The purpose of this Bill, which is of a technical nature, is to clarify the law in relation to the determination and making of rates by local authorities and to ensure the validity of rates determined or made in recent years.
The need for the Bill arises from questions raised by local authorities as to the time scale involved in the preparation of their estimates and the determination and making of their rates. It relates in the main to the provisions of section 29 of the Local Government Act, 1946. That section which refers to the timing of the making of the rate requires that a rate be made by an authority "either immediately prior to or at the beginning of each local financial year". A later enactment, the City and County Management (Amendment) Act, 1955 reinforced this timing by requiring that the local authorities' estimates — the preliminary to the making of the rates — should also be prepared prior to the beginning of the year to which they relate.
A need for change in this time scale arose however, with the introduction of the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act, 1978. That Act, which was introduced to provide for the derating of domestic and certain other property, also gave a power of discretion to the Minister for the Environment in regard to the level of rate poundage increases.
The local authority estimates cycle, therefore, had to await decisions on national budgetary measures which were generally not made until the beginning of the calendar year and in the exceptional circumstances of this year and last, until well into the year. This change in the relationship between the State and local authorities was, however, recognised in the 1978 Act and under section 14 of that Act a local authority are allowed to prepare their estimates after the start of the financial year notwithstanding the requirements in the 1955 Act stipulating the earlier preparation of the estimates.
The 1978 Act went even further and allowed local authorities to spend up to one-half of the previous year's budget pending the adoption of the estimate and rate. The 1978 Act therefore clearly envisaged the local authority budgetary cycle taking place in the year to which the estimates related. Moreover, local authorities must prepare their estimates in a period prescribed by the Minister by order and Ministerial orders in recent years have set estimates periods which have ended as late as 15 May.
However, although the preparation of estimates is, as indicated, an essential prelude to the making of a rate, local authorities, nevertheless, have asked that the law be clarified as regards consistency in the provisions relating to both these operations. Part of the urgency in relation to the Bill arises from the fact that local authorities are at present in the process of determining and making their rates for the current year and it is accordingly desirable that the law be clarified urgently.
The timing of the past two general elections has meant that the local authority estimate cycles of this year and last have been much later than one would have wished. The aim of the Bill is to deal with such situations and to remove any doubt about the validity of the rates for such years. I might say that I would prefer that local authorities should be allowed to prepare estimates and make rates much earlier than in recent years. This makes for better budgetary planning and the earlier flow of rates and other revenues. This Government have as an objective the bringing forward of the national estimates cycle and this will in time facilitate the setting of earlier estimate cycles by the authorities.