I welcome the Minister.
Local Government Reform Bill 2013: Second Stage
I am privileged to bring the first ever local government reform legislation before this House. It began life in October as simply the "Local Government Bill 2013" and it will, I hope, enter the Statute Book as the Local Government Reform Act 2014, a title which reflects its true historic significance. It may not rank with what is sometimes referred to as the "Great" Reform Act 1832 in the context of the development of democratic government. However, the enactment of this legislation will be a historic departure in the evolution of local government in Ireland and will bring about momentous change.
Following decades of relative stagnation and decline, the local government sector is now leading the way in public service reform. The Bill before the House introduces radical change across the system. It represents change from outdated, inconsistent and, in some cases, almost redundant structures to a configuration that is rational and reflects modern life; a heavily managerial system of governance to one where the elected council assumes a proper position of leadership and responsibility; a primarily infrastructure-focused role to one that has social, economic and community development as a key priority; and a mindset of dependency on the part of local authorities to one of much greater self-reliance and accountable, democratic leadership. The reform process is facilitating this fundamental change through significant reforms across the entire spectrum of local government in the context of its structures, functions, funding, governance and operational arrangements.
This legislation will not have a short life. For a long time into the future it will radically reform how local government operates, provides its services and, perhaps most importantly, serves, represents and engages with communities throughout the country. The Bill is the roadmap by means of which we will move from an underperforming, under-resourced system of local government that has been hampered by weak functions and a disconnection from the citizens and communities it is supposed to serve to a coherent system that is at the heart of governance and public service at local level. This is a substantial Bill, set out in 13 Parts, with 70 sections, and five associated Schedules and, as such, I do not propose now to discuss all of its provisions. Rather, I will highlight the main reform provisions contained in the Bill, as first presented, and the changes made as the Bill passed through the Dáil.
Strengthening local authority functions is a core element of this change process. This is happening in the short term in the form of much greater local authority involvement in economic and community development. Equally important in the longer term is the potential for further expansion of the local government role. A modern, streamlined, effective and well governed system of local government will challenge any sceptic or guardian of centralised control, whether in other Departments or State bodies. We are leading public administration down a path of greater subsidiarity and decentralised governance not just because the Council of Europe and the OECD have championed these principles on grounds of effectiveness as well as democracy, but because it makes good sense. As last year's action programme for effective local government pointed out, it is irrational to maintain a comprehensive array of local authorities covering every square inch of the State without utilising them to the fullest possible degree for the provision of public services. The local authority should be the public service authority at local level for as many services and functions as possible. To copper-fasten this, the Government recently agreed a procedure for local government-proofing of all future proposals for public service functions at local level, which will ensure that the momentum towards devolution under this Bill will continue to be taken forward.
Nowhere is the significance of change more evident than in the structural make-up of the local government system. Proliferation of public agencies and other organisations receiving public funds was typical of Celtic bubble excess, just like the excessive building, overzoning, excessive lending and overspending that characterised that period of irresponsible government. The local government reform programme is leading the way in deflating the bureaucratic bubble in the sector. Including the dissolutions of town councils and the mergers in Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary, more than 190 statutory local bodies are being stood down. Adding various committees, subcommittees, joint committees and other structures associated with these bodies, the final tally in bureaucratic pruning will reach several hundred more.
These entities give rise to considerable administrative demands - servicing meetings, operating back office functions and going through a plethora of statutory or corporate processes such as corporate plans, strategy statements, annual reports, annual estimates, annual audits, etc. These demands and processes arise largely because these bodies exist, not because they confer any direct benefit to the public. For decades, all of these bureaucratic structures and processes have absorbed resources that, thanks to the reform agenda underpinned by this Bill, can in future be more directly and effectively deployed in improving front-line local services, particularly in terms of economic and community development, activities with real potential to enhance the quality of life of local communities.
The irrationality of current administrative duplication is particularly striking when viewed in the context of an individual county. Take for example Tipperary, which we are unifying after 177 years of separation. How do the 160,000 residents of the county benefit from having nine separate housing authorities, road authorities, planning authorities, rating authorities, etc.? What benefit do the 1,800 residents in the environs of Cashel, who make up 45% of the overall town population, derive from the existence of a town council on their doorstep that does not cater for them in any way? Does the town benefit from the processes, efforts and costs required to produce a co-ordinated development plan for the town and environs, which has to be adopted by two different local authorities?
Extending the boundaries of a town like Cashel or in the 74 other urban centres where, in many cases, a significant proportion of the population lies outside the current municipal boundary, including Kilkenny where there are almost twice as many people outside as within, is not an option. That would weaken the county councils, cause further fragmentation in the revenue base and service delivery and perpetuate the administrative duplication that needs to be eradicated. Nor would it address the status and local governance deficit in the many towns across the country that have grown significantly in the past century or more and where in many cases their populations greatly outnumber that of the smaller town councils.
The only basis on which town boundaries might, in theory, be extended would be to relieve the town councils of most of their already limited functions, which would make a nonsense of retaining them as separate corporate entities. These functions are narrow. In the case of the former town commissioners, which operated under 1854 legislation, they are virtually non-existent. Town councils account for only 7% of local government services and expenditure, but almost 70% of the governance overhead in the sector.
Instead of extending boundaries, the Bill provides for an innovative system of municipal governance whereby the towns will be united with their hinterlands, reflecting the norm for municipalities across Europe and achieving a range of benefits in the process. I am confident that this will also extend across all districts the ethos of municipal government and civic responsibility that has underpinned the work of many town councils.
The strength of the new municipalities will be founded not on corporate status, but on the role of their elected members.
The Bill devolves a significant range of powers to elected members at district level, bringing county council decision-making closer to local communities while at the same time achieving greater efficiency and value for money through administrative and operational integration. Subsidiarity will, therefore, be enhanced, a fact, contrary to some misleading comments, acknowledged and welcomed by the recent Council of Europe report. Democratic representation will also be enhanced as the municipal districts will facilitate engagement with local communities and make councillors more directly identified with and accountable for decisions affecting the local area.
Those who suggest that the Bill will weaken local democracy do not have a solidly grounded case. This is evident when one considers that town councillors, who account for 46% of local authority members, represent only 14% of the population, with this small minority also having a dual franchise, while, as I mentioned earlier, many large centres of population and, indeed, the entirety of rural Ireland, have no sub-county municipal governance. Legislation can improve structures, functions and systems but it cannot guarantee that the elected members will have the capacity and commitment to ensure that the system works well and that the potential benefits of the reforms are fully realised. This is one of the key reasons that I have made significant provisions in the Bill to support and encourage elected members to step up and meet the challenge of representing and serving their communities well and effectively.
Part 7 makes provision for a carrot and stick approach to the training and professional development of councillors. For too long, training for councillors has been on an ad hoc basis, often based on little more than costly attendance at conferences organised by commercial interests. This approach has not served our councillors, who I believe are deeply committed to doing their job well, or the communities they represent. To this end, the Bill provides for a more structured approach to training as well as continuing professional development, with powers for Ministerial regulations on the syllabus and provision of councillor training. There will be a strong emphasis on relevant professional training provided at a more local level, where possible. I will be working closely with the amalgamated representative body, the successor to the ACCC and AMAI, which I hope will be in place in tandem with the new structures, to ensure the curriculum for this training is fully relevant and fit for purpose.
Attendance at conferences, unless organised by the local authority system or a recognised sectoral body, will be discouraged. The new intake of councillors following the 2014 local elections will be provided with induction courses that address the need for enhanced training in the areas of ethics and the prevention of conflicts of interest, among other important issues. Failure to comply with regulations on attendance at training will lead to financial penalties. This approach will maximise the return on investment for councillor training, and more important, will improve the effectiveness of councillors in discharging their new and expanded role in the development of policy and oversight of its delivery. This new approach to ensuring that councillors are properly trained for the job is essential to achieving the vision for a reformed local government. This reform will not happen if the elected members are not in a position to deliver the kind of policy-making and oversight that our communities deserve. If this Bill is enacted, they will, for the first time in many decades, have a much more important role to play in how the local authorities they serve are governed and managed.
The Bill provides for an enhanced policy-making role for elected members across many important areas,including economic development and enterprise support, in particular through the new strategic policy committees for economic development and enterprise to be established under the Bill. These new SPCs will provide a crucial mechanism for the development of the economic part of the local economic and community plans, which will be provided for in their entirety by way of Committee Stage amendments. The new SPC will also be the mechanism whereby the operation of the local enterprise offices, which will be one stop shops for enterprise support within the local authorities, will be overseen by the elected members in a manner similar to the oversight of other SPCs on the management and delivery of local authority functions.
The establishment of the LEOs within the local authority system is a significant element of the bolstering of local authority functions in the areas of economic development and enterprise support. It is in line with the wider reform objective of eliminating duplication in that it will remove another tier of governance through county and city enterprise boards, CEBs, while still ensuring that the best of the work done by CEBs continues to be supported and progressed. It is worth mentioning also that the Bill will additionally deliver an enhanced role for local government in ensuring co-ordinated and coherent action for local and community development.
Through the establishment of the local community development committees, local government will once again take centre stage in this area, bringing its resources and democratic mandate to bear while retaining and building on the existing strengths of local initiative and commitment that have been fostered in the sector to date. The local community development committees will also have a key role to play in the development of the community elements of the local economic and community plans. This new approach will address the existing overly-complex structures, lack of joined-up approach to planning, oversight and delivery of programmes, and the requirement for organisations to be represented on a multitude of local boards and consultative bodies.
It will provide for a streamlining of structures and programmes to maximise the benefit to communities at a time when funding, particularly EU funding, is becoming more constrained, and integrating local economic and community development planning will ensure a holistic approach to sustainable development at the local level. Membership of the local community development committees will reflect the partnership approach that has been at the heart of efforts to date, and will foster this further by ensuring a balance between sectoral interests and elected members.
These changes provide for a vital expansion in the scope of functions of local authorities, an issue which was quite rightly raised in the Council of Europe's Congress of Regional and Local Authorities report on local democracy in Ireland. The Bill is vital to reversing the tide of marginalising local government which has occurred over the past few decades. It goes further in providing a mechanism for the devolution of a wide range of central government functions from Departments and State agencies. Although extensive devolution will not happen overnight, the Bill provides a robust framework within which a more efficient and effective local government system can take on increasing amounts of such functions. The Bill goes a long way to achieving our vision of local government as the primary vehicle for governance and public service at local level.
In addition to the broader expansion of the functions of local government, this reform Bill also provides for significant steps to rebalance the relationship between elected members and the executive. This was one of the major commitments that we made in our programme for Government as part of our overall reform of the public sector. The Bill will ensure that the elected members are central to the policy-making and governance of local government. They will have increased decision-making powers and responsibilities, including the ability to vary the level of the local property tax, and enhanced oversight responsibilities in the delivery of an efficient and effective service to the public.
These enhancements, particularly the discretion to increase or decrease the rate of local property tax, will, in a very real way, make elected members accountable to the communities they serve and will re-energise local democracy. Elected members will have to respond to the needs of their communities and take meaningful decisions about the level of funding that needs to be generated from the local property tax and the ways in which that funding will be used. Some have suggested that the Bill is centralising power, but I am convinced that by significantly reducing the dependence on central government funding, and providing a stable mechanism for local authorities to generate and manage their own funds, we are renewing the relationship between local authorities and the communities they serve. The reintroduction of a significant local revenue-raising power provides the first such opportunity since 1977 for citizens to have a vested interest in the decisions their elected members will make.
Central to the rebalancing of power between the elected members and the executive is the replacement of the traditional role of manager with a new position of chief executive. This is not simply a change of title, but a more fundamental change of role which reflects the relationship between the elected members, as the board of directors of the local authority who provide strategic direction, and the chief executive, who has responsibility for implementing that strategy.
The Bill contains a number of important provisions in this regard - providing additional statutory underpinning for the duty of the chief executive to comply with policy as set down by the elected council, and strengthening the capacity of the council to oversee and question the implementation of that policy. The oversight role of the council, following the enactment of the Bill, will involve additional mechanisms for engagement with the chief executive, requirements for regular monthly management reports, mechanisms for additional reports and indeed reviews of implementation, all at the request of the elected members.
However, perhaps the most symbolic provision of this new relationship will be the role of the elected members in the appointment of the chief executive as the individual who will be expected to implement the policy set by them. The current system gives a nominal responsibility to members to approve the appointment of a manager, but this is relatively meaningless as the appointment is automatic after three months, whatever the view of the council. This is completely turned on its head in the Bill, as henceforth the elected councils will have full powers of appointment of the chief executive following a Public Appointments Service nomination. I will introduce an amendment on Committee Stage to provide greater clarity on how the elected members are to perform this important new reserved function.
With these greater powers of the elected members to generate revenue through the local property tax and to direct the policy and programmes of the local authority, it is logical that the Bill would also seek to strengthen the governance and oversight arrangements for the local government system as a whole. The members at municipal district level will play an integral role in the budgetary process. In fact, an amendment made in the Dáil on Committee Stage provided that the chief executive must consider the needs and resources of the local authority and of the municipal districts. The principles of fairness and equity must be at the heart of the budgetary system, especially in the context of the general municipal allocations.
I also draw attention to the new section on local authority service delivery plans, which was included as the Bill passed through the Dáil. These plans provide for a new methodology whereby local authorities will clearly identify the services they will be providing and the standards to which these are expected to be provided. These plans are essential for two main reasons - they contribute to the Government's efficiency in public service agenda, while also ensuring that citizens and communities can clearly see what services they are getting for the taxes they pay.
It is essential that one can see whether the local authority has delivered what it promised and whether one is getting value for money when comparisons are made with neighbouring or similar local authorities. These service plans will be tied in closely with the more quantitative performance indicator or performance standard model at national level over time.
In this regard, the Bill also makes provision for national oversight of local authority performance through the establishment of a national oversight and audit commission. The commission will provide an independent scrutiny of local government performance in fulfilling national, regional and local mandates. It will bring accountability and coherence to the forefront of consideration of local government performance. Moreover, in line with the overall thrust of the Bill, it will be a streamlined structure without a corporate overhead that will be supported by staff from within my Department and which will have powers to request reports from the new regional assemblies. The commission will do its work under the guidance of an independent chair and will comprise members with relevant expertise in a range of areas to provide the most overarching and comprehensive oversight of local government performance. Its reports will inform the Government and the Oireachtas of local government's strengths and weaknesses and will inform elected members of the performance of their authorities.
More important than the change in Title in the Bill are the substantial additions made to it during its passage through the Dáil. While I have mentioned some of them already, another I wish to highlight is section 60, which replaces the regional planning guidelines with regional spatial and economic strategies, which will be the main function of the new regional assemblies. These are essential to ensuring the full integration between planning and economic development and will provide a much stronger framework for integrated national and regional co-ordination. These strategies will provide the broad framework within which local authorities will perform their enhanced role in economic development. I intend to table further important amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage here in the Seanad later this week, including provisions to cater for points raised by Opposition Deputies during the Dáil debates. I look forward to a constructive debate with Senators in this Chamber, as well as to the suggestions they also may wish to make to improve the Bill. In addition, some important provisions for which drafting had not been finalised in time for the Dáil will be brought forward in the Seanad in order that the Bill, as it leaves this House, will be further enhanced. I wish to point out that while this will involve quite a number of amendments, the majority of them are minor or technical in nature.
However, there also are substantial issues to be addressed. In particular, I would like to highlight the link I propose to make between the new economic development role at local and regional level and community and local development. Through the new community and economic plan there will be a requirement for local authorities to consider the synergies between the local community development committee, LCDC, and the strategic policy committee, SPC, for economic development processes, as well as to build an integrated plan that will be consistent and coherent with the development plan and the regional spatial and economic strategy and which will be responsive to the needs of the communities to which it applies. In addition, taking account of the discussion in the Dáil, I also will propose some improvements to the provisions on the refund of rates for vacant properties. Furthermore, I will table amendments to provide a strengthened but measured and balanced regime to secure the payment of outstanding non-principal private residence charge arrears, which will be an important potential source of revenue for local authorities in 2014.
As I have stated consistently, this reform Bill is about bringing local government back into the communities it serves and in that regard, I intend to bring forward an amendment that will provide for a framework for much more active and effective engagement by citizens with local government. Previous efforts in this direction were half-hearted, and the current non-statutory structures that were supposed to generate citizen engagement are largely unknown to the public. The new framework will be detailed in secondary legislation that will enable me to take account of the recommendations from a group chaired by Fr. Seán Healy, which recently completed its work.
I opened this debate with a reference to the change in the Title to the Local Government Reform Bill 2013. Although a simple amendment, I believe it sends a strong and unambiguous signal as to the purpose of the Bill. This Bill will provide a robust legislative framework that will reform fundamentally local government structures and will deliver changes across the sector to ensure that our citizens and communities are served and represented in an effective and accountable way. It will reverse the trend of past decades of marginalising local government and will create a strong basis for more devolution of functions and a rebuilding of local government as the primary vehicle for governance and public service at local level. I will conclude by thanking the Cathaoirleach and Senators for the opportunity to consider this Bill before the Christmas recess. This is a busy time for everyone and I hope the debates will be productive and will contribute to a positive outcome before Members rise for the break.
