Commencement Matters

Local Authority Boundaries

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan. I requested this Commencement debate to ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to outline the timelines for the publication of legislation to give effect to the proposed new local authority structures for local government in Cork.

We have gone through a very deep process in Cork over the last two or three years with the local boundaries and the local government structures. These are the most significant changes in local authority structures in Cork since 1965. There was an extension to the city boundary 52 years ago, and we have now gone through a similar process, which was a lengthy process, and in some regards we have come to a conclusion on the boundary. This new proposed boundary will see up to 100,000 people move from the Cork County Council area into the Cork City Council area. This would have a knock-on effect in many ways. It would have a knock-on effect in how the city and the county communicate and operate, which will have to be worked on in time.

There are 31 councillors in City Hall and 55 councillors in County Hall and there is an issue around when these new electoral boundaries are to be put in place so that councillors can plan for a local election that is 65 weeks away. Clarity is required on those boundaries. Clarity is also required for the 542,000 residents of the city and county so the authorities can work together and put structures in place. The structures may include some kind of contractual arrangements on planning and housing, for example. To put the structures in place and to see a move on the huge projects involving planning, environment and housing for these 100,000 people in less than 60 weeks will be a burden on the two local authorities.

There are many aspects that need to be considered such as the local authority structures and how the services will be delivered to the people on the ground. From the local election perspective, clarity is required on the boundaries because currently there are eight districts in the county and six districts in the city. I assume we will have completely new districts in place. That will also have to be clarified.

I have more questions than answers so hopefully the Minister of State will be able to point us in the right direction around the timeframes for these new structures.

When does the Minister of State propose that the legislation will be brought before the House? When is it proposed to set out the new district boundaries so that local election candidates can plan? What does the Minister of State envisage as the system for planning and housing? Does he expect them to be moved immediately or will it happen over a period of time?

This important issue has often been discussed in this Chamber and elsewhere in recent years. Members will be aware that the issue of the local government arrangements in Cork has been the subject of much consideration over the past four or five years. The committee report in 2015 did not produce agreed recommendations, although all concerned agreed that the retention of the status quo in Cork was not a tenable option. An expert advisory group established to re-examine the matter and consider a wider range of options reported in April of last year and, on balance, it stated that an expanded city council area offered the best solution, particularly in terms of the structure of local government and a strong focus on the needs and demands of the metropolitan area of Cork.

This approach was accepted by the Government and an implementation oversight group was established to provide a definitive boundary configuration and to oversee arrangements for the boundary alteration. The oversight group submitted a report in December 2017 outlining the proposed delineation of an extended boundary for Cork city, which was agreed by Government. A boundary alteration can be given effect either through existing statutory procedures in Part V of the Local Government Act 1991 or by means of primary legislation. The Department has not received any formal proposals on the Cork boundary under the 1991 Act. Government approval has been given to bring forward legislation in the absence of local authority agreement under the existing procedures. The Department has, accordingly, commenced work on the preparation of the necessary legislation. Members will appreciate that primary legislation involves a number of formal processes, including drafting by the Parliamentary Counsel, Government approval and consideration by the Oireachtas. It is difficult, therefore, to be definitive about timing. The objective is for the relevant legislation to be published in time to ensure enactment before the summer recess, however. Our target, therefore, is to publish a Bill by the end of May.

All matters necessary for successful implementation of the boundary alteration will be addressed in the context of the work of the implementation oversight group under its terms of reference. Given the extent of the change involved and the range of organisational, financial and other implications, the implementation process will involve a substantial body of work. The role of the oversight group will be crucial to this but, above all, the key to successful implementation will be the role of the two local authorities, working with the oversight group, in terms of effective planning, organisation, co-ordination and co-operation. I am confident that this work will be rewarded by giving Cork a more robust and rational local government structure which will help to maximise its success as Ireland’s second city, particularly in the context of the recently published national planning framework as part of Project Ireland 2040. Once the heads of the Bill are published which, all things being equal, it is hoped will happen in April, the intention is that instructions will be given to the committee considering local electoral area boundaries within Cork to commence the work and receive public submissions. The Cork boundaries will be part of the overall package to be published nationally at the end of May or start of June.

On the services being transferred, that is a matter for the implementation group. It caused some controversy and I saw it was reported in the national newspapers today that I issued a response to the chairman of Cork County Council stating I did not want to meet him to discuss those matters. I do not want to meet him at the moment because there is a process in train under the oversight group. It is not a slight on him or the membership of Cork County Council but it would be a severe slight, on my part, of the independent oversight group which is charged with implementing the boundary change if I were to engage in a parallel process with the local authority while its work was ongoing.

I think Senator Lombard will want to come back in again.

We might get it all sorted in one go, so we will have a crack at it. I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. Will he clarify the electoral boundaries issue again for me? I did not pick it up clearly. Is he proposing to seek submissions from April onwards with a view to the boundaries for the proposed new districts in Cork county being announced in June or July?

The end of May or the start of June.

That is a very positive step because that will give the prospective and sitting candidates a 12-month run-in.

We had a discussion about this with officials and Ministers in the Department. The Cork local election boundaries for the wards in the city and the districts in the county will be part of the national publication of the reports of the two committees that are examining local authority electoral areas. It will not be treated differently. At the moment it is being parked because there are 31 local authorities. There is plenty of work for those committees to do and Cork will be left towards the end of their work so that when the heads of the Bill are published, and I hope that will happen in April, they will be able to go into the formal process of considering drawing the local authority electoral area boundaries within Cork city and county, and then publish a request for consultation with the general public who might have observations and submissions to make. It has always been my intention, and it is that of the Government, that we would have boundaries a year out from the next local election.

Sitting suspended at 2.46 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.