the past ten to 15 years, including demographic changes, changes in the environment, work practices and the major changes brought about by European Union directives. There is now a demand from our citizens for much better and more sophisticated services than ever before. People travel a great deal and they are very much aware of best practice throughout Europe and further afield. They demand better planning and better care for the environment. They are very conscious of the threats posed to our country by global warming and the challenges posed by inward immigration and nowadays the problem with regard to oil and future fuel surpluses and supplies.

The basic tenet of the organisation is that the Minister needs to look to improving the ability of county councillors to effectively represent the citizens of the State. We are in agreement with our sister organisations LAMA and the AMAIwith regard to training, on which we have some good ideas, including an on-line service and use of the institutes of technology. The ACCC is willing and able to play its part in providing certified training to all county councillors so that they become more efficient and effective at their jobs.

The Minister needs to look at the whole area of financing local government. I was taken aback by his earlier comment about increasing planning fees. If that is a response to improving the finances of local government it certainly falls short of the mark. If local government continues to increase the cost of individual services we will put many out of business and will affect planning. We need a root and branch examination of the financing of local government.

Our citizens pay taxes. They get some services from central government and some from local government. We would wish to explore a division of taxation as we know it — some to local government and some to central government.

The ACCC recognises that the county council is the basic unit of local government in terms of sustainability and streamlining the services provided at local government level. It falls in with the EU concept of subsidiarity, providing services at local government level but doing so in a way that makes financial and economic sense, does not have overlapping of services but yet has a critical balance so that every county council is capable of providing a comprehensive service in terms of planning, enforcement — an item touched on earlier — and protection of the environment. These services cost money and are best provided at county council level for everybody within the county council area.

We recognise that the role of the county councillor has become extremely onerous. In the Fingal area, from where I come, each councillor represents up to 13,000 people. That is a fair ask for somebody doing this job on a part-time basis, very often looking for time off from his or her own workplace and without any statutory right to leave. There is a range of issues here——

Is that an electoral area of 13,000 or 13,000 for each member?

Mr. Tom Kelleher

It is 13,000 for each member.

Therefore, an electoral area could have a population of——

Mr. Tom Kelleher

——60,000 to 70,000 people represented by five councillors. I can give the committee chapter and verse but I will not.

I accept that.

Mr. Tom Kelleher

In several places in the Green Paper, the Minister referred to the whole idea of bringing democracy as close as possible to the people. We are delighted the area committee system introduced under the 2001 Act works very efficiently and we are in touch with councillors throughout the country. It brings democracy to people's front door in terms of the services we provide. We know every footpath; we know what is needed. We take cognisance of what local people need. Local democracy is about as local as one can get. We would like it strengthened and streamlined. We are happy that the system is working well.

The strategic policy committees draw in expertise from people outside of the political system, people involved in community and charitable organisations, the business community and so on. That they are beginning to function very well makes us very happy with that aspect of local government. We are delighted to come before the committee. We recognise we are taking up the committee's time. We hope when it comes to the White Paper, the committee will take heed of what we have said today and take it into account when voting.

I thank Mr. Kelleher.

I thank the delegations for their patience in waiting to make their presentations. It may be a little early to ask the delegations for their views because I am aware of much consultation taking place around the country in their respective organisations. It is important that the committee receives the outcome of the delegations' deliberations in written format, perhaps, in September or whenever they reach conclusions.

I noticed that one or two organisations asked many questions in their submissions. We will ask the questions and the delegations will answer today. However, I will not be hard on the delegations.

There are two big issues here. The powers of the councillor vis-à-vis the manager and the opportunity councillors have to raise money. We could wallpaper the place with Indecon reports and reports on financing. For some reason people are reluctant to speak openly on more power for local government, the issues they are happy with and the issues they are unhappy with when it comes to generating finance at local level. There is a balance that has to be struck between national and local government. Perhaps some of the money being collected could be retained at local level.

There is no point in having more powers if councillors cannot raise the money to implement policy. It would be very helpful to the committee if the organisations involved could address that matter. What Councillor Cáit Keane has said is relevant — one does not want to be a turkey voting for Christmas. When it comes to local elections there has to be pragmatism. The organisations before the committee are made up of very pragmatic people, but there should be some things there that would be palatable in developing a more efficient, effective, self-financing local government.

I am interested to hear views on a directly elected mayor. I think LAMA said it is finding acceptance in Dublin for a directly elected mayor. What is the thinking in the rest of the country? I am getting conflicting views.

