This Bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation to come before this House in recent years. Reform and modernisation of the local government system has been one of the Government's highest priorities. It is also a task of considerable depth and complexity. One need only reflect briefly on the range of services, the extent of resources and the volume of employment involved in the local government sector, to appreciate that any changes in the system must be prudently formulated and implemented with the utmost care and thoroughness. One year ago both the Dáil and Seanad gave their assent to the postponement of local elections so that a full review of the local government system could be carried out. In so doing they indicated confidence in the Government's ability and determination to bring forward reform legislation in time for the holding of local elections in June 1991. I am glad to be able to honour that commitment to day and we pay the trust of the Seanad by bringing before it this Bill which constitutes the first, but very significant, element of the local government reform programme.
I am sure that Senators are well aware of the need for reform of the local government system and are also well acquainted with the background to the programme which the Government announced in a statement issued on 7 March 1991. Nonetheless I feel it is incumbent on me to give the House as full an account as is possible in the time available to me today, not just of the actual contents of the Bill itself, but also of the background to the reform programme and the process by which we have arrived at this very significant point of departure.
I would like to sketch in the briefest possible terms, some of the key events in the evolution of our system of local government and the reasons why reform and reorganisation of that system is now necessary.
On the foundation of the State we inherited a system of local government which was, in large measure, a producet of a series of 19th century statues culminating in the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1889 which consolidated the principal structural features of our local government system.
Since independence, the local government system has been adapted and extended in a number of respects. Certain functions have declined in importance, others have increased, some functions were removed — health services for example — and many new ones added in environmental, planning and development and other areas. This evolution of functional responsibilities, adapting to meet the needs and demands of the day, has continued under a succession of statutes up to the present time. A management system was in operation in all authorities by the early forties, with various key functions and decisions reserved as the exclusive prerogative of the elected members, but there has been no significant change in organisational or structural arrangements since then.
The question of overall reform and reorganisation has been a consistently recurring theme in the local government area for several decades past. It is a debate which has displayed some remarkably consistent features. For example, opinions as to the shape and direction which reform should take have tended to conflict sharply. Secondly, it seems that there has always been a sort of inverse relationship between the volume of discussion about reform and the extent of the action resulting from this. Thirdly, whenever it looked as if decisions and real action were about to be taken, this proved to be an illusion and a further period of stagnation ensued.
It was at one such period that I came to office as Minister for the Environment. It quickly became clear to me that if progress was to be made, a new approach must be adopted. I became convinced that if the interests of local government were to be properly served, the reform question should not be treated as a political football. It was, and is, my view that, in order to achieve the desired results, proposals must be formulated on the basis of a thorough consideration of all views and they must have the support of a solid across-the-board consensus. This is precisely what the Government set out to achieve in their approach to local government reform. An Oireachtas all-party committee on the matter was initially proposed, as this seemed to offer the best prospect of securing the desired consensus. Regrettably, this proposal did not seem to meet with favour on all sides — the main Opposition party refused to participate.
At that stage it would have been very easy to turn aside and allow local government to once again slide off the political agenda. The Government were determined, however, to press ahead with developing reform proposals through alternative mechanisms. A cabinet sub-committee was established in April 1990 and an advisory export committee appointed to assist them. By adopting this approach, the government ensured that the issue would receive due priority by being considered at the highest level while, at the same time, facilitating a wide input to the review process and bringing special expertise to bear on the issue.
I am pleased to say that this mechanism has worked extremely well. The advisory expert committee, who received a large number of submissions from interested individuals and organisations, completed their report just before Christmas and, as Senators will be aware, the report has been published. The Government had hoped that the committee could have completed their work some months earlier, but the complexity of the assignment, and the number of submissions received, made it necessary for the committee to seek an extension of the time limit set for them. I cannot let this opportunity pass without paying tribute to the chairman and members of the expert committee for the time and effort they devoted to their task. I am sure that all Members of the House will concur when I say that we are indebted to them for their work in the interests of local government.
The Cabinet sub-committee, which I chaired, considered the report of the expert committee in January and February this year and made their own report to the Government. After due consideration, the Government decided on the reorganisation programme and a full statement of their proposals was made on 7 March last. The substantial Bill now before the House has been drafted, as a matter of high priority, in the relatively short period since then and has been brought before the Oirechtas at the earliest possible date.
