Local Authority Funding.

I have raised this Adjournment matter because I have been contacted by the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland. This body nominated me to stand for election to this House again and I was elected on that nomination on three occasions.

There is a view that a move may be done to devolve housing allocation from borough and town councils to the medium of the county council. Two Members raised this matter in the other House. I will give my views in case it becomes reality. It would be a backward step at a time when we are endeavouring to strengthen local government and when town local government, above all other units of local government, must be strengthened.

The borough councils concerned are Drogheda, Clonmel, Kilkenny, Sligo and Wexford. Some 49 urban councils are involved, of which three have a number of members equal to that of a borough council, namely 12. The other 46 have nine members each. Bray Town Council represents an area greater than at least two counties in this country. If housing powers are downgraded we would take a backward step, making a nonsense out of upgrading local government and strengthening town local government.

If the expenditure of town councils and county councils is examined, one sees that town councils perform very well. In a town not far from where I live, 144% of the housing allocation was spent. It could have done with more money. Meanwhile, the county council spent 67% of its allocation, a figure that speaks for itself. I am not aware of the long-term proposals but I ask for the views in the Department, the permanent government. I ask the Minister and Ministers of State not to proceed with any proposal to devolve the allocation in the manner outlined. Such a proposal would not be in the interests of town councils, local government in general or democracy.

I am proud to have been a member of a town council, albeit it one that was non-rating. Unfortunately, town commissions had their name changed under the 2000 Act. However, all that changed was the name. There are 26 non-rating authorities and 49 urban district councils, making a total of 75. They are all town councils but, as already stated, 26 are non-rating. Some of those towns have populations much larger than those that obtain in towns with rating authorities, which were originally called urban district councils.

A great deal is at stake in the context of local democracy. I was born and bred in the country and I live in a town. In 1979 I had the honour to be elected to both Westmeath County Council and Mullingar Town Commission. There is no comparison between the problems of towns and those experienced in rural areas. One can travel miles along country roads and the only problems one might encounter would relate to the serving of hedge notices, verge trimming, the opening of water cuts, road surfaces or the need to straighten a bad corner. Walk town a street in a town and one might be presented with 20 issues.

There is no point in saying that this can be done more efficiently. I reiterate what I said regarding the uptake and utilisation of allocations. Town councils are far more efficient in terms of taking up their allocations and making use of them. I request that the situation which obtains at present in respect of the allocation of funding for housing starts to borough and town councils remain as it stands. I also request that any proposal, whether it comes from the Department or the Minister's office, be parked permanently. We should forget such proposals because they are not in the interests of democracy or furthering the powers of local government in our towns. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter, to which I will be replying on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley.

The background to the annual round of housing allocations is the steady increase in the size of the social housing investment programme. Substantial investment has been made in social housing in recent years. The range of programmes has broadened, with more households being offered a wider range of housing options. Delivery methods have also diversified, with the growth in voluntary and co-operative housing and with innovative arrangements being applied to promote tenure diversity through public private partnerships and major regeneration schemes. New housing is also coming on stream through Part V agreements and the new rental accommodation scheme, RAS.

During the period 2007 to 2009, 27,000 new homes will be commenced or acquired for those in need of social housing, through a combination of measures including local authority, voluntary and co-operative housing and RAS accommodation under long-term contracts. The Government allocated in excess of €926 million in 2007 for this purpose. The resources being made available under the national development plan will allow for similar levels of activity after 2009.

Housing authorities will be the primary agents for the delivery of social housing with 20,000 new housing starts projected for the 2007 to 2009 period. This level of activity naturally will place significant demands on housing authorities. The evidence in 2007, however, is that performance on the social housing programme is at its strongest point this decade.

Officials of the Minister's Department met representatives of housing authorities last October to review their housing action plans. These meetings brought together all the housing authorities within a county area with the aim of ensuring an integrated approach to delivering their programmes. With individual households often applying for housing support to different authorities within an area, in light of the fact that housing solutions frequently address the concerns of more than one authority and given the need for authorities to make best use of local resources in the design, planning and management of projects, it is clear that authorities cannot and should not act in isolation.

In so far as this relates to allocations, it is the Minister's intention to provide county and city councils as early as possible in 2008 with an indication of the general level of Exchequer funding which will be available over the next three years for the main housing investment programme. This will take into account a number of factors, including existing commitments, the state of housing programmes and, in particular, housing need. This is the first stage of a process of consultation and negotiation with housing authorities to arrive at an equitable distribution of funding for the 2008 to 2010 period.

County councils will be expected to co-ordinate the planning for the various housing programmes for their county areas in co-operation with the housing authorities within their areas and in some cases with adjoining counties. The Department will then meet and discuss these plans with each housing authority, including town and borough councils, as part of the housing action plan review process. It is expected that capital allocations for 2008 for each housing authority will be formally announced by the end of the first quarter of next year. As is the normal practice, allocations will be made directly to city, county, borough and town councils.

The Minister is conscious that over time the management and integration of various housing programmes has become more complex and some pooling of resources at a county level is required to improve planning and to ensure the efficient and effective delivery of projects. Against this background and in the context of developing further the multi-annual financial framework for housing investment programmes, the Minister is examining ways to provide more flexibility in the management of the investment programmes.

The successful delivery of housing investment programmes depends on housing authorities, including the town and borough councils. In this context, the aim is to strengthen the capabilities of all housing authorities to enable them to better deliver housing services at local level in an integrated and effective manner.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I ask him to relay to the Minister my comments on the efficiency of town councils regarding the administration of their housing allocations. County councils have much to learn from town councils in this area. In the context of housing starts, figures relating to uptake and disbursement provide clear evidence that what I am saying is true.

The Seanad adjourned at 1.40 p.m. until2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 4 December 2007.