Ms Cáit Keane

There are no conflicting views about the rest of the country. The regional authority in Dublin, which is representative of south Dublin and Fingal, has already agreed and made its submission on a directly elected regional mayor. LAMA will make a submission on that issue. All councillors sitting on the regional authority are elected members so that issue has already been agreed within the Dublin region. As I said in my submission, LAMA is hearing a different story coming from the country. What is accepted in Dublin may not be accepted in the country and that may come out in our submissions. The Deputy is probably hearing conflicting views. Perhaps the idea could be piloted in one area to see how it works, and that could be in the submissions. It is all to play for. The Deputy should not just take it that because Dublin recommends it, it will be recommended for all the country. While I appreciate the gateway is recommended in the Green Paper, it did not go down a treat with members around the country. There were many questions as to what it would include; the boundary and so on. The idea was up in the air.

Mr. Tom Kelleher

I do not wish to contradict Ms Cáit Keane but the rest of the Dublin authorities may not be as convinced as the Dublin regional authority on the value of a directly elected mayor. In many ways their stance would coincide with the general stance we find within the ACCC that the Minister has not provided enough information on how the directly elected mayor would function, whether he would have budgetary powers, and if he was a regional mayor, where he would stand in relation to the existing county managers and normally elected mayors. The devil is in the detail with regard to directly elected mayors and also within the membership of the councils in Dublin, perhaps those outside of the regional authority.

Ms Cáit Keane

I agree with Mr. Kelleher. Councillors have varying views but the council members who sat on the Dublin regional authority have all agreed this position. There is no point in talking about directly elected mayors without devolution of function or responsibility. That has to be worked out. I am reminded of the old cliché; nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

Ms Patricia McCarthy

In the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland's submission made prior to the publication of the Green Paper we outlined exactly what we would like to see transferred. It is possible to read the submission. We intend to elaborate on it in the discussions we are having. We would welcome directly elected mayors, whether for Dublin city or the whole country. However, we recognise that a directly elected mayor is no good without powers and functions. We have indicated what we would like to see happen. It is important that we are not just electing a figurehead but that the office would have real powers. Some of the powers could be transferred from management or powers could be devolved from central government to local level. We also put forward the unique idea that a directly elected mayor would agree a five-year work programme during the lifetime of a council, which could help to avoid potential conflict. I am reminded of the agreed programme for Government.

Equally, we did not shy away from finance. We made a very detailed submission to Indecon and we will arrange to have a copy of that sent to the committee. We faced the hard issues. As town councillors we recognise how important it is to have the ability to raise funding, and for town councils to have autonomy in that area. We are aware of the demands being made on us as town councillors for the delivery of services but without proper finance we cannot do that job. We examined several areas in that regard when preparing for the Indecon report. We have outlined what we would like to see happen in what we regard as a courageous manner. The AMAI is pleased that we have achieved consensus. I assure Deputy Hogan that we did not shy away from the hard issues. We put them down on paper. We are willing to face the electorate on the basis of the submissions we have made and we can and will stand over what we have said. We have teased out the issues quite well and it is important that we did that.

Of all local government areas, town governance is affected in a major way by the changes to local authority powers. While it was envisaged in the Local Government Act 2001 that the agency principle would work, it was always considered that towns would do agency work for the councils. What has happened is that slowly but surely county councils are taking over the powers and functions of town councils. We do not believe that is correct. Town governance is an easier system to manage and gives quality delivery of service. One is closer to the people for whom one delivers and is accountable. What is happening now removes powers from those closest to the people on the street to a higher authority and then to a further higher authority. This, in effect, dilutes democracy to a great extent.

I welcome the three associations and thank them for their presentation. I agree with Deputy Hogan that one could paper this room many times with all the reports that have been written. I chaired a committee that wrote a report in 1989 to 1990. I am sure it is one of many reports that has been placed on a shelf where it is gathering layers of dust. It is time to bring the concept of local government reform to centre stage and the Green Paper affords us that opportunity.

I wish to make some relevant observations. First, I was bred, born, and reared in the country. I moved to a town and was elected 29 years ago to a town council and then to a county council. One of the things I learned quickly is that there is a significant difference between town councils and county councils. County councils, county borough councils, borough councils, the former urban district councils and the town commissions all have their own particular role in the delivery of services. Regretfully, as has been said by the president of the AMAI, Mr. Dermot Collins, and others, those powers have been whittled away. People are now asking whether it is worthwhile standing for local government because it is questionable whether one is governing anything and that is a great pity.