I have set out in some detail, the sequence of events since April 1990 in order to show that there has been no avoidable delay on the Government's part in preparing and presenting this Bill. On the contrary, once it became clear last year that an all-party approach was not possible, we moved with top speed to meet the commitment to put legislation changes in place before the coming elections.
It is, perhaps, appropriate that I should also explain, at this stage, why it is necessary that the Bill should be passed by both Houses no later than 17 May. The legal requirements concerning the timescale for the holding of the local elections are as follows. The elections must be held in June and, as already announced, the polling day will be on 27 June which is just about the latest practicable date. In turn, this means that the final date for publication of the notice of elections by returning officers is 24 May. This means that the ministerial order appointing the polling day will have to be made not later than 22 May. This, in turn, is linked to the final date for the signature of the Bill by the President and — even assuming early signature — the final date for the Bill to be passed by both Houses is 17 May. If the Bill is not passed by that date, elections cannot be held in June in County Dublin or postponed at the sub-county level. While this timescale is tight, the blame cannot be laid at the door of the Government: as I have already explained, there has been no avoidable delay on our part in dealing with this matter.
The decisions already taken by the Government make it clear that there is to be no more long fingering of local government reform and no seeking of pretexts on which to dodge decisions. The statement of 7 March spells out what is being done immediately and what must, for practical reasons, be dealt with on a progressive basis. On this point, however, it must be stressed that the programme will be a fully integrated one. There is no question, for example, of adopting only a minimal range of provisions now for the sake of short term expediency and postponing those which are of real importance to some vague future date. Although further legislation will be necessary to complete the programme and deal with all consequential matters, the Bill which is now before the House provides a broad framework for reform within which implementation can proceed in an ordered, progressive fashion.
I will return very shortly to the contents of the Bill itself but first I would like, as I did in the course of my Second Stage speech to the Dáil last week, to recap briefly on some of the fundamental principles underlying the reform programme.
It is my belief that one of the main reasons previous promises of reform failed to bear fruit was that, although there seemed to be general agreement on the need for reform, this was not, for the most part, based on a clear understanding of what is really involved. The reasons for reform and, indeed, the essential purposes of local government itself, may not have been rigorously thought through. As a result, the "reform movement"— and by that I mean both promises of, and demands for, local government reform —has enjoyed neither the degree of authority nor the depth of conviction necessary to carry a realistic programme through to finality. Regrettably, local government reform has often tended to be little more than an empty catch-cry.
The reason we need reform is not that local authorities are doing a bad job. Not only do local authorities provide many of the essential services, such as water and sanitation, without which civilised, healthy living would be impossible, but they also provide a remarkable range of amenities and facilities such as swimming pools, libraries and parks, to mention but a few, which serve a valuable social and community role as well as helping to enhance greatly the quality of our lives. They have an indispensable role in the area of social housing. They provide much of the infrastructure essential to economic development while at the same time seeing to it that development proceeds in a rational and orderly manner and that the valuable resources of our environment are protected and enhanced.
Problems may arise occasionally, or in certain areas, and these sometimes attract disproportionate attention. This should serve to point out how much we take local authority services for granted in the normal course. We seem to think of local authorities only when a problem arises or, perhaps, when we are asked to contribute towards their services.
Prophets of doom have, in the past, claimed that the local authority system was on the verge of collapse and that the local authorities were in financial crisis. While that does not reflect the position today, some Members will inevitably attempt to find fault with the Government's reform programme on the grounds that it does not have enough to say about local authority finance. Such a criticism would, however, indicate a flawed perspective and a lack of appreciation of the correct sequence of events.
The first requirement is to get the structures, systems, functions and operations of local authorities right — to attempt any financial adjustments in advance of this would, be a case of putting the cart before the horse. Getting these things right will go a long way towards ensuring continued financial well being. We have already come a long way on that road over the past four years. In line with the Government's own programme to restore the national finances, local authorities have achieved greater budgetary discipline. The need to contain expenditure within available resources is now the guiding principle. As a result, serious deficits which had been accumulated over a number of years have now been considerably reduced. This, has had to be the priority. The Government have also helped in this regard by implementing several sound practical reforms and rationalisation measures, such as the elimination of the circular loans and subsidies system and the reduction of extraneous financial burdens. A further example of this in the current year is the new arrangement for courthouse maintenance.