I welcome the Minister to the House. While I always will be courteous to a decent Kilkenny man, I am unsure whether I will be as receptive to the Bill itself. Instead of calling this the Local Government Reform Bill, I would be inclined to call it the local government choke Bill. The Bill has many negative aspects and while I will not have time to dwell on them all and do not wish to be completely negative about it, instead of empowering the citizens of Ireland it centralises power and disempowers ordinary citizens.
It is an attack on local democracy. I question many aspects of the Bill and perhaps the Minister can provide me with answers. He will know the plan will lead to Ireland having the most centralised government in the western world. We often talk about the much better systems of local governance in Norway, Sweden and Finland but Ireland is moving in the opposite direction.
I oppose the Bill for another reason. Instead of the Bill putting people first, power will be bestowed on the bureaucrats. Many powers will be taken away from the ordinary elected public representatives and put in the hands of what the Minister calls chief executives, which is just a new name for county managers.
I wish to focus on a number of issues for the few minutes allotted to me. I am puzzled by the lack of parity and equity in the quota system for local authorities because I thought the legislation was about transparency and openness. Let me give one simple example. Two areas have been merged to produce the new re-organised west Cork area and the number of seats has been reduced from 12 to eight seats. I compare that with the Mizen Head peninsula which comprises six inhabited islands and is geographically larger than nine counties. Cork city's quota will be approximately 1,500 or 1,600 but for the new area it will be 3,500 which is not on. Fair representation means the same figure should apply for cities and towns. If anything, the system should be like the American Senate where Alaska is guaranteed two Senators and Arizona, with its low density of population, is guaranteed representation. The Minister should ensure the same applies to rural places like County Leitrim, west Cork or north-west Donegal. Unfortunately, the same will not happen.
What would happen if a constitutional challenge were taken against the legislation? I do not intend doing so but there is a lack of parity and great inequity between areas. My local area will lose three town councils, among which is the excellent Clonakilty Town Council led by an excellent mayor who has done Trojan work over the year. It is a great loss to lose mayors. My area will also lose Skibbereen Town Council and Bantry Town Council with a total loss of 27 town councillors and four county councillors. With the area of Skibbereen-Clonakilty being amalgamated with Bantry, the original combined total of 12 members will be reduced to eight posts. It is ludicrous that remote parts of rural Ireland will have greatly increased quotas for representation. There is great disparity throughout the country in the treatment of places.
My next query is on the local property tax. Why will the tax in many areas, particularly in my own county of Cork, fund the water services provision for the coming year? In effect, the local property tax will fund the provision of another tax.
I wish to raise a point about the rating situation. I cite examples that are not common for me but I am sure are typical of other areas. At present, Skibbereen Town Council and Clonakilty Town Council have a rate that has remained at 10% below the county council average over the years. Both towns are hard-pressed to survive and small businesses must eke out a living. However, the town councils must increase the rate to the county average. For some businesses it will mean a massive increase of 10% for one, two or three years. The increase is unfair and unjust and I ask the Minister to address the matter in his reply.
The legislation deals with local government reform. How will the new legislation treat the change political control of local authorities? Since 1999 local authorities, with some exceptions, have been in the control of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, with terrible planning decisions taken in various counties, including County Cork.
Since 1993 Fine Gael or the Labour Party or both have controlled planning. I know a man whose properties are in NAMA. He told me that since 1999 he never bothered with us because there was no point in that the majority of the councillors who had a say in the development plans were Fine Gael or Labour Party councillors. That is why they were running to them and having tea parties with them. We were accused of being in cahoots with developers and so on but that was not the case. That should be recognised. I was the last Fianna Fáil chairman of Cork County Council in 1991, which is 22 years ago. Geographically, it is the largest local authority in Ireland. Currently, it is controlled by Fine Gael which ditched the Labour Party when it suited it. Traditionally, it has been controlled by Fine Gael and the Labour Party and that point is worth noting.
Another point, which I know might be of historical interest, is that some desperate planning took place in local authorities. During the last Government, I did not always agree with what the Green Party was doing but it called for an investigation of five local authorities to ensure planning procedures were properly adhered to over the past decade or more. I understand that once the Minister took the reins, he decided to abandon such investigations. I am not sure what the reasons were but it is important to know them. We are always looking over our shoulder at the past but it is important to ensure that where mistakes were made - we are always looking at ghost estates - we should investigate why they were made and ensure they never again happen.
Bad rezoning, to which I already alluded, was done by councils which were primarily under the control of Fine Gael or the Labour Party or both. Councils in which Fianna Fáil was in control and where there was bad planning should be looked at also. Some terrible mistakes were made in the planning area.
The greater Dublin area will be looked after, as will the cities, because the number of councillors in them will be dramatically increased. However, there will be a deficit in rural Ireland. Will rural planning be protected? I come from a peninsular area in west Cork and have been a long-term advocate of once-off rural housing where there is a genuine local need. A farmer's son or daughter or a nephew can have difficulty getting planning as, in most cases, An Taisce rejects it, irrespective of the criteria. Will once-off rural housing be properly protected in this Bill? The Minister might give me an assurance in that regard.
In the day's when Dick Spring was the Minister, An Taisce was given extraordinary powers to object to any planning, including rural planning. An Taisce has a critical role in protecting heritage and so on but its interference in once-off rural housing has been to the detriment of communities.
I would like to instance a case which was not in my area and in which I was not involved politically but of which I know. A family with five very handicapped children and which was extremely disadvantaged in more ways than one was looking for a new house with special facilities but An Taisce took the case all the way to An Bord Pleanála and succeeded in blocking it, despite the fact councillors from every party said it was a disgrace. The Minister said this Local Government Reform Bill provides for much transparency and openness in local government. Will the right of An Taisce to look at once-off rural housing in a very narrow and biased way be taken from it? Will its powers be somewhat fettered?
I am going to be a bit parochial again and talk about the town councils of Skibbereen and Clonakilty.
They have won numerous Tidy Towns awards, international gold medals and European awards. They have done excellent planning also but all those powers are now being taken from them.
The Minister spoke about setting up numerous municipal district councils. I am concerned that will be little more than a window dressing exercise in that those municipal district councils will not cater for the needs of townspeople in the way the town councils catered for them.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Hogan, to the House but I have major reservations about the Bill. The last local government Bill abolished the dual mandate. I contested at the time with the then Minister, Noel Dempsey, that that was a retrograde step but this is making much worse matters that he made bad.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I am delighted to debate with the Minister one of the most radical changes in local government since the foundation of the State. It is historic, as the Minister stated.
I am sorry the Minister began his contribution on a bad note by criticising centralised control because I was 20 years working in local government and this Bill sees decentralisation down to the district. The abolition of rates in 1977 gave the power to central government because if a local authority does not have money, it cannot do anything and raising money locally is difficult. The abolition of rates by Fianna Fáil was hugely important in centralising control. The growth of the quangos also played a major part in the centralisation process, which is now being undone by the Minister.
The Minister stated in his contribution that he is bringing forward a set of wide-ranging actions to deliver reform across key areas of local government to address the weaknesses that have built up over many years. This Bill gives legislative effect to those proposals and I am privileged to be in a position to contribute to this debate. The Minister has the betterment of local government at heart.
The Minister announced last week a €98 million funding boost for local government in terms of the general purpose grant. That represents an 11% increase in local government funding.
For as long as I have been in politics, which is almost 20 years both in local government and as a Member of the Seanad, we have been talking about political reform. It cannot be denied that this Bill is reforming from a structural, administrative and functional perspective. While I would like to see further devolution to local authorities, and the Minister said there would be further expansion of the local government role in future years, that should be based on strong local democracy, a community spirit and citizen empowerment. I am delighted the Minister mentioned that he was putting citizen empowerment on a legislative basis because previously it was on an ad hoc basis. I look forward to hearing more about that.
Another devolution of function concerns rates in that county councils can decide to decrease or increase rates and any savings made will be devolved to local authorities, with all the rates harmonised downwards. In the past week Waterford local authority harmonised the rates downwards.
I welcome the transfer of a total of 44 functions to the district councils, and 24 others may be transferred. If 50% of the councillors want to do that, the power is now in their hands.
The Minister mentioned local government proofing in all sectors. That is a welcome development.
Section 72 of the principal Act provided for the transfer of functions from other public authorities as well as from central government. There is provision for that in this Bill as well.
The lack of reserve functions and financial dependency in previous years meant that local government was a creature of central government and of the managers in implementing policies dictated from on high in terms of the finance made available to it from central government. Local authorities had no power to raise finance locally.
I want to comment on section 3A of the Bill. The Association of Municipal Authorities, the ACC and the Local Authorities Members Association have studied the Bill with a fine tooth comb.
I commend their work on behalf of the local members. They have made some very good recommendations to the Minister of State and I am confident that he will listen to some of them. One is that the word "council" should be added to the municipal district areas. I support this proposal because a district is a place while the word "council" denotes the administrative body. It will not take much to change that and it will not cost anything.
Will the Minister of State consider the power of the municipal district in section 29? I know that varying the rate was proposed in the Putting People First document published in 2012. There is a local community development fund but the district should have discretion to use that for specific projects in certain circumstances where they want A, B or C in their district for two years. In the North of Ireland they have the discretion to use what they call the Tesco tax for large corporations. That is another proposal we might consider.
Overall, however, I welcome the introduction of the municipal districts. They are not a new concept but they have taken a long time to implement. I read the Barrington report 20 years ago which mentioned the district councils. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, is implementing the recommendations of that report. I know that we will lose some fine town councillors because the area is much bigger than that of the town council and because some of the town councillors work full time they would not be able to commit the time or energy to the wider district area which is regrettable. The devolution of power to the district will more than compensate for that because the town councils did not have any powers. It is not possible to compensate for a good person but it is possible to ensure that the districts will have more power.
The Minister of State mentioned the county and city development boards and devolution. Under this section the local community development committee is independent. I wholeheartedly welcome this independent status because the organisations there expressed a fear that they would lose their independence. I reiterate that they will not and want to clear up any doubt that the local community development committee, LCDC, in its own right may be the contracting authority for programmes and measures pertaining to local government. The Association of County and City Councils, ACCC, and the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, AMAI, have raised some concerns about section 35 that the chief executive officer, CEO, of the council shall select and nominate to the LCDCs. This leaves one individual with the power to nominate to the LCDC. The nomination will then go to the council and be agreed without omission or audition, as stated in the Bill. That is not good. We see what happens to appointments that are not ratified in an open and transparent way. It should not be brought for rubber-stamping to a council. It should be ratified and agreed by the council. It was always done that way and was a reserved function, not the preserve of the CEO. The LCDCs should be independent in their own right. The strategic policy committees, SPC, should remain separate but part of the LCDCs. There is a recommendation that the chair of the LCDCs would be on the SPC. I would like the Minister of State to examine that because both need their independence. They need to be coordinated and how this is to be done needs further consideration.
In the corporate policy group, the registered political party constitutes at a minimum 20% of the total membership. Sometimes there are big parties, such as Fianna Fáil, and more often very small parties. It could happen that a registered political party might not have any member on the SPC. That would not be right for a registered political party. The same would be true for independents. There could be a large group of Independents who would not be registered at all. The grouping system did work. Would the Minister of State comment on that or consider it again?
Section 36 deals with the title of mayor and deputy mayor. It is good that the districts are over 20,000. The AMAI recommended that it be 25,000 but the district and the cities have the power to use the title mayor or whatever they want. We know how important the county identity is to its people.
As he is from Kilkenny, the Minister should know that the county and the local authority is sacrosanct also. I ask him to consider giving the county the power to elect the mayor because it is a title that is in use and reinforces a sense of civic leadership. Mayor an chontae is one option but I ask the Minister to examine that. Also, the Minister might tell the House how the directly elected mayor of Dublin process is shaping up.
On the local property tax, the Minister has given a commitment that in 2015 the spending of 80% of the property tax will be decided by the local council. I welcome wholeheartedly the second legal opinion on that, which local councils have sought for a long time. Not only has the Minister given that power to the county council, but he has also given it to the district council.
I wholeheartedly welcome what the Minister is doing on the provision of training for councillors. It is overdue and badly needed but I have a question in that regard. If a councillor fails to attend, which is compulsory under the regulations, he or she will be penalised. Councillors are not even paid a minimum wage and therefore they have to work. If a person is unable to attend the training on the day it is being provided due to work commitments, and where other exceptional circumstances do not apply, that must be considered an exceptional circumstance. I ask the Minister to examine that while welcoming what the Minister has done in that regard because training bodies are important. It is welcome also that councillors are required to report back because we must ensure that the training bodies are working well. The training bodies that provide the training should ensure a questionnaire is given to the participants at the end of every session and that councillors are supported to ensure they report back because they do not have secretarial services available to them.
I have not mentioned the rate base and the variation in the rates. I welcome the fact that the Minister is re-examining the question of the 50% vacant commercial properties. I have much more to say but I will contribute to the debate on Committee Stage.
Fáilte roimh an Aire. I have given up tabling amendments for the Minister to consider, although he genuinely wished me success in that regard. My batting ratio is zero when it comes to proposing amendments but it will not stop me making comments on the Bill. It has been an extremely busy legislative year for the Minister.
We are at the half way point in the life of this Government. I acknowledge the work of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste in exiting the bailout in a subdued and frank way over the weekend. It is fair to say that although we have regained our sovereignty on the world economic stage, the state of our national and local politics leaves much to be desired. Aside from regaining our economic sovereignty, this Government was also elected to build and reconnect the body politic and our fellow citizens. This Government received an overwhelming mandate to introduce a new way of conducting politics in this Republic. It was not about costs necessarily but about trust. How can we work together between election times in a way that would bring Government closer to the people?
The signals were strong at the beginning, including the setting up of the Constitutional Convention and the response to the Mahon tribunal, in particular the Electoral (Amendment) Act. However, the Minister is more than half way through the lifetime of this Government and all he has to show for it in terms of reform is the odd Friday sitting in the Dáil, a botched referendum on the Seanad, the proposed amalgamation of a few city and county councils in Waterford, Tipperary and Limerick-----
Hear, hear, and a micromanaged version.
-----and the abolition of town councils.
The fact that this Bill is now called a reform Bill is stretching a definition a little too far.
I regret to say that today, yet again, the Government, which had a strong mandate for political reform, has come up short.
The challenge with this Bill is whether it will lead to a major increase in trust and confidence between our citizens and politics. Has the Minister devolved any real political power or decentralised essential services? Will this Bill stand as the radical reform measure that will represent the mandate of the Coalition Government?
The argument must be made for strong local government. It was coherently argued for as recently as October 2012 in the Minister's Putting People First programme.
Local government reform should have two general goals, namely, to enhance the democratic legitimacy and accountability of local government while also improving the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery. In short, it is about trust and effectiveness. There are no strict comparisons or answers as to the ideal number of councillors per head of population; it is more complex than that.
In theory, what the Minister is proposing in this Bill could work. Abolishing town councils and replacing them with municipal districts as a basic unit of local democracy could work well if it is delivered in an efficient way which provides both representation and trust. My concern, however, is that there is an elephant in the room when it comes to local government in that the Minister is not budging on county boundaries as the key cornerstone of local democracy. He was both eloquent and correct in his argument for amalgamating councils, with particular reference to Cashel. However, there are many towns whose hinterland is in another county. The Minister stepped away from the radical reform that would have made this initiative more efficient and imaginative. The sub-county municipal district is a move in the right direction, but it could be vastly improved if county boundaries were replaced with administrative regions. The main problem is the decision to stick with the counties as they exist. To be cost effective, efficient and democratic, our system of local government deserves a more imaginative and radical realignment of administrative boundaries. One-size-fits-all reform does not work, and that is the main reason for my disappointment in this Bill. Creating a sub-county municipal district and a regional assembly, with the county council sandwiched in between, creates a camel, that is, a horse designed by a committee. Local government reform by committee is surely the least palatable choice.
We certainly should seek to reduce costs and facilitate greater efficiencies. If that requires reducing the number of councillors, then it should be done. However, reducing the number of councillors will not necessarily, on its own, increase the connectedness or closeness between citizens and government. As such, this reform Bill does not address the weakness in our local government system. While Putting People First aspires to a greater devolution of duties to local government and lays out a new code for local government in the area of social and economic development, the range of functions for which local government is responsible will remain limited under this so-called reform initiative. There is no devolution of power from central to local government. Power and influence are effected by the range of functions for which local government is responsible, the relationship between central and local government and the financial autonomy of local government. Local government in Ireland has a narrow range of functions when compared with other European countries. I see nothing in the Bill that represents a radical reform whereby central government will devolve substantial functions to the local. The Minister is seeking to retain the power, and that is enshrined in the Bill.
The primary function of local councils is to deliver services as an agent of central government. There no real opportunity under these provisions for local authorities to set policy autonomously, raise taxes for the provision of services locally or build a unique social contract between citizens and government at a municipal level. Instead, the Bill reins in and reaffirms the primacy of the Cabinet in its oversight of the basic unit of democracy in this State. The Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, will agree that there is something radical and imaginative in the following vision:
Local democracy is an essential component of a robust system of representative democracy...Local government involves more than service delivery. Democratic representation and oversight are important elements and local political leadership and oversight can bring greater accountability and responsiveness to local needs than is likely in the case of bodies that operate solely as an agent of centralised organisations.