I do not mean to be offensive to anyone in what I say but one of the few things the British did while they were in control of this country was to implement a good system of local government, including town local government. I would not support the notion that the functions of town councils should be replaced with increased powers for area committees. I served on area committees and they only have powers of recommendation as they are a sub-committee of the local authority. Town councils deliver services to people. It is a fact that one would meet more people on a street in a town then one would meet in a parish in a day. One would know that if one was canvassing.

As someone who served on a county council for 25 years I bemoan the manner in which powers have been stripped from both county councils and town councils. I deplore the suggestion that town councils are to lose their powers of housing allocation. I believe the move is being driven by certain people in the Department. To his credit, the former Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, set his face firmly against that. Perhaps some people who think they are in the permanent government feel they will scotch that concept. A member of a particular town council is in the chamber today where 167% of its allocation was taken up. That is reflected in many town councils around the country. The previous Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has bemoaned the fact that allocations have not been fully taken up by housing authorities. One can look beyond town councils for the reason for that because in the main they are very efficient. Some county councils are too.

It may be strange to say it but, as far as the new town councils are concerned I have found a different point of view among the many people I met in the populated areas to which reference has been made. When I was president I was exhorted by former members of town commissions that had become inactive to come down and visit them. It is interesting to note that the 26 former town commissions are now affiliated to the AMAI. Towns that lost or discontinued to have town councils, as they are now called, are now trying to find a way to re-establish them. There is evidence to suggest that people in the new areas that never had a town council are interested in forming local authorities there also.

There is no question about it. We might accept as fact the reality that the introduction of legislation by successive Governments has stripped the powers of locally elected members. Managers have far too much power now. It is not the first time I have said that in public and I will continue to say it because it is the truth. Powers must be given back to local authority members. Full-time councillors were referred to in a number of submissions. I was involved in local government for 25 years when I stepped down from Westmeath County Council due to the abolition of the dual mandate, with which I agreed. I found it almost impossible to do a full-time job at that time. My son is a town and county councillor and I do not know how he does it. There is a case to be made to allow them to carry out their duties on a full-time basis. One of the submissions mentioned the number of town and county councillors who have stood down in recent years. It happened in my county. They just cannot hold down a job and give the time that being a councillor deserves. A case was made for offering pensions. Two members of different local authorities stepped down. They had 104 years of service between them and never got a cent of a pension. Those two men, one of whom has since passed on to his eternal reward, gave all of their time to their elected duties and yet never got a cent. That is wrong.

The power they have is the authority to raise money and the power to spend it. The Green Paper offers us the opportunity to go back to the drawing board in the reform of local government. We have been tinkering around the edges in recent years and have not bitten the bullet. Now is the time. Deputy Fleming has given a good lead as Chairman of this committee. I ask him to continue that into the whole arena of local government reform. I thank the three associations. I am not asking them any questions and instead am making observations. Those have been my views for a long time and I do not intend changing them because they are well considered.

I welcome the three organisations. It is great to see again those whom I know. I will state what I understand the objective of local reform to be. It is not about improving the lot of councillors, managers, Deputies or anybody else. The ultimate goal is the improvement of the communities, cities, towns and the hinterlands in which we live. Within that there is a series of stakeholders with councillors representing a critical aspect. I am very careful in using the word "reform". While reform has positive connotations it does not necessarily guarantee a positive outcome if one were to consider the HSE as a model of reform. Surely that is not what we will propose today.

A number of matters need to be considered and I welcome the submissions I got today prior to the witnesses' arrival. The abolition of the dual mandate has created several vacuums. Even though the dual mandate had been abolished before I became a Member of Dáil Éireann, from speaking to colleagues who had that experience there was a level of connectivity between local government and national Government which now is dissipating, even in terms of practice. The attentiveness this House might have given to local government because Members were also local authority representatives may not be there as, in the future, we will have many Members of the Oireachtas who may never have served on local authorities. That brings its own weaknesses.

One of the submissions mentioned SPCs, which represent an example of what is good and bad about reform. Some SPCs have worked quite effectively and some have been nothing more than a poor reflection of a function committee where the agendas pop up over and over with no strategic element. I would be interested to hear the three organisations' views on the following matter. Local policing committees comprise representatives of the community, the Garda, the local authority and the Oireachtas. Would it be wiser to consider SPCs in that context, whereby strategic policies and thinking are taken into account both nationally and locally? While I do not propose putting Deputies and Senators back into council chambers, there is a role in SPCs in terms of the strategic thinking for regions. Different types of reforms are being mentioned here. However, that is an idea that came up at a meeting of this committee one afternoon and I would like to hear the witnesses' thoughts on it.