The continuation of this practical and disciplined approach will continue to be the Government's priority in relation to local finances, with other adjustments being considered, where necessary, at the appropriate time.
A scoping study was conducted by the London Institute of Fiscal Studies, at the request of the advisory expert committee, regarding central funding for local authorities. Their report, which was published along with the advisory committee's own report, concludes that our system of funding and our range of grants stand up quite well by international comparison. The report does, however, see scope for greater equalisation, primarily in the distribution of the rates support grant. I have, therefore, commissioned the necessary follow-up study to examine precise options for achieving greater equalisation among local authorities.
The present Bill is not a financial provisions measure. It does not purport to be, was never intended to be, and it is not appropriate that it should be.
A popular cliché in recent times claims that local authorities have become powerless. The facts, however, do not support this. The powers and functions of local authorities have been added to considerably in a series of statutes enacted in recent years. During my time as Minister, the Oireachtas has seen fit to enact several important pieces of legislation conferring significant powers and responsibilities on local authorities. There have been, or are currently, in preparation, Bills dealing with air pollution, water pollution, housing, roads, planning, urban renewal and derelict sites. Regulations made to give effect to various EC Directives have also added considerably to local functions.
In recent years, local authorities have been given a new and more dynamic type of role in the pursuit of some important social and economic objectives. New departures such as the urban renewal scheme and the recently announced social housing plan are examples of this, involving increased discretion and scope for initiative on the part of local authorities. At the same time, I can point to the very significant increase in discretionary road grants — from £23 million in 1986 to £68 million in the current year — as an example of how local authority discretion has been enhanced even within a very traditional sphere of operations.
A simplistic or superficial approach to local government reform will not suffice. It is necessary to be clear about the essential purpose of the local government system and the basic justification for the existence of the authorities which constitute it.
Senators will appreciate my meaning when I say that there is an important distinction to be drawn between "local government" and "local administration""Local government" involves much more than just the provision of services — important though that role is. What gives local government a unique character and sets local authorities apart from other executive type agencies, is their democratic representational role. Thus, it follows that a fundamental purpose and objective of local government reform must be to strengthen local democracy.
The fact that local authorities are democratically elected does not of itself guarantee that they will be able to discharge their representational role as effectively as they should. Despite the considerable achievements for which local authorities can take credit, the public perception of them is frequently a negative one. This, I believe, is largely because they are often seen as bureaucratic institutions remote from the community.
The structures, functions and operating methods of local government must be correctly attuned to the demographic, social and economic circumstances of today. Local authorities must interact with the communities they represent and that interaction must be a two way process. It must operate in such a way as to ensure that the authority is fully cognisant of the problems, needs, priorities and aspirations of its community and that such awareness is properly reflected in the way it discharges its powers and functions. Local authorities must be accountable to the people for how they perform on their behalf.
At the same time, the local authority must have the capacity to promote the interests and development of its area, not just in a direct way through the exercise of its functional powers, but also as a catalyst of local energy and initiative and a facilitator and support of the efforts of individuals and groups within the community. Above all, local government must be made relevant and close to the people, and community participation with local authorities must be fostered. Local government, is, after all, the level of government which relates most closely to the day-to-day lives of people. If we allow flaws in the system to create a sense of alienation between communities and their representative authorities, a great disservice will be done to our whole democratic system.
The other side of the local authority persona is a provider of services, an undertaker of works and a regulator of various local affairs. It is essential that local authorities achieve the optimum level of efficiency, cost effectiveness and value for money in the provision of works and services. They have made good progress in this regard over the past few years but what is achieved has to be done in an operating environment which, as the law stands, is not always conducive to efficient operation in modern-day conditions. It is a primary aim of the Government's reform programme to ensure that the structural, legal and operational framework within which local authorities operate is suited to today's circumstances and that it will facilitate and promote effective service.