That, in fact, is an extract from Putting People First. The document goes on to state: "A system of local government that is largely representational and lacking significant functions and responsibilities will, however, be hollow...". In other words, local government must have substantial functions and responsibilities. The difficulty is that the Bill does not deliver that change.
As recently as this year, the Government contradicted its own stated intentions in Putting People First by removing responsibility for the public water supply from local government. This followed on from the changes to the administration of vocational education and the disastrous overhaul of the education grant system. My point is to do with value and consistency. Do we believe in the reform and strengthening of local government? There is no halfway house in this regard, but the legislation before us today simply does not tackle the issue.
This Bill should be called the Local Government (Minor Amendments) Bill 2013. It is an Irish solution to an Irish problem.
When I was in America in 2004, I spent some time in local areas in South Carolina, where I saw how the concept of raising and paying local taxes worked. Local communities at a micro level were able to vote a budget for the local school, community centre and local roads. Raising and paying taxes at local level not only enhance democracy and effectiveness, but constitute real radical reform, and I see nothing of that in this Bill. Dr. Proinsias Breathnach of National University of Ireland, NUI, Maynooth, stated recently in a blog:
Locally-provided public services should also be locally funded as much as possible, as this creates a clear link for citizens between the taxes they pay and the services they get in return. This in turn maximises accountability on the part of local authorities for efficient and effective social service delivery.
I will raise other issues on Committee and Report Stages, such as the introduction of the CEO, regional assemblies and the inherent and increased power the Minister has to provide direction at all levels of local government. To say this is a major reform Bill is an abuse of the English language.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd. He is no stranger to local government; indeed, he has been involved in it more than most Members of this House.
I followed closely the Bill's passage through the Dáil and was impressed by the open and constructive debate that took place. That it was a constructive debate is clearly evident from the number of compromise amendments that were made to the Bill in the Lower House. There were 197 amendments on Committee Stage. Some of them dealt with changes such as the level of population requirement for the provision of a mayor while another provided for an enhanced audit function, which provides better transparency and which I welcome. I also welcome an amendment that was accepted by the Government on Report Stage relating to the non-principal private residence charge. The Bill is substantial legislation, running to 220 pages, with 13 Parts and five Schedules, including sections on community development, financial procedures and regional assemblies. This underlines the importance of the Bill. I hope to see the same standard of debate on the Bill this week as took place in the Lower House.
The Bill implements the action plan for effective local government in the Putting People First document, which was first published in October 2012, with some notable changes. The Government was elected with a mandate to reform the economy, the banking sector and the political system, and the Bill goes some towards fulfilling the latter reform at local government level. Having been a councillor for many years, as was the Minister of State and many Members of this House, I support the need for a reform of local government in Ireland following a century of little or no reform and a gradual reduction of powers. We all agree that strong local government must play a vital part in a modern, functioning democracy, a democracy that is empowered to represent the public interest at all times.
I have previously voiced my view in this House, and to the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, both inside and outside this House, on the type of reform I would like to take place. I have expressed my personal disappointment about the abolition of town councils. These councils have provided a vital service and a crucial democratic link for small towns throughout the country. However, I recognise and accept the democratic decision at Cabinet level to restructure the local government system as set out in this Bill. I welcome the strengthening of local government functions in economic and community development. Time will tell whether the proposed reforms can be implemented in a manner that ensures the needs of all communities, including those in small rural areas, are not overlooked. The manner in which subsequent ministerial regulations are enforced following the passing of this Bill will provide more clarity about the quality of the reform we can expect.
I welcome the fact that the Minister has committed to bringing forward amendments on Committee Stage to provide for increased consultation with local communities. It is important that the principle of subsidiarity is recognised.
While consultation is required with citizens on decisions which affect them, there is also a need to recognise the democratic mandate of councillors.
The Minister has always taken the concerns expressed by people, particularly those in rural areas, seriously and I am confident he will work to ensure that such concerns will be allayed. The Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, AMAI, is the overarching body for town and borough councils and has been in existence for more than 100 years. I have been involved with the association for in excess of 20 years and have been very impressed by the manner in which it has approached the issue of reform. I have worked closely with the AMAI and the Minister to ensure the best possible result will be achieved from this round of local government reform. We all agree that we need a system capable of delivering in terms of supporting local communities and revitalising town centres. In this regard, I welcome that as a result of discussions on Committee Stage in the Dáil, elected members will have discretion in respect of the 50% refund on vacant properties. I am glad that under the proposed legislation, municipal district members will be consulted about the period of base year adjustment for business rates. The power to determine the annual rate of valuation will rest with the elected members at plenary council level but only after consultation with the CEO at municipal district level. This is another change that has been made since the Bill was introduced, and I welcome it. I also welcome that a key goal in the context of the Bill is to establish a more coherent approach to rates and charges without placing undue pressure on the SME sector. I look forward to working with the Minister to ensure a common-sense approach will be adopted in order that there will be as much equity as possible in this regard.
I acknowledge that the Minister has interacted with the AMAI, the Association of County and City Councils, ACCC, and the Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA, as the Bill has progressed through the Houses and has taken on board some of the issues in respect of which amendments were tabled on Committee Stage in the Dáil. The Minister has made it clear that the sentiment behind some of those amendments is acknowledged and that the matters to which they relate will be considered in the context of future legislation. I refer, for example, to levying additional rates on those who can afford to pay them to facilitate community gain. This would take pressure off existing small businesses and lead to improvements in local communities. In the context of a matter discussed by the Minister and me and referred to by Senator Keane, I hope additional consideration will take place on Committee Stage in this House with regard to the method of selection for local community development committees, LCDCs, to introduce an increased level of democratic input into the selection process relating to those committees. This issue has been raised with me - and, I am sure, with all other Senators - by the representative bodies.
While I acknowledge that some progress has been made in respect of this matter, I am of the view that leaving the option of the title of mayor open for the elected leaders of councils would be cost neutral in nature and would give greater status to municipal districts which are excluded from using this title because their populations are below 20,000. In that context, there is no representative in County Leitrim who is recognised or referred to by the title of "mayor". That is a mistake and I hope the Minister will address it.
The Bill will have significant consequences for Tipperary, the county in which I live, and also for Limerick and Waterford. The initiative to amalgamate the local authorities is aimed at providing efficiencies and improved delivery of service. I have seen the report compiled by the Minister which claims this amalgamation will save €30 million over five years in Tipperary. I hope the need to make savings was not the only key factor in these mergers and that the delivery of a stronger system of local government to the people was also a consideration. These amalgamations will require significant changes. I hope these will be the kind of common-sense changes which will ensure services can be delivered more effectively and efficiently to constituents despite the low level of representation, which is regrettable but which has been implemented. I am confident the organisations in Tipperary, Waterford and Limerick will work together and unite for the good of the people affected in these counties.
I look forward to debating the provisions in the Bill with the Minister and with my colleagues in this House over the coming days. I also look forward to listening to and participating in the discussions that will occur in order to ensure we get matters right for citizens and those in local government which we strive to represent.
I wish to share time with Senator Norris.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
We have only ten minutes. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, is welcome. Like the 43 Members of this House who are elected mainly by county councillors, the six Members who are not elected by county councillors all have opinions and want to speak on the Bill, even though we do not know nearly as much as them. This shows the interest of every citizen.
I welcome the overall efforts to reform local government and make it more efficient, as it costs €5 billion to €6 billion of taxpayers' money every year. This seems an outrageous amount. Do we need so many administrative staff? Is there a way we could do away with the tens of thousands of staff involved? We have too many structures for a small country. This Bill recognises that to some degree. Regarding Senator Keane's point, does Dublin need four local authorities? Would one be enough? What is the Minister of State doing as regards the Dublin area? Senator Keane already asked this question, but I would love to hear the answer.
The reference I made was to a directly elected mayor for Dublin.
Yes; I read about that in today's newspaper. When the Department of Health decided to create the HSE to do away with local bodies, we simply increased the number of administrators. We did not increase the number of doctors. I fear that something similar might happen in this case.
Why do we still have such exorbitant rates of pay in local government compared with our EU neighbours? Are our customers getting a better service than customers in Germany or the Netherlands do? I am sceptical.
Will the Minister of State respond to the accusation that the Bill may lead to increased rates for businesses? Surely this is the last thing we need when we are on the cusp of economic recovery. Could the Bill include a provision promising that rates would not be increased for five years? This would be a sensible measure, although I am unsure as to how to include it. It would protect businesses and give them some stability. If we also abolished upward-only rent reviews, businesses and the economy in general would see a considerable boost, and this would set the conditions for more job creation. The provision on rates could remove many businesses' fear that rates would be increased and that they would be put out of business.
I hope we are not getting bogged down in more red tape, although I fear we are. We are losing institutional knowledge when it comes to fostering business. The Bill will establish so-called strategic policy committees, SPCs, which will prepare local action plans - the Minister described these well - for economic activity and job creation and control local enterprise offices, LEOs, which replaced county enterprise boards, CEBs. It seems so confusing. I hope this new structure will be a success, but it seems that the structure will hinder job creation activities. Will the Minister of State address the status of this new system? When does he expect to see it up and running?
There are other worldwide ideas on the reform of local government. Would the Minister of State be open to them? I found the French example interesting. The French Government rightly identified that public service reform needed to focus on what mattered to citizens. In general, most people were found to perceive government services, both local and central, to be effective based on a small number of personal and professional interactions during what they called life events - for example, the ease with which a marriage licence could be obtained, a birth could be registered, a business could open a new branch or planning permission could be acquired. The French Government made it a key goal to increase public confidence by simplifying everyday interactions. Recent assessments showed that, on an individual level, the perceived complexity of conducting these life events - I like this phrase - had decreased by 20%. For businesses, the figure was 25%. The French Government used quick wins to get public confidence behind the programme, which is what our reforms need. It is possible if the Bill is implemented and provides quick wins in terms of life events.
In France, good departments have been held up as examples to weaker departments, showing them that change is possible.
Can the Minister take this on board in the context of reform of the local government system? Local government should be improving these face-to-face interactions and making this area a priority. More targets should be set in order that they are in some way motivated to improve customer service. There are other issues to consider, including identification of efficiencies in local government. For example, could staff be rewarded via collective bonuses when a service improves rather than remain in the same job for a number of years? This might be a fair way to reward actual improvement. I would welcome such a system. There must also be a measurement of results or outcomes on this basis.
Why can local government services not be operated on a business model? For example, could they be permitted to develop supplementary income streams and receive 100% of any efficiency gains generated rather than having to pay most of it into a system? This would promote efficiency. I have many other ideas, which I will give to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, before he leaves the Chamber.
I am grateful to my colleague, Senator Barrett, for our usual collegial arrangement. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I do not welcome this Bill, however, which I believe was sparked by Europe in the context of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe report of 31 October 2013 which recommended that the Irish authorities revise the legislation to ensure the subsidiarity principle is better enshrined and protected in the law. While the legislation may have been in preparation, they were still concerned about it. The rapporteurs said they were concerned that consultation with local authorities and their associates are not systematic or sufficiently regulated to allow the latter to make an input into the proposed reform. This is again a lack of consultation on the part of this Government.
The chair of the monitoring committee has specifically asked the Government not to pass the legislation until adequate consultation has taken place with the local authorities. There has been no such consultation. For that reason alone, I will be voting against this Bill. My experience during the Seanad referendum copperfastens this. This was also an issue in terms of the abolition of legitimate democratic participation in the context of Údarás na Gaeltachta, which issue was raised vigorously by my colleague, Senator Barrett, at the time.
Section 2(2) of the Bill reads:
If, in any respect, any difficulty arises in bringing any provision of this Act into operation or in relation to the operation of any such provision, the Minister may, by regulations, do anything which appears to him or her to be necessary or expedient for removing that difficulty, for bringing that provision into operation or for securing or facilitating its operation, and any such regulations may modify any provision of this Act so far as may be necessary or expedient for carrying such provision into effect for the purposes aforesaid.
What kind of legislation is it that allows a Minister to do anything he or she wishes? I do not agree with Ministers being allowed to do anything at all and particularly not without consultation with the Oireachtas. We will have a lack of consultation at the other end as well.
I have been contacted by local authorities from Westport to Clonakilty to Macroom to Kilkenny and so on who are concerned about this legislation. The idea that all this chopping, slashing and cutting is helpful is not necessarily true. I have been very critical of local authorities for the past 30 years. I recall being booed at a meeting of the Association of County and City Councils when I raised the issue of section 4 planning permissions. I accept a great deal of reform is needed. I have signed documents from many councils. Interestingly, one proposal is in regard to a reduction in numbers, although on a voluntary basis. They are prepared to go a fair amount of the way.
This is a sop too far. For example, in the context of the town council proposals, 190 representative groups are being destroyed. There is much talk about keeping in touch with the people and democracy.
I mentioned the Seanad referendum and the lies told at that time. In the Scandinavian countries when they produced a one-tier system in parliament they invested massively in increasing local authorities and their powers. They did not go around cutting swathes through them. For example, Waterford city, one of our most historic cities, will have its city council abolished, which is crazy.
First post offices went and then Garda stations went. We now have all those Tesco, Aldi and other stores - I do not expect my colleague, who so generously shared time with me, to agree. However, towns are being bypassed. What is happening in this country? Farming is also in difficulty. What will happen to our communities? Will we have everybody living in Dublin and one or two big quangos - IPCs, LDOs, LEDs and PCCs - all over the place? Even the Minister in his original contribution stumbled over one of them. With at least 80 towns affected by the town council abolition, 190 local groups are being got rid of, what happens to the spirit of these small places? They have already had the stuffing knocked out of them. It is things like the Tidy Towns and the support of Westport Town Council for Westport House planning development. Do people think they will get that from a quango, whether it is an LED or some other kind of daft lighting structure?
I believe the Bill should be parked. We should accept the advice of our European colleagues and not pass it until there has been proper and adequate consultation. For that reason, if I am able to be here, I will most definitely be voting against the Bill, but it is no insult to the Minister of State present who is a decent man.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House to deal with this most important Bill, the Local Government Reform Bill. I spent many years on a local authority with the Minister of State and he was top class, as he is as a Minister of State.
In his opening contribution the Minister referred to the 1832 reform Act and its role in the development of democratic government. He compared the Local Government Reform Bill to that reform Act. There was another reform Act in 1867 - the second great reform Act. As the Minister of State will know from his great knowledge, the Conservative Party had set its face against extension of the franchise in 1832, but in 1867 Mr. Disraeli turned it upside down by giving the vote to everybody. Everybody at the time meant every man, by the way.
We are nearly there.
Mr. Disraeli decided to open it up completely. Punch magazine produced a cartoon of Mr. Disraeli jumping over Becher's Brook and called it the great leap forward. By the end of the century the Conservative Party had supplanted the Liberal Party, the great architects of reform whose club was the Reform Club, and got the middle ground, such that the Liberal Party almost went out of existence. It was a very clever act. I know it is not the intention of the present Minister to perform such a coup. However, it is a very significant development in the democratisation of local government to give more powers to the local authorities.
Historically in this State central government has had most of the powers.
There were valid historical reasons for this because at the time of the foundation of the State, there were competing authorities in local areas with two rates being struck in some authorities. Consequently, the central Government was obliged to take control.
However, it is time to open it up and to give more powers to the elected members. The Minister reiterated in his speech that the elected member would have more powers, such as in the appointment of the manager, now to be called the chief executive officer. Moreover, their role will not simply be to rubber-stamp but will be significant. The Minister also indicated his intention to introduce an amendment on Committee Stage to further strengthen that role and I welcome this. I seek a further amendment on Committee Stage in respect of the local community development committees. The Bill states the manager shall appoint or select all the members of that committee or shall appoint a high officer within the council to select the members of this important committee, which will replace the county development board. This is not reasonable because first, the elected members should be able to choose people from among the body of members to sit on that committee. In fact, all members should have a say in respect of that committee in one form or another, certainly as regards the ratification, if Members are to remain true to the premise that elected members in the local authorities are to be given greater power. I would welcome a response from the Minister in that regard.
In addition, I have discerned a feeling among council members that they would like to retain the choice of having a mayor of their authority. I ask the Minister to consider and respond to this issue as well. Many people have stated they are sorry to see the town councils go and so am I. I was chair of Dundalk Town Council and apart from being appointed chairman of the Geraldines football club in Haggardstown, which was the proudest day of my life, holding that office was also very significant in my life. Indeed, on being elected to Louth County Council in 1999, my aunt in England telephoned me to congratulate me on my election to the council. When I told her I had been elected to Louth County Council, she replied by stating I was not on the council - by which she meant Dundalk Town Council - but was on the county council. As the town councils are very important for the people of the towns, this constitutes a major change. While I believe the new municipal district groupings, councils or whatever they are called will go a long way toward sorting out this issue, I seek further definition of their powers and authorities.
This debate also offers an opportunity to pay tribute to all members of town councils down the years, who served and who continue to serve. Many of them will receive no opportunity to serve again, even if they so wished, because too many people seek too few positions this time. One must recognise their great contribution, which was mostly unpaid. It has only been in the last few years that councillors have been paid at all and this point must be made.
