Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Seanadóir as an ábhar seo a ardú. Tá mé ag seasamh isteach don Aire, an Teachta Hogan, nach féidir leis a bheith anseo.
I inform the Senator and the House that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government did have a very successful trip to County Donegal at the weekend, where I understand he addressed a public meeting in Ballyshannon at which many of these issues were addressed. I believe his contribution was very impressive and that people's fears and concerns were allayed to a great extent. While I was not present at the meeting, I have read the media reports on what happened.
I am glad to have the opportunity to provide a policy context and some detail in the context of the Local Government Bill 2013, with particular reference to changes at sub-county level, a matter which has been raised on the Adjournment of the House a number of times recently. As Members are aware, the Government's action programme for effective local government, published in October 2012, sets out Government policy decisions on a range of measures to reform and strengthen local government structures, functions, funding, governance and operational arrangements. Chapter 6 of the action programme sets out arrangements to replace town councils with a new comprehensive model of municipal governance based on principal towns and designed to strengthen local government within counties and address weaknesses and anomalies in the current system.
Local government reform has been the subject of deliberation and discussion for many years. The process of consultation, prior to the current reform programme, effectively began with the public consultations in the context of the 2008 Green Paper on local government and has continued in the context of the 2012 action programme, the current Bill and specific aspects of the reform agenda such as the alignment of community and local development with local government and implementation of the local government efficiency review. These previous deliberations and consultations helped to inform the development of reform proposals in the action programme.
Since coming to office, the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, has considered submissions from and held discussions with the local government representative associations, individual local authorities and other interested groups and individuals. He also invited each individual councillor in the country to submit views to him on a number of issues relating to local government reform to help in finalising the production of last year's action programme. Following the publication last year of the reform action programme, a specific structured process was put in place for engagement with the local authority members' associations in the local government reform implementation process. This took the form of a working group for engagement with, and input by, the associations in regard to the development of the legislative provisions, including those relating to sub-county reorganisation, thereby providing a direct conduit for input and involvement by councillors in the reform implementation process. I record appreciation for the positive engagement on the part of the members' associations which has helped to inform the provisions included in the Bill.
The content of local government reform legislation was, of course, a matter for Government decision in the first instance and is now the subject of Oireachtas scrutiny and debate in the normal way. The Minister will be giving careful consideration to relevant issues, views and suggestions raised in that context within the parameters of the policy decisions taken by the Government.
Without question, the sub-county reform in the action programme is a radical departure and the decision to change fundamentally our approach to local government arrangements within counties was not taken lightly. It was taken, for example, in the full knowledge that town councils had enjoyed advantages such as proximity to citizens and the ability to respond to local needs. There is also a considerable element of history, heritage and civic status associated with town authorities. However, these strengths cannot hide the fact that the existing system of town local government contains glaring weaknesses, including limited functions, outdated boundaries, duplication of administration and insufficient scale to maximise efficiency or support expertise or resources to carry out a range of complex functions. This duplication is illustrated, for example, by the fact that in Tipperary, a county with a population of just under 160,000, there are nine local authorities involving nine sets of elections, nine annual budgets, nine annual reports, nine corporate plans, nine development plans and many other examples of political and administrative duplication. Similarly, a situation where town councillors nationally account for 46% of all local authority representatives but represent only 14% of the population is not sustainable in a modern, democratic society.
The new model of municipal governance will address these and other limitations. Equally, there is no reason whatsoever the strengths and qualities associated with many town councils cannot be extended beyond the "town walls", as it were, to embrace the wider hinterlands of the towns which are linked with them for a range of social, commercial, educational, employment and other purposes. Municipal districts will cover the entire territory of each county, reflecting European norms, removing outdated boundaries and ending the anomaly of small towns having municipal status and dual representation, while some larger centres and rural areas lack any sub-county governance. The performance of appropriate functions by members at county and district levels, respectively, will result in greater effectiveness than the current parallel town and county system. The allocation of functions between county and district levels will be determined on the basis of what is most relevant to each level. Local matters will be dealt with at municipal district level, while those of wider strategic application will be decided at county level.
The new sub-county governance arrangements will deliver the administrative and operational efficiency of a single county-wide organisation, while bringing county council decision making closer to local communities by virtue of assigning a range of reserved functions to elected members at district level, improving accountability and responsiveness. The increased measure of subsidiarity which the new sub-county arrangements will bring has been recognised in the recent report on local democracy in Ireland, published on 30 October by the Congress of the Council of Europe. While drawing attention to certain weaknesses in Ireland's system of local government which have developed over the decades and which the current reform programme is designed to address , the report specifically welcomed the action programme for effective local government which it referred to as "ambitious" and endorsed particular measures in it, including the structural changes at sub-county level.
Some people have disingenuously tried to suggest the Council of Europe has criticised the Bill because the congress report recommended changes in "legislation". In fact, what the report was referring to was the current legislation, since the report was drafted well before the Local Government Bill was published. On the specific issue of the replacement of town councils by municipal districts, the Council of Europe's report had the following to say:
In the rapporteurs' opinion, the structural changes are a positive element of the proposed reform, as it provides a solution to an unfair situation whereby those living in towns had two votes as compared to the rural areas which had one. It also simplifies the structure. These changes are also expected to be followed by other important steps, including greater subsidiarity, avoidance of duplication, a review of boundaries, better representational balance between urban and rural areas and a cohesive administrative/executive reorganisation.
There could hardly be a clearer endorsement of the reforms. This is entirely consistent with the fact that two amendments critical of Ireland's reform programme were voted down in the Council of Europe chamber by a large majority of the representatives of local authorities from across Europe.
I will refer back briefly to the overall local government reform programme by reminding Members that the core purpose of the programme is to put local government in a position to deliver better services, amenities and governance to communities by strengthening the structures, finances and operations generally of the system. In the context of future governance arrangements within counties, the principle of strength through unity will be a key factor in ensuring these objectives are delivered on to the benefit of all communities, urban and rural. The Local Government Bill 2013 reflects the benefits of consultation to date, the extensive studies undertaken of local government during the years and the input provided from a range of sources, not least the elected members of local authorities.
Different views are an inherent feature of democratic debate but the status quo in local government is not a realistic option. Change inevitably involves difficult decisions. It is a responsibility of the Government to take decisions that will make a real difference and the decisions that the Government have made will bring significant net benefits to local government and the communities it serves. They will deliver on the vision set out in the action programme on making local government the primary vehicle of governance and public service at local level.