It is also important that the representational and functional roles of local authorities are complementary rather than conflicting. The system must operate in such a way that the democratic representational role is not subjugated to the role of the local authority as a provider of works and services. Operational and administrative efficiency must be pursued as a means towards providing the best possible quality of service to the people. On the other hand, local authorities must be prepared to operate in a mature, responsible and effective manner and be willing to make choices and, where necessary, take difficult decisions. The achievement of the correct balance between the operational and representational roles is an important consideration in the reform programme.
If we are to have a meaningful system of local government the "local" element must be enhanced as far as possible. Local authorities must be locally focused and there must be an appropriate level of locally-based power and discretion. However, it is obvious also that local government functions have significant implications beyond the local authorities own sphere or operations. Thus, the question of maintaning a correct balance also arises in this context. The overall structural set-up, and the allocation of powers and functions, must both reflect an appropriate balance and co-ordination between local authorities and other public agencies and with central government.
It is clear, therefore, that local government reform involves consideration of a fairly complex matrix of inter-related factors. Unfortunately, this is not a case where a computer can be programmed and fed with data so as to get a precise solution at the touch of a button. Nor is it possible to conduct controlled experiments to ascertain the likely results of particular changes. It is, instead, a matter of judgment and I am satisfied the Government have taken the correct steps to ensure that their judgment is well-informed and soundly based.
The strategy for implementing reform is crucial to success. Reform and reorganisation of local government cannot be completed at the stroke of a pen or indeed the passage of an Act. It must be a process rather than a single action. In other countries where the local government system has been reformed and revitalised with great success, this process has taken several years to complete. The report of the expert committee also stressed this point. However, we are not content merely to issue a set of proposals and wait until every "t" can be crossed and every "i" dotted. That is the approach that has produced inertia in the past.
The present Bill will get the reform process under way immediately and will also provide a legal framework within which a very large share of the detailed components of local government reform can be put in place progressively in an ordered and structured way. This will, for example, involve the making of various orders and regulations under the enabling powers in the Bill. This is the only realistice way in which a legal framework could be constructed which would allow a reform programme to be implemented as a continuing dynamic process.
I have been criticised in some quarters for the manner in which the provisions of the Bill have been cast. It has been suggested, for example, that various matters for which orders and regulations are to be made should be spelled out in detail in the Bill. As well as being unnecessary, this would not be feasible. Many of the measures in question, for example, devolution of functions to local authorities, must be formulated as the reform programme progresses. We need the flexibility to add from time to time to the powers of local authorities or to add to the reserved functions of members. Removal of the relevant enabling provisions would reduce the Bill to a purely static, minimalist measure and would make a farce of the attempt to initiate a dynamic process of reform. I doubt very much if Members of Seanad Éireann want that to happen.
Additional legislation will, of course, arise before the entire reform programme is complete. Certain matters will require further consideration, for example, the results of the proposed fiscal study, the consolidation and modernisation of the general code of local government law and the question of local government structures at the sub-county level. The strategy which the Government are following will allow decisions on these matters to be slotted into place without delaying implementation of the reform programme in general.
I have devoted a good deal of time to discussing the general context and purpose of the Bill. I trust that Members of the Seanad will agree that it is important, especially at this Second Reading Stage, to be clear about the general principles underlying this Bill. I would like to move now on to discuss the main features of the Bill itself. I hope to outline as many aspects of the Bill as is feasible and I hope Senators will bear with me in this.
Part I, contains provisions for citations, interpretation, regulations and the like.
Part II of the Bill contains provisions relating to the functions of local authorities which are of fundamental importance to the entire reform programme.
Section 5 provides, for the first time, express statutory recognition for the representational functions of local authorities which, as I have already said, is one of the essential purposes of local government. The section contains provisions in relation to the role of the local authority in representing and promoting the interests of the local community including the representation of views to other public authorities, the promotion and facilitation of involvement in local affairs, and the carrying out of local research, surveys or studies. This will put the local authority to the forefront as the voice of the community and the upholder of its interests.