I also welcome the provision for increased training for councillors.
There should be increased training for Deputies and, God save us, perhaps a little bit of training for Senators.
There is no budget for it. We were supposed to be gone.
Every elected representative, particularly in Leinster House, should have training equal to the Safe Pass qualification if he or she wishes to work in a building. I mean a political safe pass.
Just a little bit.
There should be.
A safe house for councillors.
This morning the Senator talked about me getting a safe pass to remain here for life. Is that correct?
I ask Members to please stick to debating the Bill.
I ask the Minister to consider the amendments. I welcome the movement to empowerment at local level in the Bill and his statement that "strengthening local authority functions is a core element of this change process." Therefore, I welcome the Bill.
I call Senator Ó Murchú and he has ten minutes.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit anseo inniu. There is no doubt that the legislation is radical but there are inherent dangers with all radical legislation. In this case, some of the dangers, their extent and significance, will not become evident until the new reform is in operation and, therefore, it will be too late to reverse them in many cases. Some of the proposals are so radical that once they are implemented that will be it.
At this stage we are entitled to ask the following questions and seek answers. What price change? Is it at the expense of democracy? We must also ask ourselves whether the legislation dilutes local democracy. I believe that it does and shall touch on the subject in a moment.
I note with interest that my home town got specific mention in the Minister's speech here today. The reason that Cashel was given special mention is not because he expected me to speak about the matter. It is due to the status that Cashel and its tourism has always held.
Its mention provides me with an opportunity to explain what I mean by the dilution of democracy. There is no doubt that largely abolishing local councils will diminish their importance on the business, community and tourism maps of their area and county. It does not matter how good the new structures will be. The one great asset that we have in this time of challenge and opportunity is a sense of place, a sense of nation and a sense of tradition. Members know that is the case and have a sense of place for their towns and counties. We see that sense in the competitive field of sports, in the economic field and when there has been an achievement in an area. That sense of place cannot be replaced by any structure. Cashel received its charter from King William many centuries ago and it was a city when Dublin was just a black hole. Before any of the other cities were even heard of, Cashel was the city of the kings. That sense of place was handed down through the town clerks that I remember in Cashel and right down through the years the sense of history, stability and tradition stood to us when we were challenged.
I have examined what is being sought in terms of political reform.
What political reform has there been in Dáil Éireann? There has been hardly any. It sits on a Friday, which is almost a non-event, and there will be fewer Deputies. There was also a botched effort to abolish the Seanad. The Minister and I went on radio and had a very amicable debate, as should be the case, in that regard. Where is the rest of the reform the people expect and were promised?
It is interesting this is happening at a time of recession and economic deprivation. The reason is that people are so preoccupied with surviving and sustaining their lives and their families that they really have not had a chance to consider what is being suggested in this legislation. We talk about democracy but the essence of that is closeness to the people. I served on Cashel Urban Council for 18 years and will give the House one of hundreds of examples I had of closeness to the people. I returned home at 1 a.m. from Dublin, the fire was lighting and my wife had the teapot ready. We were having a cup of tea when there was a knock on the door. It was spilling rain outside and a tenant of a local authority house asked me to look at the leak in the roof of his house. I said I would look at it the next day but he said that it would not be raining the next day and he wanted me to do so that night. I went to look at it and I was able to do something about it. That was the closeness of the people which is democracy no matter what other way one puts it. The abolition of town councils is not a good move and certainly not in the context of the lack of progress in the other areas when it comes to political reform.
I make the same point about the number of county councillors. County councillors have been demeaned and targeted by certain groups and media as if they were, in some way, lesser beings. What they have had to put up with down through the years is an outrage to democracy. The Minister knows better than I do, or certainly as well I do, the service county councillors give in their own areas. Not enough euro could pay them for it. We want sterling service in public life but because that type of caricature, which is contrived, is put forward, it is easy to take a pot shot at councillors and put away so many of them. That is a big mistake because we need our councillors.
Although it sounds like an element of democracy, I do not agree with the idea that the number should be based on the size of the electorate because there are other aspects to an area, including the size of the territory and the deprivation that very often exists in counties which need stronger representation. The idea of diminishing further any chance they have at equity and equality is certainly lessened in this case.
As for bureaucracy, nobody can tell me from reading this legislation that we are giving more power to the people and less to bureaucracy. The opposite is actually happening. We will see that quicker than we expect when it is operating. I am not critical of county mangers, county secretaries or officials. My experience of them has been very good but I always think there is a democratic deficit when one hands over to those people more power and gives less power to the councillors, despite what is being suggested here.
Much of this legislation, as we see from the Minister's well crafted speech, has come from other lobby groups and advisory groups. What is happening is that bureaucracy from outside is having a further say in this legislation. There are very few people in executive positions who want to be answerable to anybody.
That is not to take from them but they do not want to be answerable to anybody. That is what is happening here. They will not be answerable. In the case of local councils there will not even be an identity to whom they are answerable. In the case of county councils, the idea that they can raise more money locally might be a good one but it is very often used as an insulation by central Government to allow it to pass the blame down the line if something does not work out. There are ways of doing this, and it should be done, but I do not believe the way we are going now is the proper way to proceed.
I can see from where the European doubt is coming. As the Minister knows, Westport Town Council has put together a submission to Europe because it maintains, and it may be proved correct, that what is in the new legislation is contrary to the European Union charter. I am inclined to agree but I have read its submission and it is excellent, and it is from Government as well as Opposition councillors. It is not just a matter of defending its own turf patch. It simply believes that what is happening is not acceptable. It is not answerable. It is not even ensuring that when the legislation is passed and is implemented, we have not weakened the entire structure because, as the Minister knows, there has been a tendency in Europe to give power back to the people and funding back to the councils to allow people do things for themselves. They are doing things for themselves but what is important here is that if their democratic stand is weakened in doing those things, a problem arises.
The word that comes to mind in all of this after "democracy" is "identity". Identity is vital. We only have to consider what happens when one's county does well in the All-Ireland. I can only look to what happened in County Clare recently. I do not know of any power on earth that was greater, for whatever number of weeks it lasted, in terms of developing a pride and a positivity than Clare winning the replay. I have never seen anything like that. The Minister has had his own experience but that is the power of identity. It is not just about hurling. It is about rugby, soccer and sport in general. It is about doing things for oneself and being acknowledged and endorsed for doing it. All of that will be weakened in this legislation.
It is a very foolish person who would say we do not need reform of local government. There is no question about that but what type of reform should it be? There may have been an element of consultation but I have a gut feeling, and I do not say this in a political way but as a community activist who is proud of my home town and my county, that there is something wrong with this legislation. Even with minor amendments I do not believe we will bring it to a stage where it will represent genuine root and branch reform, coupled with the other public bodies. The Minister might convince us of that at some stage but I am worried.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit ar ais go dtí an Seanad. I note that councillors will retain all their current powers except in regard to section 140 motions on planning. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, has accepted in full the recommendation of the Mahon report that section 140 motions should no longer apply to planning. That was a reserved function of councillors and in my 26 years on a council I could count on one hand the number of times a section 140 motion was invoked in my county. Councillors dealt with those with great responsibility and they were not issued willy-nilly in my county. There were fewer than a handful in 26 years.
It was a reserved function. It should not have been taken from councillors.
Councillors will still be able to invoke the section 140 motions to direct the CEO to undertake other lawful functions. The Bill also makes it easier for councillors to invoke a section 140 motion as follows: it reduces from three to two the number of councillors required to sign the order. It also reduces from seven to five the number of days’ notice that need to be given. Will the Minister of State ask the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, for an example of when it is likely that councils would invoke the section 140 motion?
This Bill provides that in future no separate structures will be established for the delivery of public services outside local government unless clearly necessitated. For too long local government has been bypassed by quangos. Councillors in future will be given more devolved powers and functions. Councillors will be able to vary the rate of the local property tax from 1 January 2015. This will provide maximum transparency and accountability for local authority spending. Councillors will be able to decide, as an integral part of the budget process, a schedule of works to be carried in their own local areas. They will therefore set priorities in their own areas. Councillors will adopt a local action plan for the development of every sphere of economic activity within their areas. This will give them discretion to set local priorities, address particular local weaknesses and build on local strengths. That is very important.
All other enterprise agencies must align their plans with the council action plan. Through the SPCs for economic development, councillors will be responsible for the planning, oversight and governance of the local enterprise offices, which will replace the present county enterprise boards. This gives councils a meaningful role in the provision of local enterprise support for the first time. Councillors will approve their local community plan, giving them a greater say in the millions of euros of local and community development funding spent annually in their respective areas. Councillors will be given greater involvement in the appointment of their chief executive. The council will be given the power to reject a recommendation of a person for the position of CEO from the public appointments committee. What would or could happen if a local authority rejected a CEO who had been recommended? What would be the next step?
I note that it is proposed in this Bill that the CEO will report monthly to councillors on the performance of his or her duties, in a more business-like fashion, similar to the reporting relationship between the CEO of a company and its board of directors. A new national oversight and audit commission, NOAC, will be established to report on the performance of each local authority highlighting instances of good and not so good practice. The CEO will prepare an implementation plan for the approval of councillors to address any issues raised by the NOAC, whose report will be made public. This will lead to greater transparency.
I note the amendments proposed to be taken on Committee Stage, one of which, for instance, is that service plans to be drawn up for every programme area of the council must be approved by councillors, which will provide a more transparent system for councillors to monitor implementation of council policy.
I too recognise the part played by councillors over the years, some of whom have decided not to run in the next local elections. They have made a significant contribution the length and breadth of the country. Many entered local councils when there was no remuneration whatsoever. Men and women did it for the benefit of their communities. Many will not go forward for the next local elections. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the part played over the years by many of my colleagues on Louth County Council and by many other colleagues on councils throughout the country for their voluntary contribution. Senator Ó Murchú said that someone knocked on his door at one o’clock in the morning. Someone rang my doorbell at two o’clock on Christmas Day. My wife said “It’s not for me, it’s got to be for you.” I served every day of the year and never once regretted it.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is important that in discussing a Bill to reform local government, we take the opportunity to commend all those who serve and sit on local authorities across the State, and all former councillors, and commend those who will put their names on the ballot paper in the upcoming local elections. It is a very difficult and demanding job, as all the Senators who have so far contributed, have said. Without the input from local councillors, local government would not be as strong, robust and as close to the people as it is. We should commend all those people who enter politics at local government level on the fantastic job they do.
This Bill has been a long time coming. Putting People First was launched with much fanfare in Dublin Castle 12 months ago. Now we can see what the Minister called the most radical reform of local government in 100 years. I cannot agree with that. I do not believe it is as radical as the Minister proposes. There are positives in the Bill but it is most certainly not as radical as it should have been. To suggest that it is the most radical reform of local government in 100 years borders on gross exaggeration.
Consecutive governments have undermined and under-funded local government, all in the name of reform. With each passing decade local government has lost power and had its budgets cut. In the spirit of constructive criticism I welcome the positive aspects of this Bill. It gives a commitment to holding a plebiscite on a directly-elected mayor for Dublin, which I support. I would like to see that in other cities across the State. It would have been the right thing for the Government to put the issue of mergers and amalgamations in Waterford, Limerick and Tipperary to the people too. As the Minister of State undoubtedly knows, there are strong opinions on both sides of the debate on whether there should be amalgamations. In my own city, Waterford, there are strong opinions on both sides. It is a very balanced argument. When there are balanced arguments it is only right and proper to ask the people who will be directly affected if they want to see a merged authority. The Government missed an opportunity there.
The Bill goes on to say that if the voters support a directly elected mayor the Minister will not act on the outcome for at least two years. This is far too long. The Minister should act within 12 months of the outcome of the plebiscite. We in Sinn Féin want to see a mayoral office with real power. There is no point in directly electing a mayor to an office that does not have real power.
There is no point in having elections to an office that has no real power. In the case of any city in the world with a directly elected mayor, he or she has real devolved power and real authority. If we are going to move in that direction, the mayoral role must carry real power rather than being a mere ceremonial position.
The proposal to establish economic development strategic policy groups in all local authorities is welcome. This is an area in which local government should assume a greater role in the future, especially in the context of changes, such as the establishment of local enterprise offices and so on, that are coming on board. Local government must play a much more active role in the economic development of towns, cities and counties.
The reporting mechanism for councillors to provide information on a quarterly basis of all attendance at meetings will give the public a better insight into the work of the people they elect to local councils. I also welcome the introduction of a register of payments to elected members in respect of attendance at conferences and seminars. This issue has been a bone of contention and sometimes a cause of controversy in the past because of perceived abuses by some councillors. The public has a right to know how these expenses, which come out of public moneys, are being spent. I welcome the provisions to tighten up that regime and ensure greater accountability. I also welcome the initiative to ensure local authorities' draft budgets are made available to the public by early October. I ask the Minister to take this a step further by ensuring councils hold public events to engage the electorate in the process.
The posts of city and county manager will be replaced by a chief executive and there is to be a rebalancing of power between the executive and the elected council. Although this is a welcome change, the powers granted to elected representatives are very limited. In fact, nowhere in Putting People First do the words "power" and "councillor" appear in the same sentence. Having read the Bill and the explanatory memorandum, it seems clear it is all hype and no substance on this particular aspect of reform. There are no powers devolved from any Department. No extra decision-making powers are given to councillors. I acknowledge that addition functions are being given to local authorities and a total of 24 reserved functions may be performed by municipal district members. This is a smokescreen, however, because, as an entirely new structure, all of the functions of the municipal council are, by default, "new"’. Of the 105 functions outlined in the Bill that may be performed by local authorities, only 35 are new functions. None of them is ground-breaking. Allowing councils to adopt an annual report or decide to "hold or to cease to hold membership of an association of local authorities" is hardly radical or historic. In fact, many of these proposals are already common everyday practice for local authorities. Nowhere in the Bill are there proposals to tackle the housing crisis or the waste management crisis, provide education facilities or support the fire service. The only reference to planning is to curtail councillors' powers through the removal of section 140 notice provisions as they relate to planning.
In short, no additional powers are being granted to councillors and no powers of substance are being devolved by central government to local authorities. I have argued consistently in every debate on this issue that the one thing local government needs is real power and the one thing central government has not given it is precisely that. We could argue the same about this House; the one thing the Seanad needs is real power, but that is the one thing the Dáil has never and will never give it. Departments like to keep power - they do not want to transfer responsibility to local government. We had an opportunity here to reform local government radically by giving elected local representatives power in areas where they currently have none. It was an historic opportunity given the mandate this Government received in the general election, but it is being squandered.
In contrast with what the Government is proposing, Sinn Féin wants to see maximum power devolved from central government to local authorities and a shift of power from city and county managers to elected representatives. These powers include economic planning, waste management, provision of water and sewerage services, housing and many others. Current local government structures are not fit for purpose. We all agree on the need to reform local government, but this Bill does nothing to change the fundamental fact that local authorities do not have the powers they need. Any reform of local government must ensure the efficient and cost effective delivery of services, put in place structures that are fit for purpose and have democratic accountability at its core.
Again, this Bill does none of that. Due to the introduction of the regressive local property tax, local government continues to be starved of funding. Councillors need funding to repair roads that are subsiding, but the money is not there. Senator Ó Murchú spoke about leaks in houses. The maintenance grants of local authorities have been slashed and the local councils do not have the money they require to carry out repairs to their local authority housing stock. Across the board there have been major cutbacks in local government in the last number of years, all of which have eroded services, yet people are paying a property tax for which they expected to receive extra services. It did not happen.
I also reject the Government's proposal to cull the number of councillors to 949. This is a drastic decrease and leaves the State with one of the lowest numbers of councillors per head of population in the OECD countries. We propose there should be a minimum of 1,165 councillors. This is in line with the reform of public administration in the Six Counties and would mean harmonisation of that reform across the island. Currently, councils are stifled by limited powers and under-funding. Current local government structures should be maintained until the Government commits to real reform based on a devolution of power from central Government. Sinn Féin believes that to achieve local government that is democratic, accountable and delivering, there must be significant and far reaching reforms, not the type of window dressing the Minister, Deputy Hogan, has presented in this Bill. I believe the reforms we propose will lead to local authorities becoming genuinely fit for purpose.
The functions and powers of local authorities are central to their ability to plan and deliver local services and to be held accountable by the public they serve. The key services of local authorities should be housing, planning, environment and waste management, water and sanitary services, economic development, roads and policing.
Providing housing must again become a central role for local authorities. Local authorities should build and preserve an adequate supply of housing that is maintained and owned by councils and provided at an affordable rent to the public. What has taken place in recent years, started by the previous Government and continued by this one, is the privatisation of social housing, with local authorities not being given the money to build local housing. Under our stimulus package, Sinn Féin is committed to building 9,000 homes in 18 months. There are 112,000 people on housing lists across the 34 local authorities, and there are 33,000 empty homes in unfinished estates.
Before the Senator outlines his full manifesto, he is over time.
That is what we are here to do, not only to critique a Bill but also-----
I have no doubt about that, but not on somebody else's time. The Senator can do it in his own time.
