Written Answers. - Local Government Reform.
Minister for the Environment and Local Government
the plans, if any, he has to give more powers to local authorities not just in major centres of population but in the country as a whole which would involve acquisition of property, housing, planning and recruitment of personnel and require repeal of local government management legislation; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Minister for the Environment and Local Government
the reforms he has promised for local authorities over the past two years; if all of these have been fully implemented; if not, when they will be implemented; and the further reforms, if any, he has in this regard.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 163 and 164 together.
The Programme for Government, An Action Programme for the Millennium, commits the Government to the restoration of decision making power to local authorities and local people. A major renewal programme for local authorities is well under way and the position regarding the many initiatives is as follows:
Constitutional recognition of local government and periodic local elections has been provided for in accordance with the provisions of the Twentieth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1999, following the passing of the recent referendum.
Ireland signed the European Charter of Local Self Government in October 1997. Ratification of this Charter, which requires Dáil approval, will take place as part of the renewal process now under way.
A new buoyant funding system for local authorities was introduced on 1 January 1999. This is being complemented by work which is now well advanced on the development of more modern financial management systems and the enhancement of value for money in local authorities.
Work is well under way on the preparation of a major local government Bill for publication later this year to modernise and consolidate local government law and to introduce a range of reform measures. A key element of this Bill will be to enhance the role of the elected member. This Bill will involve the repeal, amendment, updating and consolidation of the local government code, including city and county management. This legislation and various other reform measures will enable local authority members to determine and review policy with proper support and within a modern legislative framework.
County and city local authorities established new strategic policy committees (SPCs) in 1998, providing new ways of involving local people more closely in their work. IR difficulties delayed the effective operation of the SPCs. However, a broadly based working group which was established to bring forward proposals for revised SPC guidelines, is due to report shortly.
A programme for the integration of the local development and local government systems through the establishment of county and city development boards in January 2000 has been drawn up by a task force which I chaired. The programme is currently being implemented and the recruitment process for directors of community and enterprise is nearing completion. These boards will position local government as the hub in bringing together the activities of State bodies, local development agencies and in promoting economic, social and cultural development.
A pilot scheme of one stop shops for which funding is being provided is under way.
The electoral area boundary committees' reports and their recommendations were accepted in full by the Government and implemented for the recent local elections.
A long service gratuity for councillors was introduced prior to the local elections in June 1999 to recognise the dedicated service of long serving councillors. It was also designed to widen the opportunity for new entrants, including women and the young.
Priority is being given to meeting the training and education needs of all councillors. A working group, which was established to bring forward proposals regarding a training and education programme, is due to report shortly.
Proposals for the creation of strengthened local authority management structures are the subject of discussions between the local government management services board, representing local authority management and the unions representing local authority administrative and technical staff.
Most of the detailed controls in the personnel field which had been exercised by the Department have been devolved to the local authorities already and it is intended to devolve responsibility for personnel matters to the maximum extent possible to the local authorities and, where appropriate, to the local government management services board.
Recruitment of staff to posts other than those filled through the LAC is a matter for the local authorities themselves. Section 11 of the Local Government Act, 1998, will, when implemented, remove the statutory requirement that every post for which a professional qualification is required must be filled by the LAC. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government will declare by order the level at which the LAC will fill posts. Posts not filled by the LAC will be filled by open competitions at local level.
Measures are being taken to develop and promote good human resource practices in the local authorities with particular emphasis on areas such as training, gender equality, employment of people with disabilities.
A major national commemorative programme to celebrate the centenary of local government in Ireland and to promote the achievements of local government, which commenced in August 1998 is ongoing.
In relation to other areas mentioned in the Deputy's question, the following initiatives have been implemented or are planned.
The Programme for Government promised to update and consolidate Ireland's planning laws. To this effect a comprehensive review of planning legislation was carried out and a major Bill to reform and consolidate planning law will be published shortly.
In line with commitment in the Programme for Government to enact conservation legislation to protect the built environment the Local Government (Planning and Development) Bill, 1998 was passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas on 23 June 1999. Planning authorities will now have additional powers to protect our architectural heritage. In particular, they will be able to ensure that protected structures are not endangered through the neglect or actions of their owners, and will be able to compulsorily purchase a protected structure to ensure its protection.
Additional measures to protect the built environment have also been introduced including a grant scheme of £3.9 million for conservation works to protected buildings and £300,000 for the employment of conservation expertise in local authorities.
Integrated area plans under the new tax incentive based urban renewal scheme are being implemented in five cities and 38 provincial towns. This scheme will run to the end of December 2002.
A new tax incentive based scheme to restore the built fabric of smaller towns has also been announced.
The major development in relation to traveller accommodation was the enactment of the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act in 1998.
With effect from next year a new multi-annual local authority housing programme will be introduced. This will facilitate local authorities in planning and implementing their housing programmes over a four year period rather than relying on annual allocations as is the current position.
As far as possible in implementing the reforms, I have attempted to increase the discretion available to local authorities. In addition to the staffing controls I mentioned above, the following steps have been taken: Responsibility for the administration of the rural water programme was devolved to county councils in January 1997 and additional support measures were introduced in February 1998.
All new local authority housing schemes or programmes introduced in recent years have been devolved to local authorities from day one. Under the new affordable housing scheme, Departmental sanction is not required for individual projects and the carrying out of projects under the scheme comes within the local authorities' own responsibilities.