The Green Paper is cost neutral and power neutral. There is no transfer of costs and there is no transfer of power. What is local government reform if it does not entail at least one if not both of those elements? I would like to hear more about town councils and directly elected mayors as the Green Paper is quite watery about these matters. If this reform takes place and there is a directly elected mayor for Cork City Council but there was not a directly elected mayor for Cork County Council, would people in effect be living in two structurally different local authorities with different powers and different operations? What would be the roles of the city and county managers, respectively, in each area? That issue has certainly not been fleshed out in the Dublin model.

It also raises the issue of extensions to boundaries. When I get to read the submissions I will certainly look at those headings. As Senator Glynn has said there has been a serious diminution of powers over the years. The Green Paper represents an opportunity to be positive about local government reform. However, local government reform is not a piecemeal process. It is a comprehensive change of the structure. The last Green Paper of which I had experience was the Green Paper on education which was launched with even greater fanfare than this one is still resting on a shelf, now as a White Paper with very little of it implemented and much of the thinking behind it abandoned.

I thank the organisations for their presentations, which were very interesting. Local councils represent the bedrock of our democracy. Having been a councillor, I know the work that goes into local councils. I agree with Senator Glynn that any councillor who intends getting elected again must treat it as a full-time job. I am not sure whether that can be improved through the recommendations of the Green Paper. It is unfair that people who give a lifetime of service find that they do not qualify for any kind of pension.

Whatever agreement there may be in Dublin to have a directly elected mayor, I do not believe there is any willingness to have directly elected mayors in rural areas. The Fianna Fáil group in Sligo discussed the matter yesterday and the fear in urban areas is that God knows who might be elected. A good rock star could be elected mayor of the local authority and that would not work. We need a person who has the experience of being a councillor and has worked on the ground and with officials. That is also the feeling of people on the ground.

I do not agree that the Government has taken powers from local authorities. However, managers have orchestrated matters through SPCs. Councillors' power seems to have been broken down somewhat. I have raised these issues with Ministers here and I have been told that councillors definitely have the power to take on county managers. There is no doubt that some of them need to be taken on in certain areas. Councillors do not appreciate the power they have if they want to use it. They are somewhat reluctant to use it at times and that is where some legal opinion would be very useful. If it were available to councillors they would know exactly what they could and could not do.

The constituency commission was mentioned. Major changes have been made to our county. One town in Sligo is in three different electoral areas. The main street is in one area, the outskirts on one side are in another and a housing estate in the middle of it is in a different area. That must be examined because it does not seem to be working. As Councillor Flynn can verify regarding the general election boundaries, what is happening in Leitrim is crazy. It is not possible for that county to elect a Deputy, and that is wrong.

I will be brief. I have one or two very short questions. As a former rural county councillor I was very aware of the role played by the area committees. That has been mentioned today. There is much talk about the new town councils and there is much agitation in populous areas in my constituency, such as Maynooth, Celbridge and Leixlip, for town council status. However they have now all been brought into one area so there will be one area committee for the next election for that area. Do the witnesses believe the model that has served county councils well over the years is best suited to serve these areas of growing population and encompass the wider communities, including rural and urban? That is something for the ACCC to address but I would like to hear the witnesses' comments on it.

Will the town councils adversely affect local government funding? Leixlip has a town commission. What powers could be devolved to the town council that the town commissions currently have? The members of LAMA should protect their reserved functions. We have the county development and town plans and the witnesses mentioned the role of the legal advisors. I saw in development plans that the county council staff and officials had all the legal and professional advice they wanted while the poor unfortunate councillors had nothing. The Planning and Development Act specifies that councillors should have advice and I believe that should be independent legal advice and not the county council's professional advice.

The role of the county council has changed enormously. It would be nice if we had a survey done of how many county councillors or public representatives of all grades are full time. When I was a member of Kildare County Council most of the members were full time. The rewards they are getting are minuscule compared to the work they do. The witnesses mentioned the role of conferences and the training of members. When I was a member of the county council I was not a great conference goer but I felt they were a way for councillors to get away from their constituencies and meet a broad array of people from other local authorities. The conference is much better than the day training in the local county council office and that is the way they should go.