I will finish. The Chair should have signalled that I had one minute left before he interrupted me.
The Senator was in such good flow I did not wish to interrupt it.
I thank the Chair, but, unlike Fianna Fáil, we have proposals and policies, and it is important that the Minister hears the alternative.
This is a big missed opportunity. The Minister had a real opportunity to reform local government properly and to give local government what no other Government was prepared to give, real power. It is the one thing the Minister has not done in this Bill. The legislation is more window dressing and more of the same. It is nothing like the radical reform that the Minister spoke of in his speech. Unfortunately, it is piecemeal and minimalist reform. It is all about a reduction in numbers and saving money, rather than radically reforming local government, which is the opportunity the Minister had following the mandate the Government received in the last election. He has squandered that.
I look forward to Committee Stage when we can properly debate and tease out all the issues, including the amalgamation of local authorities and the cull in numbers-----
It is working well in Waterford.
We will have that debate on Committee Stage.
I call Senator Whelan.
I did not indicate.
It is just that we would like to give the Labour Party an opportunity to address the issues involved.
Our spokesperson has contributed substantially.
Excellent, but we are just trying to provide a balance.
No problem, Chairman. Thank you.
We certainly welcome proposals from Sinn Féin. It is very good to hear proposals, regardless of how much creative accountancy would be involved in implementing them. I remind Senator Cullinane that Sinn Féin wished to reduce the number of councils from 26 to seven in the North. That certainly shoots down many of the arguments he has made over the last ten minutes in this House.
This Bill radically reforms how local government operates in this country, how it provides services and how the people and communities throughout the country are represented.
As part of the policy to enhance the role of elected councillors in local government, the position of county manager will be replaced with that of chief executive. Chief executives will have more statutory obligations towards elected members and this is spelled out in the Bill. They will be appointed by the Public Appointments Service but their appointment will be the subject of subsequent approval by means of a formal resolution of the relevant council. The Bill gives local councils the power to veto such appointments. If an appointment is vetoed, the recruitment process will begin again. This is a very important change to the system.
The Bill restricts the powers of local councils to use section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001 in respect of planning. In many ways this is a good development, particularly when one considers some of the excesses which occurred in certain local authority areas in that regard. The Bill provides that each of the 31 councils must establish a strategic policy committee, SPC, on social and economic development to function in the same way other strategic policy committees, as per the Local Government Act 2001. It also dissolves county and city development boards and provides that all councils have local community development committees, which is welcome.
I also welcome the Minister's statement to the effect that he is willing to accept amendments on Committee Stage. It is a refreshing change on the part of this Government that its Ministers are prepared to listen and to amend legislation if good points are brought to their attention.
I have a number of queries in respect of certain matters. In the context of community development, there appears to have been some suggestion that the chairperson of an SPC may not be a councillor. Will an amendment dealing with this matter be introduced on Committee Stage? I am of the view that the chairs of the SPCs should be councillors. The corporate policy groups of local authorities discuss very important matters and it is essential that elected members should be represented on these groups. There also appears to be a suggestion that the councillors who will serve on local enterprise boards will be chosen by the chief executive officers. That would not be a welcome development and I ask the Minister to consider amending the Bill in this regard. These are some of the issues about which the Association of County and City Councils, ACCC, has concerns. I hope that the points to which I refer will be addressed on Committee Stage.
I live in Waterford. I stand open to correction by the Minister but it appears that Limerick and Waterford are the two cities which will have metropolitan as opposed to municipal districts. That should allay the concerns of people who live in those cities. Waterford has a very proud heritage and next year will celebrate 1,100 years in existence. There was a degree of concern that the role of the mayor of our city would be diminished in some way.
The Minister's efforts in that regard, particularly in terms of financing and the provisions for Limerick and Waterford in the general purpose grant that he announced recently, will allay the fears of people in those cities. There is a strong possibility that rates will decrease as a result. Obviously, only the councils will be charged with making decisions on what to do with their money.
Recently, valuations were redone in Dublin and Waterford. People in the latter are concerned. Many small businesses have seen their rates increase by 100% under the new valuations. Admittedly, quite a number of businesses have seen their rates reduce by 40% or 50%. We do not hear much about them. People with small businesses become concerned when their rates increase significantly. I hope that, as a result of the general purpose grant, we will be able to look after them in some way. It is wrong to divide valuations between two Departments, namely, Public Expenditure and Reform and the Environment, Community and Local Government. Clarity and uniformity are necessary.
I have addressed the issue of strategic policy committees, SPCs, and the concerns outlined by the Association of County and City Councils, ACCC, about the chairpersons of SPCs. Some people seem to have a major problem with the scrapping of the development boards, but I have no problem with their coming under the authority of elected members. They provide accountability, whereas the accountability of some of the boards concerned is practically non-existent. I welcome their coming under the auspices of local authorities.
I welcome this major Bill. It has more than 200 pages. I hope that we will be able to tease out the sections comprehensively on Committee Stage. I am sure that all amendments will be debated at length and constructively.
They will not.
The Senator knows all about the guillotine.
The Minister has taken decisions about local government that had been put off for decades. Tackling vested interests is not easy, nor is making decisions that will have an effect on people for many years to come, but he has shown himself to be a Minister who will take decisions in people's best interests. They are often tough decisions, but they will provide a local government system that will see us through for many years to come. It is the greatest shake-up in local government that we have seen since the system's inception.
I compliment the Minister and his officials on the Bill and welcome the opportunity afforded by this Second Stage debate to comment on it. I look forward to teasing out each of the sections on Committee Stage and welcome the Minister's willingness to accept amendments that will improve the Bill.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I share the concern of some people that this legislation weakens democracy and strengthens bureaucracy, which is something we should always look out for. Despite the transfer of many functions from local government, including the transfer of roads to the National Roads Authority, the transfer of water to Irish Water, the transfer of higher education grants to SUSI, the centralisation of the driving licence system and the reduction in new house construction, bureaucracy at local government level has not been tackled. The Minister when responding to the debate might elaborate on how much of the McLoughlin report has been implemented.
County managers have grown extremely powerful. The feedback I get from people in local government is that there are too many directors of services and the system is unnecessarily bureaucratic. Concern was expressed earlier by Senator D'Arcy about the abolition of Dundalk Town Council. Some of the towns that will lose their town councils strike me as places that are well run in the context of the number of people visiting them. The Minister will be aware that Westport has led this particular movement. Other places like Lismore, Cashel, Kinsale, Bray, Ennis, Enniscorthy, Listowel, Killarney, Kells, Midleton, Naas, Birr, New Ross and Trim strike me as pretty well-run towns. Dispensing with their local democratically elected people in the context of the abolition of town councils weakens local democracy. I wonder if the tradition started by the late Frank Hall in the Ballymagash of typecasting of councillors is coming back to haunt us in this Bill.
I gather that some town councils cost approximately €5,000 per annum in terms of expenses. As regards whether they did a good job in terms of electing people, I always prefer "elected" rather than "selected" because this allows for change when the next election comes around. As stated by Senator Norris, I opposed the abolition of democratically elected people from Údarás na Gaeltachta, particularly in the context of the Government's gender quotas. We could have had very interesting candidates from the Gaelic speaking areas and from the town council areas if the new gender quotas in respect of particular parties had been adopted.
Senator Ó Murchú referred to Cashel and the boundaries. As far as I can see, boundaries are always in the wrong place. Some of the boundaries between the United States and Canada run through people's houses. Boundaries have to be drawn somewhere. While Senator Ó Murchú might consider the one between Cashel and the remainder of County Tipperary to be awkward, trying to figure out which county one is in when on the border of Fermanagh, Monaghan and Cavan is difficult. Boundaries have been in place for a long time. The fact that many of them may not suit modern managerialism should not detract from them. Thanks to the GAA, counties are enshrined forever in the Irish consciousness. They promote community awareness, which is important in getting the spirit going.
Perhaps during the next local or European elections the Minister might consult people in some of the towns concerned in regard to whether they want their town councils to be abolished. It is okay for people at the centre to say they do not like them but perhaps they, too, make mistakes.
Maybe, as with the case of the abolition for this House, some of the motivations to want to reduce the number of democratically elected people were not acceptable to the public at large despite the best advice of opinion polls and journalists writing on the basis of those opinion polls. Democracy is delicate and we should be willing to pay some price for it - a small one.
The Bill provides for a considerable amount of relabeling, including the chief executive for the county manager, the national oversight and audit commission for the local government auditor, the board of directors, and the powers to appoint the manager after he or she has been appointed by somebody else. That all seems to be just changing labels on the jars to some degree. In recent times, people in places such as Leixlip, Greystones and Shannon actually wanted local government. So it is not just in the 1854 Act and the various other Acts that people asked to have an elected local authority in their area, which gave them a sense of place. I am not sure that local government is as unpopular with the citizens as reflected in the Bill.
I welcome the Minister saying that he is willing to accept all reasonable amendments. Perhaps the Senators with more direct experience of local government than I have will be availing of his generous invitation in that regard. I commend him on that.
One of the Schedules lists the various Leader and other committees - approximately 50 in all - to be abolished. It would be helpful if we also had a list of the other bodies. I just picked out some town councils which seem to be doing a good job, but are still to be abolished.
Towards the end of his speech, the Minister said: "Through the new community and economic plan there will be a requirement for local authorities to consider the synergies between the LCDC and SPC for economic development processes, and to build an integrated plan that will be consistent and coherent with the development plan and the regional spatial and economic strategy, and responsive to the needs of the communities it applies to." I am concerned about the managerialism in that and the repeated use of the word "strategic" by central government. One of the entries under the word "strategic" in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to something designed to disorganise the enemy's economy and to destroy morale. Sometimes strategic plans have precisely that effect. If it means "important" in the mouths of people who say it so much, let us just call it "important".
The new structures and changing the names of the regional bodies do not seem to mean anything. I should have included that in the list of relabeling existing bodies. In general we should have some kind of impact assessment. This is very important legislation and I commend those who worked on it. However, it should focus on how much it is expected to save and what the gains are. Since this Seanad was elected, we have moved steadily away from appending with the explanatory memorandum some kind of quantification of what we are expecting to achieve, which makes it very difficult, as previous speakers have said, to check up afterwards if we ever accomplished the goals we set out to do.
I thank the Minister for his work on the Bill and his openness and generosity to those who wish to table amendments. I have misgivings and I am not at all sure this is a great day for Irish democracy. Bearing in mind that this House was threatened with abolition, there were no Senators in Government Buildings on the night in September 2008 when the €64 billion walked out, nor were there any local authority members in there either. Why do we not concentrate some time on the people who were there and did so much damage, which the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues with our support have been trying to correct?
How much of a problem do we have here?
What alternatives have been considered in order to resolve it and why was this particular alternative chosen? While I welcome both the Minister and the legislation, I have many caveats and do not know how well the people are being served in this regard. I believe opinion polls should have been conducted nationwide. Were everyone to agree with the Minister that all the town councils should go, that would be fine and I would support him. However, there could well be people for whom this legislation is not welcome and Members must consult with and represent them here in the interests of the better governance of the country, a goal which all Members share with the Minister and the Cabinet.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Hogan, to the House. While he is always welcome, I do not welcome this legislation and believe the Minister's last minute decision to amend the Title of the Bill before Members to include the word "reform" sums up all that is wrong both with the Bill itself and the Government's approach to the issue of real reform. Having been elected on the back of a commitment to reform, the Minister has shoehorned the word "reform" into the Title of this Bill for the sake of appearances but forgets to include even the slightest nod towards the concept of meaningful reform anywhere else in the Bill's almost 200 pages. Far from introducing real reform and bringing the citizens closer to the system, the Local Government Reform Bill 2013 takes a machete to local democracy. Instead of thoughtful reform, one gets the chop, chop, chop of local democracy. If passed by this House, this Bill will make Ireland one of the most centralised states in the democratic world. This centralisation is achieved in this Bill through the abolition of town councils, the slashing of council numbers, the continued dilution of the powers of local authorities and the half-hearted gesture towards directly elected mayors.
The Government's unsuccessful attempt to abolish this Chamber was another element in that centralisation agenda but one which thankfully was rejected by the people. Were the Government or the Minister even remotely interested in the concept of real political reform, they would have learned the lessons of the Seanad referendum campaign and would have withdrawn this Bill. The Minister would have seen what happened just over ten weeks ago and would have learnt that real reform must start from the bottom up and must be built on the engagement of the citizen. As matters stand, the tier of government closest to the citizen, that is, local government, clearly is the place to start. Sadly but not surprisingly, this Bill completely misses that opportunity. Ireland has one of the weakest systems of local Government in the western world and yet, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have come up with a Bill that will make local democracy even weaker.
Across the western world, ordinary citizens perceive themselves to be increasingly alienated from the decision-making process. This is a deeply worrying and dangerous development and never have voters felt more powerless or disillusioned. Across Europe, disgruntled and disempowered voters are turning to parties at the margins and seek answers outside the democratic process. However, the Government's response to this trend is to take what few decision-making powers voters already have on local issues and to place them in the hands of a few bureaucracies. The advent of modern technologies and the evidence of greater involvement of younger people in community, social and voluntary activities demonstrate the potential that exists to allow one to engage citizens in reshaping local political structures. A local government structure is required that empowers local leadership, engages citizens and gives them a voice in local decisions. A system is required that works on the ground to support local businesses, revitalise town centres, sustain local sports and recreational developments and work in partnership with the education providers. This Bill misses all of these opportunities. The elimination of the 80 town councils nationwide and the removal of councillors from rural areas - with an increase in representation in Dublin - simply exacerbates the gap between elected representatives and the citizens.
Let me give my county of Cavan as an example. I am sure that the Minister is familiar with the county. Many hardworking and dedicated people from his own party, my party and none have served their local communities for decades. With one fell swoop of his pen they must witness the abolition of their town councils and the disenfranchisement of the people that they have represented, in some cases for decades. That is unacceptable.
At the end of May next year there will be what is called local elections but the word "local" should be removed because, regrettably, they are no longer "local." There is one six seater electoral area in Cavan that covers a geographical area that spans a distance of almost 40 miles and stretches from Blacklion to the Dublin side of Cavan town. The rural part of the constituency or local electoral area - let me call it an electoral area because the local part has been removed - people living on the Dublin side of Cavan town and all the way to Blacklion must elect representatives for the same electoral area. The population is concentrated in Cavan town and the greater Cavan area. The possibility of anybody from the rural part of that electoral area being elected is slim. I firmly believe that there should be positive discrimination towards rural Ireland and shall table amendments to support my belief.
Political "reform" is not about reducing the number of elected county councillors in rural Ireland and moving the seats to the greater Dublin area and the east coast. That is not local democracy or political reform. Changing the title of county manager to chief executive is not political reform. As the Leader alluded to, there is a provision to give local councils more power to select who sits on the various committees. My party shall table amendments on the matter on Committee Stage.
Instead of implementing radical reform, the abolition of town councils will centralise power and rather than moving power closer to the citizens, the Bill will make it more distant. In place of efficiencies there will be large, inflexible organisations where size is mistaken for savings. During the recent Seanad abolition referendum, Fine Gael asserted that Ireland's size meant that we did not need the Seanad or second parliamentary Chamber. To bolster the spurious claim some Government representatives, namely, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, was wheeled out to quote statistics on the Nordic countries that only have one chamber, he stated that they had an average number of 160 national parliamentarians and claimed that it was time Ireland had fewer politicians as if there is better democracy and governance with fewer public representatives. Thankfully, the people of this country rejected the Government's plan to get rid of the Seanad. Let me explain what would happen if we followed the logic of the Government, and that of the Minister, who claim that we would have a far better democracy. It is like claiming that we would have better hospitals if we had fewer doctors and beds. It is like saying we would have better schools if we had fewer teachers but more pupils. Their logic does not make sense and, thankfully, the public saw through the Government's plan.
I wish to raise an issue mentioned by the Leader.
We will table amendments on Committee Stage on this matter. I will outline the position on the first amendment we will table. As worded in the Bill, the procedure will be for an official assigned by the county or city manager, chief executive or whatever the new title will be, to select all of the members of the local community development committees. This includes selecting the elected councillors to sit on the LCDCs. The Association of County and City Councils finds it incredible that power would be given to an official to select unilaterally the members of the committee. What is worse, it is stated in the Bill that the full list will be put before the elected council, which will, without addition or omission, agree to the list provided by the official. This, in essence, means the council will become nothing but a rubber stamp. How in the name of God is this political reform? It is certainly not democracy. Another amendment we will table relates to the naming of the cathaoirleach or the use of the title "mayor".