A general competence is also being conferred on local authorities to take action in the interests of their local communities. This measure, which is contained in section 6 is designed to give local authorities discretion and flexibility of action in local matters where they are at present unduly constrained by the operation of the ultra vires principle which has often been perceived as a form of legal straitjacket. It will, therefore, constitute a very significant change in the legal position relating to local authority operations and will bring the position of Irish local government into line with that of local government systems in many European countries. The section instances various types of measures which a local authority will be empowered to take within the general competence power. Certain necessary safeguards are being provided to avoid, for example, activity by local authorities under the section that would prejudice or duplicate the functions of other public bodies. Matters to which local authorities must have regard in performing functions generally are provided for at section 7.
Section 8 contains yet another set of provisions designed to copperfasten the legal basis of the local authorities' powers of action. It will remove doubts about local authorities' power to do things which are ancillary or incidental to their specific statutory functions.
In pursuance of the commitment in the Government statement of 7 March to provide for the expansion of the role of the local government system, there is provision at section 9 to devolve new functions from the central level to local authorities. This provision will enable the Government to transfer by provisional order, to be confirmed by an Act of the Oireachtas, particular functions which it considers can be effectively discharged by local authorities. The advisory expert committee mentioned, in their report, various functions which might be considered for devolution, some in areas where local authorities have an involvement at present, others in areas to which the committee feel, and felt, the local authority role could be extended.
As I explained in the Dáil, the provisions in the Bill will enable specific devolution proposals to be formulated and implemented in a way which is compatible with the reformed system of local government as it evolves, taking all relevant factors into account. The section provides a flexible mechanism which will allow for devolution of functions in specific areas on an ongoing basis. A full evaluation will be required, of course, before decisions can be taken as to whether particular functions are appropriate for devolution and factors such as cost, staffing and administrative implications will have to be taken into account. The section will also allow for the necessary adjustments of functions between classes of local authorities by way of order of the Minister for the Environment.
Although it is included in Part VII rather than in Part II, I must also mention at this point section 52, which gives power to the Minister to dispense with certain controls affecting local authorities. This would, for example, enable regulations to be made for the removal or modification of unnecessary procedures or restrictions on local authorities and is, in itself, capable of being used as a powerful instrument of devolution. It is yet a further instance of where a regulation making power is being vested in the Minister to enable him to free local authorities from the shackles of outmoded controls and procedures.
In carrying out their new and wider role in the local community, it is desirable that elected councils should have flexible methods of operation available to them. That is why Part IV, which comprises sections 36 to 40, contains provisions in relation to the establishment of local authority committees, either advisory or with delegated functions. There is provision also for joint committees to consider matters of concern to two or more authorities. These provisions will be of assistance where local authorities consider that the use of committees would be beneficial in the discharge of their functions, either from the point of view of operational effectiveness or for the purpose of advice and consultation. As I have already emphasised in the other House, it is not the intention that these provisions should pre-empt in any way the decisions which will have to be taken by the Government in relation to future sub-county structures and section 37 (1) (c) of the Bill makes this absolutely clear. Part VI is, in effect, a modernisation and consolidation in a flexible form of existing outdated legislation dating back to the 1840s.
Next to the question of powers and functions, the aspect of local government most obviously in need or review is the structural set-up, which remains in essentially the same format as that created by the Local Government Act, 1898. It is essential to ensure that the structures themselves do not inhibit good local government and that we have a system which is conducive to both operational efficiency and effective local representation.
Senators will be aware that the Government have already indicated general agreement with the advisory committee's recommendation that the local government system be structured on three levels. They have confirmed that the county or county borough, as the case may be, will continue to be the primary unit of local government and that eight regional authorities will be established to promote regional level co-ordination. The necessary powers to establish the regional authorities and to provide for their functions and other operational aspects are contained in Part VII of the Bill.
Pursuant to an order which will be made by me under section 43, there are to be eight regions as follows:
Donegal; Leitrim; Sligo.
Galway city and county; Mayo; Roscommon.
Clare; Limerick city and county; Tipperary North Riding.
Cork city and county; Kerry.
Carlow, Kilkenny; Tipperary South Riding; Waterford city and county; Wexford.
Laois; Longford; Offaly; Westmeath.
Dublin city and county; Kildare; Meath and Wicklow.