One of the LAMA representatives said it favours the five year role of the SPC chairs. That is fine when one has a good person. The same applies to the mayors. A good mayor will do great work no matter how long he or she is there. However, a five-year mayor or SPC chair may not be fully capable of doing his or her job. One has to be very careful of a mayor because he or she could be removed from the county councillors and sitting with the officials. I do not know how they do it but they have a great way of rubbing one up the right way to ensure one is on their side and not on the side of the councillors. The role of county councillors as public representatives delivering for the people of communities is very important. They must be independent and must not be hindered in any way from doing their jobs.

I welcome the representative associations to the meeting and I apologise for not being here for all the presentations as I had other business to conduct in the Dáil. I served as secretary of LAMA for a good number of years and I compliment the co-operation I got from that association over the years and the facilities for its members. We work in co-operation with the AMAI and the General Council of County Councils, as the ACCC was known at that time. We all worked well together in enhancing facilities for our members over the years.

Major challenges face local government, particularly in terms of revitalising people's interest in participation in local government. The future funding of local government and financing of services is a major issue. Every day we see the many services local government provides. We have only to open our doors to see public lighting, footpaths, roads, sewerage facilities, fire services and recreational facilities. This is all taken for granted by the public.

Regrettably, local authorities are still over-dependent on central government for funding. This issue needs to be addressed because the situation on local government financing around the country continues to deteriorate. This is seriously eroding services and the competitiveness of Irish businesses. There must be a hands-on approach to how we fund local government in future.

All decisions concerning everyday matters should be taken as closely as possible to the citizens. This is the case in most European countries. We are less democratic than other European countries. Responsibility for additional services should be given to local authorities. Many quangos have been established over the last number of years, for example the HSE headquarters. The HSE headquarters for my area is in Kildare. At one stage there was a county health committee, then there was the health board and now we have the HSE. The situation has deteriorated. There should be a role for local authorities in community care functions. People on elected local authorities know exactly what is happening in the community and can deliver there.

Local government should be represented on the regional IDA boards and Enterprise Ireland. There is a major role for local government in promoting tourism. There is one representative from a local authority on the regional tourism development boards but promoting tourism at county level must be addressed and there is no better body to do so than the local authorities. I was a foot soldier for 19 years and continue to work in Dáil Éireann. Policing was mentioned and there should be a greater role in that area for locally elected members. They should also be involved in FÁS training and employment.

We hear much about the expenses and remuneration of local authorities throughout the country, but an enormous amount of work goes in. It is practically a full-time job. One cannot call it a nine-to-five job. Councillors attend public meetings all over the place until all hours of the night and it greatly disrupts their family lives. The Government should examine properly remunerating local councillors for the very valuable job they do.

I regret that councils are over-dependent on central government. When I became a member of Longford County Council in 1985, there was a county manager, a county engineer and a county secretary whereas now there is a plethora of directors of services who must have a secretariat, etc.

Is Better Local Government working for the betterment of communities? When I first became a member of the council at least there was accountability, the buck stopped with manager or the county engineer on most issues. Now one's representations are passed around to officials and it takes a long time before one gets a definitive answer.This is an area that needs be addressed without delay because communities are disjointed from the official end of local government.

On the matter of funding, the Green Paper refers to reports prepared over the years but there is no enthusiasm to address the whole issue of properly funding local government. While reform has been promised, I am disappointed at the slow pace of it. Other services and facilities should be devolved from central government. It is the failure of the system that brings about the many pressure groups in society today. These are issues that need to be addressed.

I welcome the representatives from the county, city and town councils before the committee. I wish to highlight the importance of these bodies. As one who served on a council for many years I know the important role they play but that role is not recognised for what it is. Councillors are an important and essential part of how democracy works. I see councillors, whether town, county or city, as people who work.

I am sorry to interrupt the Deputy. As I have to leave I ask Deputy Fitzpatrick to take the Chair in my absence.

Deputy Michael Fitzpatrick took the Chair.

They are the people on the ground who know at first hand the concerns of people. That role is not being recognised from any aspect, whether financial or otherwise. So far as I am concerned this is how the system works. It begins with the council on the ground, then we as Deputies play a role. It is important that we work with the councillors, up the line to the Minister and the Parliament. Since I was a member of a council the role has changed significantly during the past 15 years. If he is to do his job properly, a county councillor must operate on a full time basis. There is no other way. I have been there and have seen other councillors. It is a full-time job and given this, one needs to be paid for it. The bottom line is that there is a need for services, including a secretary, which is not provided for at present. That is ridiculous.

A councillor is elected by the people to serve but he cannot do the job properly if the proper facilities are not in place. These will have to be put in place to enable the job to be done properly. Ultimately, it is all about power and how decisions are made.