I do not welcome this legislation. I know the Minister probably means well. I know he has been working hard in the Department. That he has been working so hard means he is not very popular with many in the electorate. I suggest he should put this legislation on ice and listen to his colleagues. Any of his colleagues I know are altogether sensible. The Minister should listen to the suggestions they are making and the amendments they put forward. Certainly, we on this side of the House will be putting forward amendments. Perhaps the Minister should consider listening a little more to public representatives, those of his party and others, and listening a little less to officials. Regardless of whether the Minister believes it, I firmly believe the winners from the Minister's proposed reform will be the officials. They will no longer have to deal with town councillors. They will have seven fewer county councillors to deal with in my county. The losers will be the ordinary people, especially those of rural Ireland, as far as this legislation is concerned. We will be putting forward several amendments and we hope the Minister will genuinely consider them and make a proper decision in respect of them.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank him for being involved and for staying as long as he has to deal with this Bill. I realise it is an important Bill as far as he is concerned. It is the major change in local government since the 1890s. Like Senator Wilson, my point is that the power is moving from the west coast to the east coast. Those of us in County Roscommon have lost seats, from 26 to 18, in three local authority areas. All those councillors were active and effective. They represented their local areas and the communities from where they were elected. Eight of them will be deprived of the opportunity of serving in public life. That is a fact. Boyle Town Council will be removed. The council provided a good service for a town like Boyle, which will now have no local authority or mayoralty. In contrast, it was not so many years ago when a government brought down Dublin Corporation and brought it up into four authorities: Fingal, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and South Dublin county councils and Dublin City Council. Now, Dublin City Council is back to 63 members, an unwieldy number. The Minister must accept that.
I accept the Minister probably would not have gone with that model but I know the Labour Party was particularly keen to have a larger representation in the areas where is has strength, and for those areas to be extended and to get further power. In fact, that will probably not become a reality when the election takes place in May 2014. The change also affects the election of Senators. The more Senators there are on the east coast, the fewer there will be from the west coast, the midlands, Cavan, Monaghan, Donegal and elsewhere. The numbers have increased in Kildare, Wicklow, Wexford and Dublin city.
Dublin City Council could elect one or two Senators on its own. That is a fact. Many Senators will be at a disadvantage come the next Seanad election which, fortunately, will take place after all. We are all delighted that the electorate has decided that the Seanad was worth retaining. It was certainly an endorsement of the Seanad.
The Minister must have compliant councillors throughout Ireland. In Fianna Fáil's time this Bill would not have got through. Senator Diarmuid Wilson could confirm that for the Minister. There would have been uproar among our councillors the length and breadth of Ireland. They would have prevented the one time Minister, Noel Dempsey, or any other Minister going through with it. We are a democratic party and conscious of the needs of the people and the electorate. I could not envisage a Fianna Fáil Government reducing the number of councillors in counties Leitrim, Roscommon, Longford or Westmeath. All of those councils have been reduced and there has been a reduction in their authority. I served on a local authority from 1974 to 1991 when the dual mandate for Ministers of State was removed. Then I got back in 1999 and I became a Senator and then the dual mandate for Senators was removed. I believe that was a bad decision by a previous government. Senators should have been allowed to continue serving on local authorities because they were directly elected by councillors as well as Deputies and Senators. The main bulk of the electorate of approximately 949 were councillors. It was logical to have a direct conduit from Senators from the local authorities to central government. It was a good way of having a decentralised approach. The management was conscious of the fact that many Senators who were on councils would come to Leinster House and have direct contact with the Minister of the day. They would be able to bring forward the views of the council on issues like water storage and services that were particularly needed.
I served as a member of Roscommon County Council, a Deputy and as a Minister of State at one time. It was demanding but that is not unique. In France, for example, the Mayor of Paris is a Member of Parliament and President of the Council of Europe. They can cope well in those areas. However, that day is gone. My colleague, the late Seán Doherty, was Minister for Justice and a member of Roscommon County Council. I was a Minister of State with responsibility for posts and telegraphs and transport and a member of Roscommon County Council. There were several Senators there.
Roscommon was well represented.
We were well represented and able to cope with the responsibilities because of good time management. However, that has moved on. There is a great interest in elections now, which is interesting. The number of candidates putting their names forward now in Roscommon exceeds any previous election, as far as I can see. That is a healthy sign for local democracy. People are willing to serve their communities, go before the electorate and seek the mandate needed. The Minister was down near my parish of Castlecoote. He was welcome to avail of the tidiest town and village in the whole of Ireland.
It was not convenient on the day in question because it did not suit with the hours, but some other day he will come down. There were other issues on the day. However, he did visit my colleague in another hostelry in the village and he was well received.
Why not go to the Dáil bar?
We will not go into that at the moment. I will have to divide my interest.
Are we going somewhat beyond the watershed of this debate?
I am being led down a certain line and I will have to avoid getting into it.
I agree with Senator Maurice Cummins. The chair of any strategic policy committee should be a councillor. It should be a person who goes before the electorate. If another person has community involvement and wants to go before the electorate and get elected, then that is fair enough. The Minister should bear that in mind.
I made my final point to the Minister personally recently. I accept what the Minister is doing with mayors. In Kilkenny there will be one mayor and not two mayors in the county. That is fine. In Waterford there will be one mayor only and not two mayors. However, in counties like Roscommon, Leitrim, Longford or Westmeath there will not be a mayor, there will be a cathaoirleach.
With respect to the word "cathaoirleach", that is, chairman, when one goes on a trade mission or invites a dignitary to the county from across the world, he or she immediately recognises the title "mayor". All I am asking is a very simple request. In a county which does not have a municipal area, where no person has the title of mayor, whether Cavan, Monaghan, Roscommon, Leitrim, Longford or Westmeath, I suggest an amendment be tabled to the effect the county should have the option to use the title "mayor" - some councils do not want the option and have retained the word "cathaoirleach" - from a trade and business point of view. I feel the Minister will go along with my request because it is illogical to deprive, say, County Roscommon of a mayor, if that is the wish of the elected representatives. I ask the Minister to leave the matter to the elected representatives to decide whether they want to call the "mayor" the cathaoirleach of the council, mayor of the county, and deputy mayor. Given that the Minister is a practical individual I do not think he will make a big issue of that matter. I think most of his Fine Gael and Labour Party colleagues would go along with that proposal to allow the title to be retained in counties which do not have municipal areas.
I apologise to Senator Michael Mullins as I did not realise he had not contributed. He should have contributed before Senator Terry Leyden but he was hiding in the corner.
I welcome the Minister to the House for what is an historic occasion given that this is the first Local Government Reform Bill in 100 years. That says everything about what we need to do with reform of local government. The Bill provides for radical reform in that it gives significant power back to councillors. It provides for the implementation of reforms detailed in Putting People First: Action Programme for Effective Local Government. When we think of putting people first we ask ourselves what do the people want. They want efficient services, cost effective services, good governance and fairness across the counties and the regions in respect of facilities. Given that the Bill is not by any means perfect, the Minister has indicated that he is willing to accept amendments during the course of the debate. Some of the desired amendments have already been mentioned by my colleagues who, like me, have been lobbied by the representative organisations of councillors who make some good points and suggestions for amendment. The most controversial issue is the elimination of town councils. I express the disappointment of the people of Ballinasloe, my home town, that the town council which was a rating authority will be abolished. Ballinasloe Town Council was very effective, having been involved in every economic aspect of the town for the past 100 years. There is concern that significant events and activities in which the town council has been involved for decades, such as the great October fair and festival, which bring huge economic benefit to the town, may mean that the county council and the municipal district may not have the same interest and involvement.
In recent weeks, Ballinasloe Town Council was in a position to dispense more than €1 million to various sport and community projects in the town of Ballinasloe from revenue earned by the landfill for the county which was located in the town for many years but has now closed. Due to the work of the town council and the excellent councillors who served for many years we can boast that we have, probably, the best sporting and recreational facilities in the country.
I pay tribute to all those who have served down through the years on all town councils throughout the country, not forgetting my colleagues in Tuam and Loughrea but, I have a special affinity to Ballinasloe as I live there but also because that town council was a rating authority. I had hoped and had made representations to the Minister that the rating authorities would survive the local government reform agenda. I also pay tribute to the officials who served with the town councils for their foresight and vision.
One of the positive aspects of the Local Government Reform Bill is that it gives significant powers to the elected members. I welcome the fact that councillors will have the power to vary the local property tax. This will provide maximum transparency and accountability for local authority spending. Some of us in this Chamber are old enough to remember 1977 when my colleagues on the opposite side from Fianna Fáil bought their way into Government by denuding all local authorities of funding. It abolished the rates and motor tax and is regretting it since.
I was 11 years old.
This Bill, I hope, will in some way return an element of power back to the elected members. At municipal district level the councillors will have the power to decide and prioritise work to be carried out in the local district. As an integral part of the budgetary process a schedule of work is to be carried out in its local area. It is significant that they will set the priorities. Councillors will adopt a local action plan for the development of every sphere of economic activity within their area. The emphasis on economic development and economic activity is welcome. While some members have criticised the renaming of the county manager to that of chief executive officer, that sends out a positive message in respect of business, commerce and activity and enhances the stature of the county council and the chief executive officer of the council. Through the SPC for economic development, councillors will be responsible for the planning, oversight and governance of the local enterprise offices. For the first time, this will give councils a meaningful role in the provision of local enterprise support. I think all members want to see greater oversight and greater accountability.
I welcome the fact that the CEO will have to report to councillors on his or her performance on a monthly basis in a businesslike fashion, similar to the reporting relationship that exists between the CEO of a company and its board of directors. Councillors will have a greater involvement in the appointment of the chief executive officer. The council will be given the power to reject a recommendation of a person for the position of CEO from the Public Appointments Commission. This is the first time we have ever seen this happen.
I welcome the new national oversight and audit commission which will be established to report on the performance of each local authority. It will highlight where there has been good practices and not so good practices. It is a pity that commission was not in place during the past decade because some practices in local authorities were anything but good.
We all see the impact of bad planning decisions daily with ghost estates and other examples. That was not the fault in most cases of local councillors but of well-paid officials.
I welcome the fact that on Committee Stage we will have the opportunity to table and debate amendments. I support the request that the chairs of strategic policy committees, SPCs, will be held by elected members. The Minister has indicated a willingness to look at this amendment. I share the concern that councils will not have the option on the use of the title of "mayor" or "cathaoirleach". I would like to have an opportunity to convince the Minister of instances in which the title of "mayor" would be the appropriate title to use. There is no doubt that when elected members are on business abroad, the title of "mayor" carries much more weight and sway than that of "cathaoirleach".
The Bill has many positive aspects. It reflects the fact that we are in a changing Ireland and that population shifts have taken place throughout the country. Some small towns have town councils whereas large sections of the country that had experienced significant growth had no local representation. While the Bill is not perfect I hope our work before the Christmas recess will enhance the legislation and that it will see us into the next decade or more. We are reforming local government for the first time in 100 years. It is not unreasonable that the Bill would not be perfect on its first outing.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá áthas orm go bhfuil deis agam labhairt ar an mBille tábhachtach seo, atá ag tabhairt go leor leasuithe isteach.
I would like to comment on the positive suggestions put forward by my colleague, Senator Cullinane. We recognise the positive elements in the Bill although the major issue we identify is in regard to local democracy. I get a sense from the Government benches that their Members are putting the best foot forward but it is a case of Et tu, Brute, and their colleagues on the town and county councils will not be welcoming the Bill as much as they are trying to do.
I take issue with some of the changes proposed for rural areas. I will outline a number of them as I go through my contribution. In fairness we are having a comprehensive debate on the Water Services (No. 2) Bill. We all know that water is a resource which everybody needs and Sinn Féin has long called for a co-ordinated approach on the island of Ireland toward ensuring that water is brought to where it is needed when it is needed. Under Sinn Féin proposals, reformed local authorities would continue to own, maintain and develop the public water system to provide water for human consumption free at the point of delivery. We oppose the Government's plan to use public funds to install domestic water meters and to introduce water charges. Water services need to be kept under the democratic control of local authorities. The establishment of Irish Water will do nothing to improve the distribution or quality of water. It will be a subsidiary of Bord Gáis Energy and we have seen in the past week that the Government intends to sell off part of this company. We believe those proposals should be abandoned. If we look at economic development, the Government has failed to develop a coherent island-wide spatial plan for economic development and to reach the target of having 50% of foreign direct investment directed to areas outside Cork and Dublin. Sinn Féin proposes that local authorities will plan for economic development that benefits the entire community. Sinn Féin believes local government could and should play a lead role in conjunction with Government in promoting economic growth and jobs at a local level. I note that this issue was raised this morning on Raidió na Gaeltachta in the context of western regional development, and that EU funding could have been applied for but because of the Government's lack of interest in national development and development in the west, no applications were made to a certain fund in the European Union for infrastructural developments. It is not too late to do that and we call on the Government to take another look at it.
Our members in local government would adopt and implement plans for economic development. Local authorities should provide incubation space and starter grants for local indigenous industry. Sinn Féin would develop an economic spatial plan in full consultation with local authorities, working alongside State agencies such as the Irish development agency, Enterprise Ireland and Tourism Ireland. One of the main concerns in rural areas in particular is the future of Leader programme and the centralisation of Leader under the local authorities. Again the Minister nods his head but the fear is that directors of services, county managers, or CEOs as they will be, will get their mitts on the money, the decision-making which takes place at a very local level will be more centralised, and the priorities of county councils will take over from the priorities of local communities. I think that would be a retrograde step and taking away much-needed investment. We have seen that in places such as Connemara, for example in Forum Connemara, based in Letterfrack, or Comhar na nOileán Teo or Meitheal Forbartha na Gaeltachta which were based in the Gaeltacht. It is hard enough to get a local authority executive or somebody working for the county council to come out to those areas, never mind to understand the needs of the local people when it comes to economic development.
Sinn Féin would return the power for roads and transport back where it belongs, to democratically elected local councillors. We would increase the availability and use of public transport, which means making it affordable and accessible. For too long road building and transport planning has become a central government function. This process has been devoid of democracy or accountability. Local roads are micromanaged by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Road and transport link people to their communities and work, while also linking goods to markets. Local authorities must be central to their planning. Again I see this development as being linked to the changes in the rural transport programme that are being brought forward. This has been criticised in rural areas because of over-centralisation of the rural transport programmes under the county council, taking away from the local knowledge on the ground of managing those scarce resources. Instead of cutting back in these areas, there should be more funding going into the rural transport programmes to make them even more effective.
Local authorities must become central to accountable policing and crime prevention. Progress has been made with the introduction of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, which laid the foundation for joint policing committees and local policing fora, but more work needs to be done. Joint policing committees must be reformed. They should become more like the district policing partnerships in the North with elected councillors and community representatives having a direct input into local policing plans and strategies. Joint policing committees must also be able to hold the Garda to account. Joint policing committees should be accountable to the district, city or county council, publishing and presenting quarterly reports to the council. Joint policing committees should have the power to draft and implement policing and community safety strategies, establish local neighbourhood watch and community alert schemes targeted at local areas, and introduce crime prevention measures, including restorative justice programmes. We in Sinn Féin want to see a fully integrated and standardised approach to policing and community safety. We will appoint an assistant commissioner whose responsibility will be to work with local authorities and oversee agreed strategies. When one takes away the hype, this Bill is yet another attempt to undermine local government.
Our current structures are not fit for purpose but this Bill is not the solution. It will only further undermine local democracy. Obviously there are major concerns about the abolition of town councils. The previous speaker, Senator Mullins, mentioned his own local area of Ballinasloe, but Tuam, Loughrea and Westport and many more town councils have shown their concerns. One of the issues local authorities have had in recent years has been the policy of the moratorium on recruitment in certain areas. Even though there have been significant cuts in the staffing, one of the biggest problems has been that it was not a targeted reduction in the numbers and has had a detrimental effect. Although we recognise there are a number of things in the Bill that can be seen as positive overall, we cannot support the Bill in its entirety.
Táimid ag súil go mór leis an díospóireacht. We are looking forward to the debate and to bringing forward constructive proposals on how the Bill might be amended. We hope the Minister will take our proposals on board. Tá súil agam go dtógfaidh an tAire ar bord na leasuithe a bheidh á moladh againn.
I welcome the Minister to the House. It is well recognised that we have a national democratic deficit in this country. In fact, Ireland is the most centralised country in the EU in terms of its democratic structures. Since this Government came into power there has been an attempt to centralise power further by way of the attempted abolition of the Seanad and the abolition of Údarás na Gaeltachta. Now we have the proposed abolition of town councils and the elimination of 744 town councillors who are representing their local communities.
We have the lowest level of local public representation in the EU, with one elected local authority member representing 2,815 people. The ratio in Britain, which is in second place, is 1:2,600. In Denmark, by contrast, there is one locally elected public representative for every 1,115 people, while the ratio for France is 1:118. The last figure in particular seems amazing to us, but the system in that country is working. In every town, village or crossroads, there is a mayor or other elected representative as the point of contact within the local authority system. Under this legislation, however, there will, in future, be one local authority member for 4,800 people. In other words, we will still be the worst in Europe when it comes to local representation, but our ratio will now be worse than that in the country in second place, Britain, by a factor of almost two. Nobody could accept that this change represents better local government.
The argument for the abolition of town councils is that they do not have any power and do not do anything. The reality, of course, is that they do nothing because they have been given no power to do anything. That stripping of power has taken place incrementally, under previous Governments as well as the current Administration. Responsibility for the collection of waste was taken away from local authorities and the provision of housing transferred over to housing authorities and private housing associations. In some areas responsibility for roads has been given in large part to the National Roads Authority, which is even getting involved in planning. There have been many cases where planning permission was refused when land went directly onto national or even secondary roads. Suddenly the NRA began making planning decisions and blocking applications in respects of hundreds of thousands of acres around the country. In addition, the establishment of Irish Water will see the responsibility for the water supply taken away from local authorities. The health boards, meanwhile, were abolished with the establishment of the Health Service Executive.
