I thank the Chairman, Deputies and Senators for the invitation to speak at today's meeting. I am the chief executive officer with Limerick Chamber and I am pleased to take this opportunity to participate in these proceedings and share our perspective on the unprecedented proposals for local government reform before the committee.
Limerick Chamber is the largest business representative body in the mid-west and the third largest chamber of commerce in the country. We have approximately 420 member organisations supporting, pre-Covid, approximately 50,000 jobs in Clare, Tipperary and Limerick, the highest concentration of which are located in the wider Limerick-Shannon metropolitan area.
We are a mixed sector body and what unites our members is a shared passion for place. The majority of our members are SMEs and we have strong support from the largest employers in the region, including institutes of learning, multinational IDA Ireland clients and scaling mid-west businesses trading internationally. As the independent voice for business in the region, the chamber is a recognised stakeholder and on behalf of our members we engage in a wide range of activities, forums and committees focused on economic development, including the Limerick economic forum in the local authority, Fáilte Ireland's gateway city grouping of Limerick's hospitality sector stakeholders, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment's mid-west enterprise plan stakeholder group and the mid-west regional skills forum. We have representatives who sit on the economic development, transport, climate change and biodiversity, housing and culture SPCs within the local authority and we lead a number of collaborative initiatives regionally such as the Limerick transport forum.
My team and I engage with members on a regular basis to ascertain their views on a broad variety of matters and the chamber is governed by a board of 16 local business leaders elected from within the membership to strategically direct the operations of the organisations. We are uniquely focused on being proactive drivers of improvements in the mid-west operating environment.
Following consideration of the plebiscite in 2019 and the campaign delivered by Senator Maria Byrne, the chamber took a public position of being strongly in favour of meaningful local government reform, which would devolve greater decision-making powers on local issues to elected representatives, including, potentially, a directly elected mayor. At the invitation of the then Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, I was pleased to participate in the implementation advisory group for the directly elected mayor, which set to work over ten months exploring what meaningful local government reform could and should include.
I wish to acknowledge the significant work done by that group, capably led by the chair, Mr. Tim O'Connor, and supported by officials from Limerick City and County Council and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I also want to acknowledge the progressive and open approach taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, when he took office last year as he and his team have navigated implementing the recommendations put forward by the group.
The chamber welcomes what has been approved by the Minister of State and Government, namely, the report in principle and the specific 38 recommendations included to date in the general scheme of the Bill, understanding that the Minister of State as recently as last week, when we met him to discuss progress, restated his intention to continue striving towards including more specificity as early as possible to ensure the most meaningful outcome from this historic change to local government. In particular, we welcome head 36, which proposes to establish a new institutional structure to facilitate regular engagement between national government and the mayor at political level. However, it would be important that the ability to convene these meetings should lie with the directly elected mayor.
The chamber, like the Minister of State, recognises the significant step in local government reform that this Bill takes in creating the new office of a directly elected mayor. We support his approach of this being a starting point and that, for the office of mayor to achieve its maximum potential, the individual who is mandated by the voters of Limerick should have the power and means to deliver on his or her vision for a better Limerick. To that end, the additionality specified in the implementation advisory group report, while no doubt challenging to introduce, is important to give the mayor the greatest opportunity to deliver on the changes that Limerick citizens expressed a desire to see.
To that end, the chamber welcomes the commitment of the current Minister of State to working towards the potential devolution or assignment on a statutory basis of public functions and services not currently performed by local government, that is, services provided in Limerick by central Departments or State bodies or agencies and devolve those to the direct responsibility and control of Limerick City and County Council. We look forward to the new office of mayor being allocated ring-fenced funding to deliver on commitments in multi-annual budgets so that the changes being made will lead to a strengthening and enhancement of local government in Limerick.
Finally, I draw the attention of the committee to the recent report produced by Indecon and published by Limerick Chamber, The Future Development of Limerick City, circulated to members as part of our submission to the committee. The report was commissioned against the backdrop of Covid and was born from a sense of urgency that the business community needed to take responsibility for the protection of the future of our city centre and get independent expert advice on how to achieve sustainable vibrancy for Limerick into the future.
The report is a warts-and-all assessment of how Limerick city performs against other Irish cities and looks internationally for examples of best practice. Repopulating the city centre will have a greater impact than any other policy intervention on the city and, therefore, many of the 67 recommendations in the Indecon report involve measures to enhance the liveability of the city centre, including public realm enhancement, the identification of strategic development zones, measures to address upper floor vacancies and a review of the living cities initiative.
There are also recommendations for a review of local government funding in light of the impact of the pandemic on work practices, particularly in regard to retail and remote working. We intend that the Future Development of Limerick City report will inform the debate for candidates for the directly elected mayor and focus candidate programmes for local government on the practical roadmap for the development of a sustainable and thriving city that achieves its potential as the economic engine for the county and, indeed, for the mid-west region.
In closing, I thank the committee members for their time and attention, and for considering my statement. It is the chamber's belief that delivery of this Bill and the further additionality recommended in the implementation advisory group report will provide improved quality of life for the citizens of Limerick, enhancing Limerick’s reputation as a place to visit, live and invest in, and will be a key driver in unlocking potential for significant economic benefit in the region into the future.