While a member of the council I witnessed at first hand powers being taken from us, as elected representatives on the council, and gradually managers having the ultimate say. I agree we could say our few words but in most cases the manager did not listen because he had already made up his mind on issues that were important to us as councillors and elected representatives. From that point of view the powers will have to revert to councillors, who have been elected by the people to ensure they are represented in the way they want to be represented.

As the other factors have been covered, I do not wish to dwell on them. It is all about how we treat the local authorities. We have not done so in the way we should. I will push the issue wherever I can. The presentation has made sense to me because I know exactly from where the representatives are coming. I wish them well and will support the issue at every opportunity.

Mr. Aodh Flynn

The first question we should ask is whether the county council is the premier body of local government in Ireland. If not, what is the alternative? Will it be a series of town councils as in Northern Ireland, where there is major rationalisation, with a reduction to five or six local authorities. We believe the county council is the premier body. That is where local government should begin and most of the functions of local government should evolve from a county council.

Coming from a rural council, Leitrim County Council, there is no doubt that if one was to set up a series of town councils those of us left behind in rural areas would find we had no representation, little power and little say. It is a difficult issue for the Government to decide but we need to look at it to ensure practical results.

We are all agreed that local government reform should be implemented and should not be cosmetic. We should look at the issues with a view to reforming the position of local government and issues that are not devolved to local government, for example, child care, care of the elderly, civil order — which is a major issue in towns and villages throughout the country and one in which we have no role — and traffic control. Even the request to lay down a double yellow line must go to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for approval. These are the issues of concern. In the planning area, frequently An Bord Pleanála overrides the decisions of our planners and often makes decisions contrary to the county development plan.

An issue I raised recently was the question of civil marriage, which is a function of the HSE. What has it to do with health? Let us look also at one of the larger urban areas such as Blanchardstown. While it has a larger population than Galway it does not have a town council, yet the functions of local government operate quite efficiently in it. Many members have touched on the issue of membership of local authorities. Essentially, some 80% of the population are excluded from becoming members of local authorities, particularly those aged between 20 and 50, mostly because they are in employment. Most people are employed in the private sector and employers are unwilling to allow their employees time off to participate in politics. Essentially, unless one is retired, under-employed or unemployed, one cannot be a member of a local authority. That is a major difficulty.

Another issue is that very few women are members of local authorities. The figure in this respect is 16%. Out of 188 countries, we rank 87th. Countries such as Barbados and Jamaica are ranked much higher. We do not even rank high in Europe, given that we have excluded women to such an extent from local government. That issue should be addressed. There is a case to be made perhaps for the use of a list system whereby 50% of candidates would have to be female and from that system some 25% of the members of a local authority would be elected. These are issues that should be examined as part of local government reform.

Nobody has mentioned the matter of an ethics code for local government. Local Government ethics is covered by legislative measures, including the Standards in Public Office Act 2001, which is relevant to all elected members, and the Ethics in Public Office Act. The difficulty in this regard is that it is the responsibility of the chairman in conjunction with the manager to make a decision as to whether a member is in breach of ethics in local government. It is an issue that should be examined. Rather oddly, it is almost impossible to remove a member of a local authority, regardless of the misdemeanour he or she may have committed.

These are issues in terms of local government reform. A cosmetic reform of local government is not enough. A major review should be undertaken of how local authorities operate, the make-up of their membership, how they will operate in the future, what functions they should have and what system of local government we should have.

Most of us would agree that the county system, which has been in existence for 108 years, has served this country well, and that it should remain the mainstay of local government in Ireland. From there we can evolve to examine area committees or the existing town councils but we should retain county councils as the premier local government body in Ireland.

Ms Cáit Keane

I am pleased Mr. Flynn raised the issue of the low number of female members of local authorities.

From what I have heard at this meeting and at meetings of the Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA, we all appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet on the principle of subsidiarity in terms of the devolution of power to local areas, be it to committees or towns councils that represent the people and have a community voice. That is the objective and the issue is how that can be achieved.

A member mentioned that Tallaght has the population of Limerick but it does not have a town or urban council. However, it has a good area committee but area committees for towns such as Tallaght need to be strengthened in terms of the devolution of power.