It all amounts to an incrementalised centralisation of power. This Bill represents the culmination of that process, with town councils being abolished with the cry that they do not have any power. They have no power because they were given no power. If they were assigned the same powers as are given to the corresponding bodies in France, we would actually see democracy operating at a local level. This legislation has all the hallmarks of the PATRIOT Act in the United States, in respect of which it was claimed that one could not oppose because it would certainly provide better local government. Nobody is opposed to better local government, but the Bill before us today does not deliver it. It is, in fact, about better bureaucracy and, as such, it is better for bureaucrats but certainly not for citizens.
Our proposal, and it is one we hope Members opposite will support, is that the new chief executive officer, who is all powerful under these provisions, should be elected for a five-year term. This elected person would have all the responsibilities of a chief executive, including the power to hire and fire, to make decisions and make mistakes, and take the consequences of any such mistakes. There must be serious auditing and oversight of the activities of any person given such a powerful role and who will be in charge of so much public money. If the people of counties Kerry or Kilkenny or any other county in this country were able, every five years, to hire, through the ballot box, a mayor or chairman to run the county on their behalf, then they would also have the ability to fire him or her if things did not go well. We see the situation in some counties where enormous legal bills were racked up by way of a fruitless exercise in the High Court. Somebody should carry the consequences of that and it should be those responsible for pursuing that course, not ratepayers. Citizens should have the capacity to express their opinion at the ballot box on the spending of millions of euro in an unnecessary and ultimately failed legal battle.
As I said, we have the most centralised system of government in western Europe. Powers have, by degrees, been taken away from local government in recent decades. The Government has abolished Údarás na Gaeltachta and is now eliminating town councils that have been in operation for 100 years. I am not arguing for the retention of any institution simply because it has been there for a long time. In the case of town councils, however, it is unacceptable to strip them of their powers and then argue for their abolition on the basis of their lack of powers. More power, not less, should be assigned at a local level and should be exercised by elected public representatives who are answerable to the people. Those who make the real decisions at council level - we all know who those people are - should be elected to their positions and held accountable to citizens. Unfortunately, under this legislation, those who are being given all the power will not be directly accountable to the people but only to the Minister.
I welcome the Minister to the House. Senator Mark Daly has a warped and narrow view of these proposals.
Is Senator Coghlan going to talk about NAMA again?
Not on this occasion. We will leave that until tomorrow.
Senator Coghlan has the hotline from NAMA.
I am not sure what has distracted Senator Daly.
Senator Coghlan should be careful. He has an electorate out there and some of those voters will be paying attention to this debate.
There are several firsts in this Bill which are very welcome, particularly the placing of councillors at centre stage. The councils will be greatly expanded, although many of them, unfortunately, because of population distribution, will be in Dublin and on the east coast.
A few trips to Kerry might be welcome.
Everybody should feel free to come to Kerry.
I greatly welcome the emphasis the Minister is putting on training and the empowerment of councillors. That aspect has been sadly neglected for years. I also welcome the fact the Minister is disposed - I hope I am informed correctly in this regard - to an arrangement whereby the chairman of local community development committees and strategic policy committees will be a councillor rather than an official or some other non-elected person.
I have long held the view that there was a degree of duplication - although that might not be exactly the right word - within the local government system. I was never of the view, for example, that towns deserved to have planning authorities separate from counties.
The members of Killarney Town Council will not be happy to hear that.
I will come to Killarney in a minute. Towns in this country, from Letterkenny to Wexford and many places in between, have been decimated because managers and officials, blinded by the moneys coming in from rates, allowed too many out-of-town developments. That was a mistake but it cannot be reversed at this stage. One planning authority per county is more than sufficient to have regard to spatial planning and everything else, as part of a broader strategy for sustainable development at regional and national level. Unfortunately, many of the developments that were allowed to proceed were developer-led and nothing else.
That is what happened. The bubble happened under the previous Government, and this largely contributed to it. Sadly, in many of these towns some of these developers-----
The majority on the councils were Fine Gael.
It was an executive decision. It was up to the manager. It had nothing to do with my town and it had nothing to do with councillors.
Is the Senator seriously in favour of getting rid of Killarney Town Council?
I am simply saying that things were generally developer-led, and that led to ruination. Sadly, many of them are now in NAMA. The Senator can discuss that further tomorrow.
However, I wish to talk about Killarney in a different connection. I agree with the Minister that "cathaoirleach" is the right title for a county. Mayors were traditionally in cities or large towns. There are some historic towns. They might not be cities-----
The Senator cannot have his cake and eat it.
-----but they have huge cultural and other significance, as in the case of Killarney, the capital of Irish tourism.
Kilkenny is a historic city too. I believe Killarney should have a mayor, and perhaps Kilkenny. The municipal district should be allowed to have a mayor in a town such as Killarney, which has developed major connections over many years with cities and towns throughout the world. In the case of Killarney that is principally through tourism and tourism promotion, but that has been good not just for the economy of Killarney, Kerry and the south west, but also for the country. I would argue very strongly for that.
Apart from that, I will wait to contribute on Committee Stage, as appropriate. Overall, I welcome this measure.
The Senator is playing both sides there.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I was struck by the opening lines of his speech in which he spoke about the Great Reform Act of 1832. While he says this legislation might not rank with that, he sees it in historic terms. I do not wish to accuse the Minister of hubris, but there is a governmental hubris underlying that assertion, just as there was with the proposed referendum to abolish the Seanad. On each occasion there was a grand claim of reform, appealing to some type of historical legacy or the Government holding itself out as sitting in a great tradition of reforming legislation. However, as with the proposal to abolish the Seanad, which was the most shallow of political proposals and was grounded not in an aspiration to reform, but in an attempt to exercise a populist manoeuvre, we see the same here again. It is a grab at relevance, an attempt by the Government to portray itself as doing democracy and our system of government a great service. In reality, it is only doing damage because of the crudeness and shallowness of what is proposed.
I welcome the opportunity to engage with the Minister on this, and I listened with interest to the contributions of my fellow Senators. I also followed the debates that took place in the Lower House. However, I have not heard a response from the Government to many of the fine suggestions being made. In fact, I am more inclined to think we need a national government reform Bill rather than one which focuses exclusively on local government structures.
In many ways, this Bill is extraordinary in its scope and ambition. I acknowledge that. In fact, if they were the criteria by which one could measure the usefulness of legislation, the Bill would be an astounding success. However, many people have expressed their concern about the size and impenetrability of the Bill. Even the Labour Party has said that more scrutiny is required. The Bill has 65 sections and involves major structural changes. It has been noted that the Bill received a recent addition to its Title, with the inclusion of the word "reform". I have made my comment about that. It is almost a case of where one is explaining, one is losing. Despite having 200 pages and pedantic detail, there is no sense of a truly reforming character in the Bill. The opposite is what comes through loud and clear to local democratic representatives throughout the country. There is no respect for their role and no respect for local democracy. They regard this legislation as deeply regressive, leading to a greater centralisation of national government power and control. Local government is not being reformed by the Government in this legislation, it is being attacked.
We are getting the opposite to what we need, which is genuine devolution of power to the regions and to people. What comes across in this legislation and in everything the Government is doing is that not only does officialdom, by which I mean the permanent government and particularly the elected Government, not trust the people, it also does not care what they think. That is the reason we have the most centralised system in Europe, as Senator Daly and others said, and that is the reason this Government wants it to stay that way. There is an arrogance attached to this Government and its super majority.
Consider the British system and the Barnett formula for deciding what to give the regions in subventions. Effectively, the tax take of the country is pooled, the money is dished out to regions on the basis of a formula and the regional assemblies spend it. Would that not be great in Ireland? Instead of taking health, education and, latterly, water responsibilities from local government, as has been done in recent years, there could be a genuine desire to resource local government and to bring forward people in the community who could take local decisions and decide on local priorities - that might be to keep Garda stations open, in preference to other goods they might consider to be of lesser importance in that region - and use public resources to implement those decisions. That would be genuine democracy. It would be genuinely in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity, which is a classically Christian democratic principle. Fine Gael claims to be a Christian democratic party and is allied with the European People's Party, EPP, in the EU, but there is nothing about subsidiarity in this Bill. If one thinks that giving the county manager the glorified name of chief executive officer furthers the cause of local participation in democracy, that is naive. It is not even subsidiarity in name.
Ireland is a small country, but we still have a situation where decisions are too centralised and too influenced by the chatter in Dublin. Decisions about education and local authority rates and so forth should be made at the most local level possible. There have been a number of reports on improving local government. Buried somewhere in one of them was a fascinating discussion on regional authorities and what they could do. However, what do we see? The Government is getting rid of town councils, cutting the number of councillors and amalgamating local authorities. That is not reform and pruning the system, but attacking it. It is not using a secateurs but a chainsaw.
I strongly believe in local government reform and I would like to see it happen. Consider the German federal system of Länder. The Länder decide how long the school day is, the education curriculum in the school and so forth. It is interesting to note in passing that in Plato's The Republic the ideal republic was a city state of 50,000 free men, with apologies to the women representatives here. Plato was not up to date on either the emancipation of slaves or the participation of women. However, the concept was that people in a democracy would know each other, and the ideal structure was one in which people knew each other and were participating and working with each other. This legislation takes us further away from all that. Fundamentally, there is a mistrust of people and, worse, a mistrust of their capacity to be effective agents of local government.
The criticisms of this legislation are not the reactionary mutterings of an outdated political class of local councillors, who might say anything to protect their interests, their local fiefdoms, their local status or the mayoral chain they get to wear when the camogie team returns to the town. It is not about anything so petty. The objections to this legislation are the articulation of the rational and clear-sighted fears held by experienced practitioners in local democracy. Even if we allow that there is a level of self-interest within some of those who have raised objections to this Bill and the "Putting People First" document on which it was based, serious and valid concerns would still remain in terms of the consequences of the Bill becoming law.
This is certainly not a plea for the status quo. As with the Seanad abolition debate, those who oppose what the Government is proposing believe passionately, definitely more passionately than the Government does, in authentic reform.
That is a given. The question which arises is whether the Bill facilitates authentic reform or impedes it. The Minister is on the record as stating that the key objective of the local government reform programme was to address weaknesses in the existing system, including issues identified in the report on local democracy in Ireland adopted by the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in October 2013. The weaknesses to which I refer include the need for wider devolution of functions to local government, greater subsidiarity at local level, greater financial discretion for local authorities and increased consultation with local authority member associations.
Let us consider the objective of encouraging greater subsidiarity at local government level, particularly as the support or neglect of this principle by our national Government is really a litmus test of its commitment to work towards other objectives. The general aim behind the principle of subsidiarity is to guarantee a degree of independence for local authorities in respect of central government. This, therefore, involves a sharing of powers among several levels of authority. I am afraid that the recent experience relating to this House does nothing to give us comfort that the Government is serious about sharing power with those at the local levels of democratic representation. This goes to the heart of the fears being voiced in respect of this matter. Chambers Ireland has stated that a key concern for businesses with regard to the Bill revolves around the fact that responsibility for setting of commercial rates and increasing charges, such as those relating to parking in town centres, will be removed from local authorities This legislation does not give back to local authorities, it actually takes away from them. These are not trite concerns. In practice, subsidiarity means that local autonomy on a range of issues is respected by central government. Nothing in the legislative programme of this Government demonstrates that it takes this concept seriously or - when it invokes the term - sees it as anything other than ideological window-dressing.
The relevant provisions in the Bill contradict the guiding principle outlined by the local government efficiency review group in its final report of July 2010, which the Government committed to implement in April 2011. One of the three guiding principles set down states that local authorities, regardless whether they are running all publicly-funded activities in their areas, should have a lead role in overseeing them or in their provision. This is a principle which the Government appears to have forgot but which local representatives have not. The trend to date on the Government's part is towards increased centralisation of services, a copperfastening of the power of the Executive at the expense of the legislative arm and a reluctance to implement meaningful reform.
The Minister has stated that reform of local government will save the taxpayer €420 million during the next four years and lead to a 40% reduction-----
The Senator's time is exhausted.
I will conclude. Everyone wishes the Government well in its efforts to save money. However, the overly simplistic mantra of "more money, fewer politicians" which we have been hearing is unworthy of our democratic system and does not reflect its needs. During the debate on the proposed abolition of the Seanad, the Taoiseach continually invoked Denmark as a democratic model. The truth is that Denmark is equivalent in size to Ireland but it has a much more vibrant and robust, democratically accountable local authority structure. Where is the invocation of that and similar models now? The answer is that it no longer suits to invoke them as examples.
I welcome the Minister. It is to his absolute credit that he has delivered on a commitment made to the Irish people during the most recent general election campaign that there would be radical local government reform. This was the final point in Fine Gael's five-point plan and the Labour Party also made a significant commitment in respect of this issue. In its election manifesto, Fine Gael committed itself to streamlining local development, economic development, etc. That commitment is being delivered upon in this Bill. In its manifesto, the Labour Party referred to greater oversight, effective auditing and so on and those matters are dealt with in the Bill. There is no point in repeating everything that has already been said but I do wish to make a number of points.
I direct anyone who suggests that we do not have a mandate from the people to deliver this reform to the result of the general election in 2011. If one talks to ordinary people who are not involved in politics and who are struggling to run businesses, etc., one will discover they are of the view that what is being done here is extremely positive. The reforms provided for in the Bill are sensible and should have been brought forward years ago. There has not been any type of reasonable reform in the area of local government in the past 100 years. The previous Administration introduced its own reform plan, Better Local Government. I suggest that said plan should have been titled "Bad Local Government" because it created the position of director of services and those who occupied them were each paid in excess of €100,000 per year. Some counties still have up to nine directors of service as a result. Thankfully, however, the numbers have already been reduced. I am of the view that they can be reduced even further.
Under the provisions in the Bill, councils and their members will have the power to reject any recommendation which comes before them in respect of persons nominated for the position of chief executive. What will happen in circumstances where the elected representatives want a particular candidate and, as a result, veto every other nomination which comes before them? Will the Minister comment on this matter, which was brought to my attention recently? All sorts of situations could arise. If the Minister is not in a position to provide an answer now, there is no major panic about it and he can do so in his own good time.
As Senator Cummins indicated, there are just a couple of minor amendments which we would like to be made to the Bill. If the Minister can see his way to accommodating those amendments, we would all be extremely happy.
Whenever one does something dramatic in the context of reform, it is difficult to bring everyone along. If one asked every councillor throughout the country to outline his or her ideal local government structure, one would probably receive 950 different proposals. Something had to be done and the system had to be streamlined. There are currently too many councillors and that matter is being dealt with in the Bill. I am of the view that the legislation is extremely positive in nature. When matters settle down in the aftermath of next May's local elections, people will recognise that what is envisaged represents a fundamental and effective reform of local government.
I welcome the Minister. I wish to place my cards on the table by congratulating him on the initiative he has taken in the context of including quotas for women in the legislation. Ministers and politicians in general usually only have one or two opportunities during their lifetime to carve their names in stone. The Minister will be remembered for the initiative to which I refer. I am of the view that he should be Ireland's next European Commissioner on the basis of his achievement on behalf of the women of Ireland.
That is a good endorsement.
The position of women would have remained the same if this proposed change to the law had not been introduced.
I second the Senator's proposal.
I propose that Senator Mullen be the next Commissioner.
I am sure the Minister would like the European job if it was going.
The Bill furthers the Government's agenda of centralising power and decision making at national level. Legislation to provide for real reform of local government would facilitate greater devolution of powers to local communities. The Local Government Reform Bill 2013 creates a democratic deficit at the heart of the Irish political system, bestows more power on unelected officials and bureaucrats and fails to transform how politics operates in this country. Headline-grabbing cuts ignore the substantive changes to local authority powers, make the Government even more distant to citizens and mask the failure to shift away from both "silo thinking" and delivery of services by centralised government. Promises in the programme for Government in respect of rebalancing powers between councillors and officials have been abandoned, with section 144 of the Local Government Act 2001 being amended and no new or additional powers being given to councillors. Greater democratic participation is completely ignored by the Bill, which transfers powers away from communities to what is the most centralised Government in western Europe. Members of the public do not realise how democratic most other European countries are in comparison with Ireland. A kind of fog has been allowed to fall over that matter. The Minister previously stated that the level of centralisation is unhealthy. Now, however, he is making it worse.
I urge the Government to celebrate business more by undertaking a complete overhaul of business rates. Last Thursday, I held an event on revitalising the retail sector, at which Sir Terry Leahy, former chief executive of Tesco, was guest speaker. Sir Terry, whose father and mother were from Sligo and south Armagh, respectively, fundamentally believes that government should keep out of business. Business creates the wealth that allows us to meet most of our social objectives, of which the primary one must be the right to a job. The Minister may have read Archbishop Martin making the same point in today's edition of The Irish Times. We cannot meet our social objectives without wealth creation and vice versa. When Connie Doody and I co-founded Lir Chocolates my role may have been to develop the business, but the agenda that drove me was to create employment.
