It is very disappointing the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, is not present. We have been waiting for this Bill for 12 months. It was heralded as a major reform of local government but neither the Minister nor a Minister of State is present, which is disgraceful. The Opposition is trying to put forward its views on the Bill but neither the Minister nor a Minister of State has come to the House to hear those views. The document, Putting People First, was launched with much fanfare in Dublin Castle 12 months ago. We finally get to see the Bill, which promised to be the most radical reform of local government in 100 years, but neither the Minister nor a Minister of State in the Department has turned up to discuss it with us.
The Bill certainly contains some positives but to say it is radical or even reforming is a gross exaggeration. Consecutive Governments have continued to undermine and under-fund local government in the name of reform. With each passing decade, local government has lost powers and budgets. There are some positives in the Bill and in the spirit of constructive opposition, I welcome those positives. It gives a commitment to holding a plebiscite on a directly elected mayor for Dublin, for example. However, the Bill goes on to state that the Minister, if the vote supports a directly elected mayor, will not act on the outcome for two years. This is far too long. The Minister should act within 12 months of the outcome of the plebiscite. I must emphasise that Sinn Féin wants to see a mayoral office established with real powers.
The proposal to establish economic development strategic policy groups in all local authorities is welcome. It will allow local authorities provide practical support to local enterprises. The reporting mechanism for councillors to provide information on a quarterly basis on their attendance at meetings, conferences and seminars will give the public a better insight into the work of the people they elect to local councils. Sinn Féin also welcomes the introduction of a register of payments made to elected members in respect of attendance at conferences and seminars. It is public money and the public has a right to know how these expenses are being spent.
The Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland and the Local Authority Members Association have done good work over the years representing councillors' views and providing practical support. I am glad to see a commitment from the Minister to meet them on an annual basis but we suggest the Minister meet those organisations, whether merged or not, twice yearly, in September in the lead-up to the budget and in the spring. We also welcome the initiative to ensure local authorities' draft budgets are made available to the public by early October. Will the Minister take this a step further and ensure that councils have public events to engage the electorate in the process?
The post of city and county manager will be replaced by a chief executive, which is a very welcome move. It is something about which we have complained for years. There will be a rebalancing of power between the executive and the elected councillors. Hopefully, that will follow through in the various regulations flowing from the Bill. That has been very much lacking in local government. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, and the officials to relay that to the Minister.
The powers granted to the elected representatives are very limited. Nowhere in Putting People First do the words "power" and "councillor" appear in the same sentence. Having read the Bill, the explanatory memorandum and, in particular, appendix 3, it only serves to confirm there is a lot of hype but little substance. No powers are devolved from any Department and no extra decision-making powers are given to councillors, although extra functions are given to local authorities. A total of 27 reserved functions will be performed by municipal district members but this is a smokescreen because the municipal structure is a new one, so powers have to be moved over to it in the same way as an area committee would have made decisions. That is happening by default.
Of the 105 functions outlined in the Bill, which may be performed by the local authorities, there is a very limited number of new ones. These range from extending the period of permitted absence from attendance at local authority meetings to adopting a proposal for the alteration of the number of members of certain local authorities through to deciding on which days to hold special meetings. That is already common practice and none of this is ground-breaking. Allowing councils to adopt an annual report or to decide to hold or to cease to hold membership of an association of local authorities is not radical or historic. All of this is already being done by local authorities.
There are no proposals in the Bill to tackle the housing crisis or waste management issues, to provide education supports or to improve fire services. The only reference to planning is to curtail councillors' powers through the removal of section 140 as it relates to planning. No additional powers are being granted to councillors and no powers are being devolved by central government to local authorities.
Sinn Féin would like to see a more radical approach. Having waited 12 months for the Local Government Bill 2013, I was hoping for a far more radical, progressive and reforming Bill.
I notice that the two speakers from the other Opposition party took contradictory positions on the town council issue yesterday evening. The first Deputy to speak said he was in favour of the retention of town councils for towns with populations of more than 7,500. The second speaker from that party, Deputy Ó Cuív, said he does not want any town councils. We see towns and their hinterlands as the hub of local democracy. We hope the new municipal districts will grow in a way that will result in them being seen as strong units of local government. We have been let down so far, unfortunately. What we have seen has fallen short of reform by any measure. This Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, like its predecessor which was led by Fianna Fáil, is taking powers away from councils in order to centralise them, mainly in the Custom House. In contrast to what the Government has presented us with, Sinn Féin wants the maximum amount of power to be devolved from central government to local authority level. We are in favour of a shift in powers from city and county managers to elected representatives. As I said earlier, I welcome the indication in the Bill that this will happen. We will certainly push for that to be followed through.