I should emphasise that the regional dimension will derive from the local government system rather than being imposed on it. The regional authorities will be composed of elected members from county councils and county borough corporations within the region. They will not, however, be local authorities themselves. The role of the regional authorities will be to promote the co-ordination of public services in the regions and there is no provision in the Bill for any transfer of local authority functions to these bodies. The formal designation of regions will encourage a greater convergence in regional structures and operations of other public agencies. The need for co-ordination of this kind becomes apparent when one considers the range of services which are organised regionally, not only through bodies formally constituted on a regional basis but also in terms of various national bodies and services operating through regional or divisional structures.
Members of the Seanad will, no doubt, have noted that the present Bill does not provide for any alteration in local government structures at the sub-county level. The expert advisory committee failed to produce agreed recommendations on this aspect. Two radically diverging alternatives were discussed in their report. One would have the effect of eliminating the directly elected sub-county tier entirely. The other would increase very substantially the number of such authorities and of elected members at this level.
In the circumstances, the Government must give further consideration to the most appropriate type of local government structures at sub-county level. Because of this, section 14 in Part III of the Bill provides that elections will not be held next June to authorities other than county and county borough councils. Residents of those authorities to which elections are not being held will, of course, be entitled to vote at county council elections in the normal way. Part III also contains consequential matters relating to appointment of members of harbour authorities and vocational education committees together with other electoral provisions including a technical provision to prohibit plural voting at local elections.
Due to an oversight in the Local Government (Reorganisation) Act, 1985, in relation to the county borough of Galway, the existing provision relating to revision of local electoral areas in the longer established county boroughts, which are scattered over a number of different Acts dating from 1929, are being consolidated and applied to all five county boroughs, thus rectifying the Galway situation. I would like to emphasise, however, that it is not the intention to use this provision prior to the local elections in June. Besides, section 12 confers no draconian or improper new powers on the Minister. However, arising from reservations which were expressed in the Dáil, I tabled a number of amendments on Committee Stage. The effect of these is to provide that in future any proposal for alterations of a local electoral area will first have to be referred for consideration by a boundary committee under part V of the Bill and that all orders providing for revision of local electoral areas will have to be approved in draft by both Houses of the Oireachtas. These amendments were accepted by the Dáil and put to rest any doubts as to the intention behind this provision.
Ministers and Ministers of State will be excluded from concurrent membership of a local authority under section 13. This measure, which was announced in the Government statement of 7 March, is designed to emphasise the separate roles of the respective levels of representation in their own right and underlines again the increased independence from central Government which this Bill will allow to local authorities.
While the Government's local government reform programme is a national one, the need for reform, especially from the point of view of structural change, is most acutely felt in the Dublin area. The scale and intensity of development, population growth and social change require the implementation of special measures for local government in Dublin. The Government are determined to ensure that this matter will be addressed urgently and effectively and that appropriate, more locally-focussed structures will be put in place, with authorities capable of responding effectively to the needs of their communities.
Senators will be aware of the Government's previous announcement that they have decided that the local government system in the Dublin area should be reorganised to take account of the large scale housing and other development which has occurred since the Dublin structures were last substantially revised 60 years ago. Dublin Corporation will remain and three new authorities will be established at the earliest possible moment to replace Dublin County Council and Dún Laoghaire Corporation. The June elections will take place on the basis of the three counties determined for electoral purposes in 1985, but with new titles, as follows: Fingal: the county are north of the Liffey; Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown: the county area from Dún Laoghaire to Rathfarnham; South Dublin: the county area from Rathfarnham, west to the Liffey.
Following the elections, the boundary advisory committee provided for in the Bill, which I will refer to further in a moment, will review the boundaries of these electoral counties including the boundary between south Dublin/Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown which the expert committee felt might run along the main Bray Road.
In the light of any changes in boundaries which may be decided upon and taking account of the preliminary results of the April 1991 census, any revision which may be necessary in the membership of the new Dublin councils can be considered at a later stage. This will not, of course, affect the June elections.
The decision to set up three new county councils is aimed at ensuring more relevant and accessible local government with a sharper focus on the needs of the areas served. We need to take definite steps now, even in this first Bill, to get the process under way rather than repeat the half-hearted measures provided for in the 1985 Act. Accordingly, as a first practical step in the process of transition to the three new county councils, three statutory committees of the newly elected county councils, corresponding to the new county council areas, will be established under the Bill after the elections, one for each of the proposed county areas and composed of the members elected for those areas. Dublin County Council will be required to delegate functions and to operate as far as possible through these committees and each will have its own area manager to be appointed through the Local Appointments Commission. Pending this, three existing assistant managers will be assigned responsibility for the area committees, each exercising delegated functions appropriate to the area.