An independent retailer, Ms Breda Cahill, also spoke at the event. Ms Cahill, who employs almost 80 people in full-time and part-time positions, epitomises the type of case to which Sir Terry Leahy referred. The rates she must pay would break one's heart. Local authorities should keep their noses out of business and stop imposing unreasonable rates. The bureaucrats who set rates do not have any commercial sense and are impeding small and medium-size retail businesses. While the multinational companies are located predominately in urban centres, the small retail companies that create employment and provide front-of-house opportunities for local products to get on the radar and start exporting are located nationwide. These small shops and businesses, which are already struggling with pressure on their sales and margins, and the cost of electricity and excessive rents, will be forced to pay higher rates, potentially driving many of them out of business. Ms Cahill, who has three retail outlets in Dundrum, Balally and Ballinteer, was crying out for help. The banks have been extremely cold-hearted and she has been left heartbroken as a result of the rates she must pay.
As I stated, the retail sector provides employment locally and regionally and offers young people an opportunity to experience work and learn what must be done to hold on to a job. Little understanding is shown for the contribution small shops and the retail sector make to employment and economic sustainability in local towns and villages. The issue is not on the radar. Our shops are being hindered by a business rates regime that is completely out of date. It is unfair and damaging to saddle one narrow strand of the economy with such a high level of taxation. Businesses need to be sustainable for the sake of the country and local employment. Commercial rates are preventing businesses from developing employment. The retail sector employs 275,000 people and has shed approximately 50,000 jobs since the beginning of the recession in 2008. Business rates and the pressure on retail are unacceptable. As I stated, local authorities and bureaucrats should keep their noses out of business and allow the private sector to develop and grow. I hope the Minister succeeds in becoming a European Commissioner.
As I have only six minutes speaking time, I ask Senator Crown if he wishes to make a brief contribution. I would be disappointed if Senators who wish to contribute are prevented from doing so.
The order of the House is that the Minister will be called at 6.50 p.m. If the Senator wishes to share time with Senator Crown, he may do so.
Yes, I will speak for one minute.
I welcome the Minister. It has been intimated that he is willing to look favourably on amendments on Committee Stage. While it not the Minister's fault, the Oireachtas, especially the Seanad, should have been given sufficient time to discuss this legislation. Senators and local authority members have a unique relationship, albeit one which was sneered at during the Seanad elections. People decided differently, however, in the Seanad referendum. I am disappointed that sufficient time has not been provided for a full and adequate Second Stage debate on this crucial legislation. Speaker after speaker described this as a landmark Bill and noted we have waited 100 years for this type of reform. The Seanad could have played a pivotal role in advising and informing the Minister on reform of the local authority sector. While I appreciate he has a deadline to meet with elections scheduled for next May, I hope he will not insist on having the legislation concluded this week. The Bill is worthy of detailed consideration and if the Seanad must sit a day or two earlier in January to deal with Report Stage, so be it.
I do not have time to make a substantive contribution. I welcome much of the content of the Bill. The Minister, as a long-serving member of both a local authority and the Oireachtas, brings experience in both areas to the table. Having engaged in many debates in the House and at parliamentary party meetings on local government reform, I appreciate the need for reform. The Minister has now placed a package of local authority reform before the House for consideration.
I missed the Minister's Second Stage contribution but as this is an issue of great interest to me, I went to the trouble of visiting the Dáil Chamber on the day he contributed on Second Stage in the other House. I listened with interest to one comment he made on that occasion. To paraphrase him, the Minister indicated the legislation would bring us into line with the rest of Europe and, as such, was a positive development. The previous speaker expressed a hope, perhaps not in jest, that the Minister will hold a different political position next year and she wished him luck if that prospect is realised, as much media speculation suggests it will be. If the Minister is fortunate enough to secure a highly responsible post of European Commissioner, he will sit around a table with colleagues from across the European Union. Some night, when the meetings are finished and the Commissioners are relaxing over a pleasant meal, perhaps they will discuss local government. When the Minister, the Irish Commissioner, asks them about the state of local government in their respective countries and reports back to them that, as a result of the Government's deliberations, Ireland will have 31 units of local government, the French, with 36,000 units of local government, the Germans, with 12,000 units of local government, the Finnish, about whom we heard so much during the Seanad referendum who have almost 350 units of local government, the Belgians, with almost 600 units of local government, the Swedes with 300 units of local government, the Portuguese, with 300 units of local government and the Dutch, with almost 500 units of local government, will be rather bemused.
Having decided that politics is bad and politicians are somehow bad people, we are now making a major play of the idea that abolishing town councils and getting rid of 800 local politicians presents us with some form of nirvana.
We should celebrate that Ireland begins afresh today following our exit from the bailout. We must ensure we do not return to the practices that ruined the country. We must learn lessons, including that we have not used or facilitated local government for the development of the country. This Bill, specifically its provisions on the destruction of town councils, poses serious questions. None of us can deny what we have said previously and the Minister will be aware from Fine Gael Parliamentary Party deliberations on town councils four or five years ago that I was one of those who spoke in favour of major reform of town councils, while others took a different view. We have now decided to throw out the baby with the bath water by creating municipal districts.
I have spoken repeatedly in both Houses about the concept of district councils. The 1991 Barrington report, which can be found in the Oireachtas Library, focused on district councils and recognised the need for reform of urban councils. It also recognised that a natural unit of between 15,000 and 20,000 people would be an effective unit of local government.
That is something we need to reflect on as well. I appreciate that my time is up. I will allow Senator Crown in. I hope we will have an opportunity to engage with the Minister on Committee Stage. This is the Minister's landmark legislation. It will exist for decades to come. I appeal to the Minister to ensure this important Bill is not rushed through the Oireachtas this week. We can all make the sacrifice of coming back a day or two earlier in January to try to get it right.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoir agus leis an Seanadóir Bradford for giving me time. I will be very brief. I would like to draw an analogy that I am sure the Minister has heard many times today. It is in the nature of the political climate that exists following the Seanad referendum that people are inclined to draw parallels between this reform initiative and the reform initiative that culminated in the people being asked whether they wanted to abolish the Seanad. In both cases, a genuine problem existed and needed to be addressed. There is clear evidence at national level of real failures in the system of government. These failures cannot always be attributed to the actions of individuals. They are somehow intrinsic to the irrational systems that have arisen in the way we conduct national politics. None of the problems to which I refer, which contributed substantially to the economic decline, would have been addressed by abolishing the Seanad.
I compliment the Minister for grasping the nettle by looking at the structure of local government, which is deeply ingrained in Irish political culture, and acknowledging that there is a need to reform it. While I praise the Minister for doing that, I am afraid I disagree with the actual substance of the way he is going about it for the simple reason that I do not think it addresses the core questions. I do not think these reforms will address the core problems that need to be fixed, such as the democratic deficit within local government. If anything, they will make those problems a little worse. As legislators in these Houses, we deal every day with the way the permanent officials of the Civil Service do their business. They appear to be impervious in the face of the articulation by elected representatives of a democratic wish for change. I believe this problem will recur at local government level, albeit on a bigger scale, as a result of the reforms we are discussing. A real time bomb is ticking away in these reforms, whereby this country's large, heavily entrenched, self-serving and corporatist bureaucracy will become less sensitive to the wishes of the people who elect the shrinking number of councillors.
One of the critical issues in local government reform, as in health care reform, is the need to connect activity to revenue generation. I am not sure this Bill provides for such a connection. The fundamental problem in our health service is the complete disconnect between how decisions on spending money are made and the ability to raise money to meet the expenditure needs that exist. The manner in which money is given out by fiat in the health service still tends to occur, to a large extent, in the local government sector. That will remain the case after these reforms are enacted. I believe that is a recipe for irresponsible, dysfunctional and inappropriate spending. It leads to the neglect of areas that should benefit from appropriate public services. While I am pleased that someone of the Minister's seniority has grasped the nettle of local government reform, I am afraid I will not be supporting this Bill. I thank the Minister for his time.
I thank all the Senators who have contributed to this debate. I agree with Senator Bradford that there is a special relationship between 43 of the Members of this House and those who are elected at local authority level. I am willing to take on board the spirit of what people have implied in their contributions today. I will ensure, as far as possible, that we have a good and sound Bill. Like many Members of this House, including Senator Bradford but not Senator Mullen, I was a member of a local authority for 21 years. I have a little experience to bring to this matter. Throughout my lifetime, this country's system of government has been totally centralised at the expense of local government. That has particularly been the case since rates were abolished in 1977. It takes a brass neck for many speakers, particularly Senator Wilson and his Fianna Fáil colleagues, to advance the notion that this Bill will lead to the centralisation of powers.
It is a fact.
I hate to say that to the Senator because he is a good friend of mine.
The Minister is lucky to have any good friend.
When Fianna Fáil was in power, it centralised everything in quangos at national level. It abolished any powers of particular significance that were held at local government level. As a result of what happened in 1977 and thereafter, we have local administration but we certainly do not have local government. I remind the House that the Bill provides that in future, no separate structures will be established outside of local government unless they are clearly necessitated in exceptional circumstances. It will no longer be possible for local government to be bypassed by quangos. Councillors will be able to vary the local property tax. There is no better way to ensure councils have power than to give them the ability to raise and spend money at local level.
Councillors at municipal district level will be given reserved functions for the first time. Town councils, urban councils and town commissions have never had these functions. Approximately 70% of all local authority activity was taking place at town council level, but just 7% of the money was being spent at that level. Councillors will be able to adopt local economic and community strategies for the first time. The moneys we get from the EU, which currently bypass local government and go straight to the community sector, will now be aligned with local authorities, which will have the power to adopt plans for the spending of that money. The local authority powers that were given to county and city enterprise boards, through Enterprise Ireland and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, will be returned to local government level at the local enterprise offices. I do not understand why people like Senator Mullen did not read the Bill to see the significant responsibilities and functions that are being devolved to councillors for the first time.
We are setting up a new arrangement - a national commission - to ensure the money that will be spent at local authority level when councils have considerable additional moneys, powers and responsibilities will be spent well. I genuinely believe the combination of the regional assemblies and the national oversight commission will have a meaningful role in the adoption of best practice in local authorities. This structure will ensure that councillors are able to make changes in authorities that are not up to scratch, for example by asking relevant questions about best practice. It should not matter whether the service is supplied by the public sector or the private sector at local level as long as the customer gets the best possible service. Much more accountability is needed. It should not be a case of the managerial local authority system, as it is at present, policing itself on the basis of key performance indicators. That is what happened under the performance-related pay regime that was applied to directors of services and managers by my predecessors.
The attendance of public authorities at meetings is also important. I will table an amendment on Committee Stage, as proposed by several Senators, to ensure public authorities can be asked and, in so far as possible, compelled to be responsive at local level to local representatives. Nothing in the Bill takes powers away from councillors, except in the case of parking charges. As Senators are aware, most parking charges are imposed at municipal district level. It has to be in some municipal district. The municipal districts will be the biggest beneficiaries of the additional income that will accrue in this respect.
I understand that Senator White started a business and was very involved in making sure it was an outstanding success. I remind her that the commercial rate is set by councillors rather than by bureaucrats. We have a job to do in informing councillors that they have a responsibility to business. Rates have generally been frozen in recent years, but they need to come down. That is why I am saying quite clearly that these reforms, which will result in savings, must lead to the commercial rate being harmonised downwards.
It depends on the county manager. The fees for development and creating employment-----
The councillors adopt the commercial rate at budget time every year. The Senator might not realise that because she was never a member of a local authority.
I know about the different county managers.
Senator Wilson will tell the Senator about it.
I know that some innovative county managers understand that unfair commercial rates cannot be imposed on companies that employ people.
All I can say is that councillors have powers if they wish to use them.
I do not disagree with that.
My experience is that businesses profit where councillors are strong, where they take on the manager and the system and where they find savings elsewhere. That is why Kilkenny has the lowest rate in the country.
It is a great county.
Senator Landy and others mentioned the considerable concern of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities regarding the need for greater constitutional protection for local government. The changes in the Bill do not impinge on the constitutional position. The Constitution does not specify the details of the type of local government structures we must have in this country. Those details are provided for by means of legislation rather than in the Constitution. Our Constitution is a broad framework document.
It does not get into very detailed specifics. To put people's minds at rest, a monitoring committee of the Council of Europe at the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities recently reviewed local government in Ireland. Its report acknowledged a number of positive developments in respect of local government, particularly the Government's commitment to expand local government's responsibilities and remit. Contrary to what might have been reported in the media which sometimes does not get it right, I will read an extract of comments from the report on the proposed changes. It states:
The existing 80 town councils whose replacement by municipal district councils accounts for the quoted reduction on councillor numbers together represent 14% of the population of Ireland. The reduction can be considered to be warranted both in terms of eliminating duplication and in the context of a public service reform and consolidation generally.
The report also stated:
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.
Contrary to what people might think, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities is very supportive of what we are trying to do.
On a point of order, are we extending the Order of Business?
I will conclude.
I suggest an amendment to the Order of Business to allow the Minister to respond to the debate.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
Senator Mac Conghail was very concerned about the fact that there was no significant devolution in the legislation. In respect of local authorities, members now have power to vary the local property tax and have a source of income at local level that will be enshrined on 1 January 2015 due to this power to vary rates plus or minus 15% of the national central rate. This is fundamental to stronger local government. There will be a much stronger local authority role in economic development through the local enterprise offices and there will be much closer involvement by local authorities in local development. Community funding bypasses local authorities at the moment but that will now be centre stage with local government. The amendment of section 72 of the Local Government Act 2001 enables wider devolution of powers to local government and the Cabinet handbook has been amended to ensure that local government proofing procedures are put in place to ensure that local government is the first option for any new local functions.
We have an assignment of some 70 reserve to the new municipal districts. Some of the functions are greater than others but they must be assigned to some place so the municipal districts are getting 70 reserve functions. The municipal district members are also to be involved in deciding programmes of works in respect of the municipal area. The reforms being implemented in the local government structures will help to ensure that we will make devolution much easier and more achievable in the future.
Senator Quinn was concerned about the rates. As I said to Senator White, rates should be harmonised downwards. The rates increases if they apply, which is up to the councillors, will be phased in over a ten-year period.
The Minister is manipulating the truth.
No, I said the councillors-----
They are under the power of the bureaucratic manager.
The Minister, without interruption.
The power to set rates and the ERB is in the hands of the councillors and I am not taking away that power. The ARV will be frozen during the harmonisation of rates process. I mentioned the Council of Europe report. Unfortunately, Senator Norris was reading an earlier version of the report. I clarified that in the context of their positive contribution. The selection of local community development committee members is an issue of concern. I am certainly looking at amendments in respect of that and am very open to them. Members must remember that we have established a local community development committee to allow that committee to hold the contract for EU funds and there must be a bottom-up approach to this. The membership of the committee are the people who will select the chairperson. I know one local authority that is a front runner in this process that will select a councillor to be chairman. That is up to the 15 or 17-member committee to do that. Otherwise, we will fall foul of the necessary rules and regulations that are required to draw down European funds in the future.
Senator O'Donovan talked about the ratios of population in west Cork. We had a situation where arguments were being made by places like Ballincollig that they did not have the same ratios of councillors to population as west Cork had previously even though there was a very substantial additional population in that area. No matter which way you do it, you will have anomalies. I understand that it is often difficult to get the right councillor-to-population ratio for rural areas and peninsulas but I have done all I can in the context of setting up the terms of reference of the independent commission to try to reflect that.
In conclusion, I may not have dealt with all of the queries that have been raised during the course of the debate but I will certainly tease them out with Senators during the-----
What about mayors in counties?
I do not propose to make any changes in respect of mayors in counties. We struck a balance in consultation with the Association of County and City Councils and the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland. Their representative bodies had a working group working out the details of these issues for the past year. That is the conclusion it reached and I certainly do not want to unravel that particular issue if it has already come to an agreement on it. I have been very open with the representative organisations of the local elected members and they have made many valuable suggestions. If we reopen that kind of debate, we will be here until next Christmas to assure that every county was looked after in terms of title when what I feel is more important is the functions of councillors are stronger and that they realise responsibilities they have and are able to take on the bureaucracy.
I agree with the Minister on that.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Brennan, Terry.
- Burke, Colm.
- Clune, Deirdre.
- Coghlan, Eamonn.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Comiskey, Michael.
- Conway, Martin.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- D'Arcy, Jim.
- D'Arcy, Michael.
- Gilroy, John.
- Hayden, Aideen.
- Higgins, Lorraine.
- Keane, Cáit.
- Kelly, John.
- Landy, Denis.
- Mullins, Michael.
- Naughton, Hildegarde.
- Noone, Catherine.
- O'Keeffe, Susan.
- O'Neill, Pat.
- van Turnhout, Jillian.
- Whelan, John.
- Barrett, Sean D.
- Crown, John.
- Cullinane, David.
- Daly, Mark.
- Leyden, Terry.
- Mullen, Rónán.
- Norris, David.
- Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
- Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
- O'Brien, Darragh.
- O'Donovan, Denis.
- Power, Averil.
- Reilly, Kathryn.
- White, Mary M.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.