We are in favour of the transfer to local level of powers in areas like economic planning, waste management, water and sewerage and housing. The stranglehold of various Departments, particularly the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, needs to be broken. The current local government structures are not fit for purpose. I am not sure this Bill will do enough to change that. Our view is that any reform of local government must ensure local government services are delivered in an efficient and cost-effective manner, that local government structures are fit for purpose and that democratic accountability is at the core of the local government system. This legislation does none of this. Local government continues to be starved of funding as a consequence of the introduction of the regressive local property tax. There will be huge pressure on local authorities to cut back on this double taxation, and the Minister should make no mistake about it. People will continue to pay the same income tax while being hit with this extra tax, and without receiving the extra services they deserve. This is happening at a time when householders are paying separately for an increasing number of services. They pay separately for waste collection. People in all counties are paying for the local fire service. They will have to pay for water from the last quarter of 2014, when the local elections are out of the way.
Sinn Féin rejects the Government's reform proposal that involves cutting the number of councillors to 949. This drastic decrease will leave the State with one of the lowest number of councillors per head of population of any European country or OECD member state. If the officials check the figures, they will see I am correct in this assertion. We propose that there should be a minimum of 1,165 councillors, or 216 more than the Government is proposing. This would be in line with the reform of public administration in the Six Counties. Councils are stifled by limited powers and a lack of funding. The current local government structures should be maintained until real reform-based devolution of power from central government takes place. In recent years, the powers of councillors have been eroded, particularly in areas like housing, transport, roads and waste management. Unfortunately, responsibility for water services is about to be taken from local authorities as well. This trend must be reversed. Waste management, water, sewerage, planning and local transport must be among the reserved functions of local councils.
If local government is to be democratic and accountable and is to deliver, Sinn Féin believes significant and far-reaching reforms, rather than the window-dressing we see in this Bill, are needed. The reforms we propose will lead to local authorities being fit for purpose. The functions and powers of local authorities are central to their ability to plan, deliver, respond, provide good local services and, most important, be accountable to the public they serve. These functions should not be undermined by departmental policies, especially cuts to funding or the privatisation of services. The key services of local authorities should be housing, planning, environmental services, waste management, water and sanitary services, economic development, roads and policing. We welcome the move towards giving local authorities a role in economic development. Sinn Féin sees a number of other services as of central importance, such as recreation, youth services, arts and culture, community development and social services. For the sake of time, I will focus on highlighting our priorities.
Our local authorities must once more have a central role in the provision of housing. We have seen a shift to the voluntary and private sectors. This was started by the previous Government when it allowed local authorities to lease private houses and enter into long-term liabilities. Local authorities could build, preserve and provide an adequate supply of housing that is maintained and owned by councils at an affordable rent to the public. Under our stimulus package, Sinn Féin proposes and is committed to building 9,000 homes in 18 months. There are 112,000 people on housing lists across the 34 local authorities. There are 33,000 empty homes in unfinished estates. NAMA has identified 3,500 homes that are ready for allocation to social and voluntary housing. The Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, has admitted that by the end of 2013, just 500 of those houses will be taken into social housing. This is far too little and is unacceptable. If this crisis is to be addressed, all 3,500 homes that have been identified must be taken into social housing and allocated as a matter of urgency. As part of our economic stimulus programme, Sinn Féin is proposing that grants be made available from central government to local authorities to buy quality homes in unfinished estates at discount prices and rent them out as social houses. The local authorities would receive rent and, at the end of a ten year, 20 year or 30 year period, they would have a valuable asset to sell to the tenant. Most important, the tenant would have a permanent home. That is the key point. There is a precedent in this regard. In past decades, the Land Commission took control of unused or under-used land and leased it to small farmers who were in desperate need of land. The same principle could be applied in this case.