There is a strong support for a directly elected mayor for Dublin. There is co-operation between local authorities on the carrying out of functions such as the water services and waste management. Responsibility for transport in terms of the road network rests with the NRA. If there was a directly elected mayor in Dublin responsible for transport, responsibility for it would be taken away from unelected representatives and given back to local authorities. Issues such as that are an element of regional governance. We would not want a directly elected major to be given powers that should rightly be exercised at local level.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that every local councillor is in favour of the principle of subsidiarity. We must be mindful of that. The term "devolution of power" has been a buzzword of successive Ministers and report after report has been prepared, but nothing has happened to bring it about or examine how it will be done. From LAMA's viewpoint, the provision for a directly elected major for the city or for the county is a different kettle of fish.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch made the point that perhaps councillors do not use the powers they already have. We have powers under section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001, but often when one tries to use a mechanism such as that, one is told there are various legal reasons one cannot proceed on that basis. There is a provision in the Planning and Development Act 2001 to obtain legal advice, but often a legal adviser is chosen by the manager. Members will be aware that when a brief is directed in a certain way, certain advice is given. Members know from where I am coming on that issue.

On the issue of financing in terms of the devolution of power, I note that Deputy Ciarán Lynch said that in that respect, the Green Paper is cost and power neutral. We are disappointed this issue is dealt with very loosely in the Green Paper. That is the reason I have said that we cannot sign up to it until we know what we are signing up to. LAMA has asked what powers exactly will be devolved. It is why I have said we will write down what powers we consider should be devolved in our submission. As the representative from the AMAI has said, the Department cannot shy away from all recommendations that are tough. Councillors in the past may have done so and that is why we lost considerable powers. We will have to reconsider that aspect.

Councillor Kelleher referred to strategic policy committees, SPCs, and said that they can draw on outside expertise, but they can end up simply being a talking shop if they are not managed properly. Some of them work well but some do not. There should be a facility to involve the community, particularly in regard to areas of functional responsibility. The provision in this respect is very loose to the extent that one could say that local government has not been at the races. This process presents an opportunity to bring power back into local government — it can be taken from the manager. If the only way that can be done in Dublin is to have a directly elected mayor, that is one way of doing it. The option of a directly elected mayor for the Dublin region is also under consideration. It may not come to pass and the area may be governed regionally.

The issue involved is the methodology regarding how the people will be represented. Nobody is saying that all the town councils should be abolished. The Green Paper raises the issue of the representation of the population of an area. For example, in the case of an area of Dublin with a population of 70,000, there is the issue of whether it would have seven town councils or seven local areas to ensure the representation of it is streamlined with that of a town such as Ennis with a similar population. That is the question that must be addressed, namely, how best to deliver local government at local level. That is the question we all must answer.

Ms Patricia McCarthy

Representing the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, we believe the issue that must be addressed is that of town governance. We cannot accept that the primary governing body should be in the area of the county councils. Town governance has served this country well over many years, even centuries at this stage, and has delivered a quality of service at an economic cost in a streamlined manner. Equally, we are aware that the policy of successive Governments has led to the greater urbanisation of society, which has put greater strains on the city, borough and town councils. They have responded admirably and catered for the wide spectrum of the needs of the community and met the needs of our changing society. In saying that, I am not taking from what has been done in the county areas. City, borough and town councils have delivered programmes in the area of environmental control and recreational facilities, with which county councils recognise they must catch up. As a Deputy mentioned, meeting the needs of a community in an urban area is different from that of meeting them in a rural area. Town, borough and city councils recognised that a long time ago and tailored their delivery of service to the needs of the community, which is much more than the broader spectrum of service delivered by the county council.

We are not here to create divisions or to play one off against the other, rather we are anxious to make sure that town governance is seen as an important part of the local authority system. Deputy Ciarán Lynch was correct in pointing out that the objective of local government reform must be to deliver a better quality of service to the public. The practitioners of local government must also be protected, but our ultimate aim must be the delivery of a quality service to the public and to focus on how best to achieve that. We believe that can be done easily and compactly in the context of a town council, which can deliver a quality of service to the public at the right price.

Deputy Fitzpatrick asked if new town councils would adversely affect local government finances, and it is our belief they will not. They will enhance democracy. There are a number of large towns that want to have a democratic process. I come from the town of Shannon, Ireland's first and only greenfield town. I arrived in that town in 1970 and the one cry there was to control our own destiny. We were governed by a semi-State body and we have since gone through the gamut in that regard.

I found it interesting to read the Active Citizenship report which referred to all the things we had tried in Shannon. If people had come down to Shannon and asked us what had happened, they would have seen how we had evolved and devolved. We tried community councils but they did not work. We also tried the political alliance in which every section of the community was represented. Eventually, people said they wanted to be part of a local government system. They wanted to have an influence over their own destiny. We got what was then known as town commissioners status.