Over a period the role of the committees will be progressively widened. The area managers, after necessary consultations with their area committees, are required by the Bill to submit a joint report on preparations for the establishment of new county councils for the three areas. In the light of that report the Minister will make regulations in preparation for the establishment of the new county councils, the dissolution of the present authorities and the transfer of staff, assets, liabilities, property, etc. to the new bodies.
While further legislation will be required formally to abolish Dublin County Council and Dún Laoghaire Corporation and to establish the three new county councils, I would like to emphasise that, unlike the arrangements made in 1985, the provisions in Part IV of the Bill in relation to Dublin will not cease to have effect after the holding of the local elections. In fact, the provisions which I have alluded to will ensure that all of the necessary preparatory steps connected with the structural reorganisation in Dublin can be worked out and given effect to in anticipation of the further legislation.
Many Senators will be well aware of the anomalies which are readily apparent in certain local authority boundaries. Moreover, the existing procedures for alteration of boundaries are cumbersome and the legal provisions fragmented. A revised set of provisions relating to boundaries is contained in Part V of the Bill.
Section 28 provides for the establishment of independent boundary advisory committees to review local authority boundaries, including local electoral boundaries, or other local government matters referred to it. Provision relating to the referral of matters to a boundary committee and the submission of reports on boundaries by a committee are contained in sections 31, 32 and 33 respectively. New streamlined procedures for review and alteration of local authority boundaries are contained in sections 29, 30, 31 and 34. These include provisions relating to matters such as formulation of boundary proposals, consultation between local authorities concerned, powers of the Minister to alter boundaries and provision for dealing with the various transitional and consequential matters which arise from boundary alterations — for example, such matters as financial adjustments, transfer of staff, application of Acts or by-laws, etc. All reports of boundary committees will be independent in the performance of their functions.
Under this Part a review of local authority boundaries can be initiated by a local authority or by the Minister but the Minister will be obliged to refer the matter to a boundary committee where there is disagreement between the local authorities concerned or where he considers, on his own initiative, that a boundary alteration should be made. By virtue of the amendments, made at Committee Stage in the Dáil and to which I have already made reference, a proposal to alter a local electoral area boundary will also have to be considered by a boundary committee. In the case of an order altering the boundary of a county or county borough, section 3 provides that the order will have to be approved in draft by both Houses of the Oireachtas before it can be made by the Minister as will an order for alteration of a local electoral area boundary.
The provisions relating to boundary alterations will constitute an important element of structural reform and reorganisation of the local government system. It is proposed, as I have already indicated, that a boundary advisory committee will review the boundaries of the new electoral counties in Dublin after the forthcoming elections. It is envisaged that a committee will also examine situations where existing boundaries of counties or cities are unsatisfactory and advise on any issues which may arise as a result of decisions on sub-county structures in due course.
The strengthening of the system of democratic local government requires that the status of local authorities as public institutions and of their elected members be enhanced.
Part VII contains a number of important provisions towards this end.
I am certain that all Members of the Seanad will agree that the role and status of the elected members of local authorities is fundamental to the democratic system of local government. The powers of the elected members are, in law, founded primarily on the concept of "reserved functions". These are the functions which, under the City and County Management Acts, are reserved as the exclusive prerogative of the elected members, as distinct from the "executive functions" exercisable by the manager for the authority.
This Bill directly specifies a considerable number of important powers and functions as being reserved to the elected members. For example, decisions in relation to representational functions under section 5; a decision under section 6 regarding activities of benefit to the local community; decisions under section 29 in relation to alteration of boundaries; establishment of committees under Part VI and delegation of functions to certain types of committees. That list is not exhaustive by any means. In addition, section 41 (2) will provide a new general power for the Minister to declare additional reserved functions by order. As I mentioned in the Dáil, it is my intention that a special review group, to include elected members, managers and representatives of my Department, will be set up after the elections to advise on this matter.