Local authorities must become priority creditors where developers have gone bankrupt and bonds have expired, which has happened in many counties. This approach could be used by local authorities to acquire some housing units. I appreciate that many thousands of units would not be acquired in this way. I know of cases where there are no bonds and local authorities are left to finish off estates without any funding. If the local authority was classed as a priority creditor, some of those units could be transferred to the authority in lieu of the cost of finishing the estate and the bonds that are not in place. The rest of our housing needs can be met by implementing a public housing building programme. We need to initiate a social housing building programme of at least 5,000 houses in the first year, with a further 4,000 houses in the first half of the second year. We need to accelerate the regeneration programmes in Limerick and Dublin and complete them over a four year period. Funding for a new building programme and the regeneration programme can be made available to local authorities by establishing housing trusts, which would be able to receive grants from the State and borrow from the European Investment Bank, for example. The establishment of trusts is necessary because when local authorities borrow from the financial markets or institutions, it is added to the national debt. This would not be the case with housing trusts.
Sinn Féin proposes that essential environmental and waste management services, including waste collection and management, should remain under local authority control. Waste reduction and recycling programmes need to be vigorously implemented by local councils. Councils should be the regulators of domestic waste collection services in their local areas. Councils should draft, vote on and implement waste management plans. They are not doing this at the moment. When Noel Dempsey was Minister for the Environment and Local Government in the early part of the last decade, the power of local elected representatives to make waste management plans was taken from them. The current situation, whereby city and county managers have the power to impose such plans, even if they provide for incinerators, is unacceptable and undemocratic. The adoption of waste management plans must be the reserve function of council members. Council policies need to be policy-proofed to ensure they are in line with the climate strategy. We will be discussing the national climate change Bill soon. Local authorities should draft and implement climate change action plans which are based on that Bill. They should set specific local targets, based on national and international targets, for the reduction of emissions from energy use, transport, housing and waste management. These targets will be developed following a consultation process with relevant experts and stakeholders.
Planning affects many aspects of our lives, including where we live, where we work and where our local schools are.
It affects everything, even where we socialise and how we travel. We propose that local authorities have a stronger role in the planning process, with citizen participation, to plan for sustainable economic and social development that values the insights and knowledge of local communities and local community groups. Years of planning scandals and corruption have allowed the planning process to be brought into disrepute. Rather than reform the planning process and make it more accountable, consecutive governments have stripped away the powers of elected councillors. Planning decisions are made by unaccountable bureaucrats and are more and more centralised. The Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006 takes power away from local councils, and local county development plans are swept to one side at the behest of multinational companies to clear the way for their needs.
The planning process must be accountable, democratic and open. We aim to create a more meaningful role for communities in planning and decision-making. We want to ensure that there is real community involvement in drawing up the local development plans. The Bill refers to local development plans but we want to see real civic participation at local level. This can have a positive social, economic and environmental impact.
Water is a big topic at the moment. It is a huge resource that we all need. We have long called for a co-ordinated all-Ireland approach to water services. We call for reformed local authorities to continue to own, maintain and develop the public water system to provide water to householders free at the point of delivery. We feel very strongly that local authorities should continue to own it, to ensure democratic control of the resource. We oppose the Government's plan to use public funds to install domestic water meters and to introduce water charges. Local authorities need to keep water services. The establishment of Irish Water will do nothing to improve the distribution of water. As it moves to be a subsidiary of Bord Gáis Éireann, large parts of which the Government has said it will privatise, there is great concern that Uisce Éireann will also be shifted to that category.
The Government has failed to develop a coherent island or State-wide spatial plan for economic development and failed to reach the targets of 50% of foreign direct investment, FDI, outside Cork and Dublin. The FDI figures for the midland counties are paltry. It is not happening. Local representatives need to have a greater input into making areas more attractive for FDI. We propose that local authorities plan for economic development that benefits the entire community. We believe the key is to address economic recovery and growth at all levels. Local councils should play a leading role, in conjunction with the Government, in promoting economic growth and jobs at a local level.
Local authorities should have local plans for this type of development. We believe in economic development that is built on sustainability which fosters local native industry but also attracts IDA investment into an area. Local authorities - some already do - should provide incubation units for start-ups. That is having some success. That too must be rolled out across the local authorities. We need to develop an economic spatial plan in full consultation with local authorities, working alongside State agencies such as the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and Tourism Ireland.