Interestingly enough, a 19th century Act allowed that to happen. While the Local Government Act 2001 allows for the creation of new town councils, it does not go any further. The old Act allowed for such a council to be upgraded and obtain the powers and responsibilities of what were the old urban district councils. That is what the people of Shannon wanted and are still crying out for — to have powers and responsibility. Their elected representatives are seeking that power and responsibility to be delivered. We are constantly being compared with other areas and are being asked why we cannot do what Ennis and Kilrush are doing. Kilkee is being asked the same thing. To make something real one must bring it to the local level. We have been there and done that.

Anyone who says the public does not want a democratically elected council which is responsible to the public does not know what they are talking about. They do not realise the public's hunger to be part of the democratic process. It might not seem like it on some occasions, but the turnout in local elections is much higher than in national ones. They are able to get the electorate out to a much better extent because they are closer to the people. They deliver the service because they know they will be in trouble otherwise. That is the reality. I could speak about this all night because the issue is close to my heart.

New committees and the strategic policy committees were referred to, as well as join policing authorities. They are now being rolled out in towns and there is a great buy-in. Most of the problems are associated with towns and larger urban areas generally. There is an involvement by the democratically elected representatives, the Garda Síochána and the public to ensure such authorities work. We need such issues to be dealt with at local level.

Can anything else be devolved to local communities? There are many such issues, including community care, as Deputy Bannon said. Equally, we could have proper devolution of national lottery funding for the benefit of local communities. Town councils could decide how that money would be spent locally.

Some aspects of the old system were good but it also contained faults. We need to reform it to bring about a good delivery of quality service. We are concerned about quangos that have sprung up which we see as diluting the powers and accountability of local government. Public accountability is what is involved and what greater public accountability can one have than answering to the electorate every five years?

Leixlip, in the Chairman's area, has had powers devolved to it from Kildare County Council. It got the power to spend money as it saw fit, including public lighting, roadworks and other improvement schemes. That council was one of the few which recognised that money would be spent wisely by town councils. The concern from the Custom House has been that new town councils will take finance away from local authorities. The answer is "No", however, because one does not have to go into the existing system which can be archaic in many respects. Leixlip is showing how it can be done. One can contract out services and get a better return from the money. They may decide to contract out to the county council or the private sector. They may decide to employ people to do the work for a five-year period. There are many options, therefore, and town councils are only too willing to do something about it.

It is all about reform but we must not forget the people at the centre. The system must include the public who are at the first layer of service delivery. That is what subsidiarity really means. It does not mean that someone up there will be looking after someone down there. It means local people will look after their own requirements. If they are given the proper powers and functions, they will be able to deliver a quality service.

Does Councillor Collins wish to comment?

Mr. Dermot Collins

No thank you. I think we have covered it.

Does the delegation have a view on the proposal for directly elected mayors? I have had a strong view for a number of years that such people should be elected perhaps one month after the members are elected to a particular local authority.

Ms Patricia McCarthy

As for the issue of directly elected mayors, there are various ways of arranging the election. Our association believes that the model in Dublin can be replicated in the smallest local town council. We can and should have directly elected mayors.

Ms Patricia McCarthy

We have not yet teased out how to do it, however.

Should the mayoral election not take place a month after the local elections to the relevant town and county councils? The personnel should first contest local authority elections and from that body of people a mayor could be elected by the citizens.

Ms Patricia McCarthy

We will certainly take that suggestion back to our members and ask them to consider it. At the moment, however, we are favouring a situation whereby people would be directly elected.

Ms Cáit Keane

That would mean that one of the existing members would be the mayor. Although it has not yet been agreed, the Local Authorities Members' Association thought the directly elected mayor should be an extra member of the local authority. Having an election on a different day may be difficult. It would exercise people's minds to say: "Look, this is the store of people you have up for election." As for the wherewithal and how one does it, I do not know if I would opt for another polling day. We might be accused of wasting public money by having another election a month later. That is a consideration as well.

I want to close the meeting now because we have had a long afternoon. I sincerely thank all the witnesses and those in the public gallery for attending the meeting. Their knowledge and expertise have made this a very worthwhile session. On behalf of the Chairman and other members of the committee, I thank them for attending.

We have a few housekeeping matters for members. Our next meeting is scheduled for this day fortnight, 15 July. Is it agreed that we delete from the next meeting's agenda the presentation on industrial emissions and focus solely on waste water systems? Agreed.

The joint committee adjourned at 6.50 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 15 July 2008.