In addition to their role in performing the specific functions reserved to them, the elected members of local authorities occupy a special position of authority and status in relation to the determination of local authority policy and general overview of their authority's operations. This is appropriate in view of the mandate which they receive from being directly elected. The reserved functions already tend to correspond with policy-making aspects and there are specific powers to impose various requirements on the manager. However, the fact that the policy-making role of the members is not spelt out clearly and succinctly in law has, I believe, caused the role and status of the elected members to be understated. Indeed, I suspect that very many elected members themselves are insufficiently aware of the full extent of the legal power and authority vested in them. In order to reaffirm and emphasise the paramount role of the elected members in the local government system, section 41 (1) provides explicit formal recognition of the policy-making role of the elected members.
Part VII deals also with certain other matters pertaining to the conditions of local authority members and contains provisions designed to enhance the civic role of local authorities generally as representative public institutions. Section 48 empowers local authorities generally to confer civic honours. Section 49 will provide a statutory basis for local authority involvement in town-twinning arrangements. The major local authorities will be obliged under section 50 to produce annual reports which will be available to the public. Local authorities will be empowered under section 46 to organise special events for purposes such as receiving distinguished visitors and guests. All local authorities will be empowered to pay allowances to their chairmen under section 42 and section 51 sets out a new flexible, statutory framework for the payment of expenses to members of local authorities and for representation of local authorities at conferences.
Section 4 of the City and County Management (Amendment) Act, 1955, provides one of the single most important powers available to the elected members of a local authority. However, its use in relation to planning matters in certain instances and areas has on occasion given rise to some disquiet. The Government are concerned to ensure that this important channel of democratic input to the decision-making process is not brought into disrepute and that it will continue to be available to the elected members to use in a responsible manner and in appropriate cases. Accordingly, they have decided on certain changes in its operation.
In future, for such a resolution to be valid in the case of decisions on individual planning matters, three-quarters of the total membership of the local authority must vote in favour and the notice of motion must be signed by three-quarters of the members from the electoral area or areas concerned. This is provided for in section 44. The corresponding provisions in relation to material contravention of a development plan are also being amended so that three-quarters of the total membership must vote in favour; this is contained in section 45.
In line with the now established practice in the Civil Service in relation to the appointment of secretaries of Departments and the general trend towards encouraging mobility, there is provision in section 47 to prescribe a maximum term of office for future city and county managers.
I want to thank Senators for bearing with me patiently through what has, I must admit, been quite a lengthy contribution. However, I think I was justified in giving the matter quite detailed treatment because the Bill which is now before the Seanad is a very substantial measure indeed. In the outline which I have just given of its main features, I would not claim to have dealt with any more than the broad headings of the reform provisions. These powers will, in turn, as I have already indicated, accommodate a wider range of specific matters which can be dealt with in a flexible manner as implementation of the reform programme progresses. This is in keeping with the need to treat the programme as an evolving one, the elements of which must be built on progressively, and with specific measures being formulated with due regard to the programme as a whole and to its particular stage of implementation.
As I said in the Dáil last week, the reform programme will open a new era for local government but it will also require new attitudes and approaches on the part of local authorities.
The very fact that many of the reforms which have been called for over the years are now being provided will, in a sense, represent a challenge to local authorities and local authority members. Local authorities will be compelled to display an even greater sense of responsibility, maturity and self-reliance. The elected members of local authorities will be expected to play the central role which our democratic system always intended that they should. There will be an onus on them to utilise their enhanced position to the full in order to discharge effectively their duty of representing the interests of their communities and to be more fully accountable to the people for the performance of their councils.
There will also be new challenges and opportunities for local communities. Among the chief objectives of the reform programme are the need to make the local government system more meaningful and closer to these communities, to make it more responsive to local needs and problems and to foster initiative in, and within communities. This also implies a greater degree of participation in local government affairs on the part of individuals and groups in the community.
I believe there is a much more positive and concerned attitude to local government on the part of the community than is often assumed. There are rich resources of community spirit and initiative which the reformed local authorities can and must harness for the betterment of their areas. The members and officials alike of local authorities must be prepared to respond positively and energetically to this challenge. I know that I can also look forward to a positive and committed approach on the part of Senators during the debate on this Bill.