We need to return the power for roads and transport where it belongs, with democratically elected local councillors working in consultation with local engineers. I was surprised as a councillor by the amount of micro-management of local roads by the Departments responsible for the environment and transport. Local engineers told us they could not do this, that or the other for fear that when the inspector came down and drove around the roads of Trumra or Rosskelton or any other little townland, which they would find only by using Google maps, they might not be happy with what the engineers had done. Local councillors working with the local area engineer should be given the discretion to use the money that is collected locally from car tax. At the moment it is micro-managed in a fanatical way. The way it works on the ground is ridiculous. The local engineers and councillors must have more discretion.
Transport must focus on the movement of people and goods, rather than on the efficient movement of cars. This can be done by increasing the availability of public transport, particularly rural transport. Central to this must be local planning that makes it affordable and accessible. In cities traffic congestion frustrates people and pollutes our environment. Councillors and the public they represent know this only too well. Local authorities are best placed to draft and implement the solutions to this problem. For far too long local transport planning has been a central government function. I have seen it become more centralised, which is very regrettable. We must move away from the micro-management to which I referred earlier. Roads and transport are an integral part of local, regional and national planning. Roads and transport link people and their communities to where they work and to markets, schools and other facilities.
Policing is not mentioned in the Bill but many residents of urban and rural areas feel a sense of powerlessness when it comes to policing and crime prevention. Anti-social behaviour and low level crime pose serious challenges in our communities. These challenges are made more difficult by government cuts in gardaí numbers and the public service employment embargo. Local authorities must become central to accountable policing and crime prevention. This includes combining traditional aspects of law enforcement with community-based prevention measures, problem-solving, community engagement and community partnerships.
Progress has been made with the introduction of the Garda Act 2004, which laid the foundation for the joint policing committees, JPCs, and local policing fora. We supported that at the time. There is more work to be done. I attend those meetings but they have become a talking shop. They are toothless and have little influence over policy or practice. Compared with other jurisdictions, we could have much more effective JPCs. These need to be reformed and to become more like the district policing partnerships in the North. The Minister for Justice and Equality often refers me to the North. I would refer him, if he were here, to the North on this point. There are councillors and community representatives on the district policing partnerships in the North. They have a direct input into local policing plans and strategies. I say this in a very constructive way. We must be able to hold the gardaí to account at local level and to oversee the implementation of these local policing plans. It would be good for the gardaí and for communities. The JPCs must also align with the new district municipal authorities, not the county structure. They need to have the power to draft and implement policing and community safety strategies; to establish local neighbourhood watch and community alert schemes; and to introduce crime prevention measures, including restorative justice programmes. These can be linked to community benefit.
I ask the Minister of State and his officials to take this proposal on board. From a local authority point of view, the community would gain from restorative justice through which people would pay the community back. We would like to see a link made between people taking responsibility and local ownership and long-term solutions put in place. We need to do that to ensure that residents and councillors can influence policy at local level. At central level we must also establish a central Garda board, the membership of which would include councillors, Deputies, the Garda Commissioner, representatives of the Departments of the Taoiseach and of Education and Skills, Environment, Community and Local Government, the probation services and so on. The board should have an independent chairperson. It should be established on a statutory footing and have the power to draft and implement State-wide policing and community safety strategies and hold the local JPCs to account.
We want to see a fully integrated and standardised approach to policing and community safety. There should be an assistant commissioner whose responsibility will be to work with local authorities and oversee agreed strategies.
We welcome reform of local government. The Bill has some positive aspects which we will work to maximise. We welcome any moves in a positive direction. Unfortunately, the Bill does not contain the type of powers that need to be devolved to local level. I do not see them in it. The current structures are not fit for purpose.
The regional authorities will be turned into three regional assemblies. The provision is for two representatives from each council who will attend on behalf of the council. That means that there will be no Sinn Féin or independent representative. In many county councils, the representatives will be from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Perhaps they will sign a pledge otherwise. It will be Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael representatives who go to the regional assemblies and none from the other parties. Labour, Sinn Féin and Independents might not get a look in and will depend on goodwill. That should not happen. We need to have a better system of divvying up those positions to ensure that all parties are represented on them
The current structures are not fit for purpose. We do not see the Bill as the solution because it does not go anywhere near far enough. We will be seeking to maximise the positive aspects in it and to develop a better system of local government in the State. We ask the Minister to revisit the Bill and bring forward strong amendments.