Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 18 Dec 2013

Vol. 228 No. 9

Local Government Reform Bill 2013: Committee Stage


Amendments Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, and 7 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Government amendment No. 1:
In page 11, line 31, to delete all words from and including “and”, and in page 12, line 1, to delete all words down to and including “2013”.” and substitute “and may be cited together as the Local Government Acts 1925 to 2013.”.

These are technical amendments to section 1 of the Bill, which deals with the Short Title, the collective citations, the construction and commencement provisions. Amendments Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, amend a number of collective citation provisions in subsection (2). This amendment is necessary because the phrase "shall be included in" the collective citation is used in five of the 2013 collective citations referred to in subsections (2), (4), (6), (8) and (13). This text is used because the Acts in question have already been given a 2013 collective citation by another Act earlier this year. They are references to an existing citation for the year concerned.

However, as the enactment of the Bill will run into another year these citations will have to be amended to read “may be cited as” rather than “shall be included in”. In other words, a new citation will be referenced in 2014.

Amendment No. 7 is a drafting amendment to subsection 21 to replace the word “fixed” with “appointed” which will bring the text into line with the wording used earlier in the subsection.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 2:
In page 12, lines 7 and 8, to delete all words from and including “and” in line 7 down to and including “2013”.” in line 8 and substitute “and may be cited together as the Housing Acts 1966 to 2013.”.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 3:
In page 12, lines 16 and 17, to delete all words from and including “and” in line 16 down to and including “2013”.” in line 17 and substitute “and may be cited together as the Electoral Acts 1992 to 2013.”.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 4:
In page 12, lines 23 and 24, to delete all words from and including “and” where it secondly occurs in line 23 down to and including “2013”.” in line 24 and substitute “and may be cited together as the Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2013.”.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 5:
In page 12, lines 42 and 43, to delete all words from and including “shall” in line 42 down to and including “2013.” in line 43 and substitute “may be cited together as the Health Acts 1947 to 2013”.

Amendment No. 6 is consequential on amendment No. 99, therefore, amendments Nos. 6 and 99 may be discussed together by agreement.

Government amendment No. 6:
In page 13, line 29, to delete “section 28 and” and substitute the following:
“section 28, section 51 (in so far as it relates to the insertion of section 149A into the Principal Act) and”.

Amendment No. 6 relates to section 1(21). It provides for section 51 to be commenced on enactment of the Bill. Amendment No. 99 amends section 51 and is required to provide a definitive legal basis for one local authority to carry out executive functions or back-office support services on behalf of one or more local authorities. The amendment will facilitate the implementation of Government policy for the implementation of shared services throughout the public sector. To give effect to the Government decision in the local authority sector a lead local authority model has been agreed whereby one local authority will deliver the shared service on behalf of all local authorities. Shared services should be a win-win situation for local authorities and the people since they reduce cost, improve services and increase standardisation while at the same time allowing local authorities to focus on core citizen-facing activities, for example, the recent decision on payroll and superannuation shared services to be delivered by Laois County Council with an estimated saving of €4.3 million per annum.

I wish to speak generally. My comments are related to the Bill but in a more distant sense. I raised an issue with the Minister previously in respect of the town of Kells. However, I am convinced there are other examples throughout the country where local authorities are sharing. I realise it is in a different context to the amendment. Kells Town Council currently has a substantial land bank of 350 acres or thereabouts and it is being transferred to Meath County Council. There are major concerns in the town of Kells about this, particularly the potential for any future sale that could be voted on by members from around the county outside the area of Kells. At present, the land bank is controlled by Kells Town Council, representing the people of the town who own it. Has the Minister given any further thought to that? If not, I intend to draft an amendment over Christmas for Report Stage, if Report Stage proceeds at that point. If not, I will do it before then. The idea is to facilitate the easy transfer of land before the Bill is passed, before the commencement or before the elections without stamp duty or any legal complications, other than the standard conveyancing procedures, to allow land such as that to be put into some form of a trust or some protected structure to recognise that these lands do not really belong to the county but to townspeople and are owned on their behalf by the town council.

When I raised this issue in the Seanad there was a major degree of support for my comments from the people of Kells. Some of the Minister’s colleagues and Labour Party councillors in Kells Town Council would be supportive of it as well. I have discussed the matter with them privately. I have no intention of naming names or quoting those involved. Senator Landy knows some of the councillors involved and the Minister mentioned one to me as well.

This is a major concern in Kells but I am convinced there are other examples throughout the country. I am certain this is not the only example of a town with a special land bank that was left to the town generations ago by the Headfort estate. It is seen by the town as belonging to the town. If the Minister has given further thought to the matter I would be pleased to hear his comments.

It seems to me that the significant amendment is amendment No. 99. In general, I find myself in agreement with the Government and the Minister. I expect to be in a position to support the amendment if it is put to a vote because it presumes an agreement between local authorities. It is not a direction from the Minister. It happens at local level and that is simply co-operation and good big business practice and organisations sharing back-office services including accounting and so on. That seems to me to be eminently sensible.

I have one question. Why is the phrase “and be deemed always to have had the power to perform the function on behalf of” included when that was plainly not the case? The power will not be conferred until this Act passes. I am unsure why that phrase is included because it seems to be against reason. We are putting it in because the power referred to was not previously available. I do not see how we can possibly deem those concerned retrospectively to have had the power. I suggest the Minister might consider taking that phrase out and leaving it as it is. The parties will still be able to do whatever they want; they will still be able to co-operate. I see no need for what appears to me to be - perhaps because I do not understand the subtleties and technicalities - unnecessary provisions retrospectively.

I support Senator Byrne in respect of the issue on Kells. I visited Kells earlier in the year. I hope some solution can be found to this issue because it is valued by the people of the town, and, as a follow-on, by the public representatives on the town council. Some of my colleagues on the council brought the matter to my attention. I support Senator Byrne on the issue.

I have looked at the matter raised by Senator Byrne to see whether there is a legal basis on which we can help out in respect of the genuine concerns that have been raised. There is only one corporate entity, however, as a result of this legislation, that is, Meath County Council. Therefore, it will be up to the Kells municipal district members to ensure that the other members of Meath County Council understand the legitimate concerns of that area. The decisions in respect of the Kells lands will be vested in Meath County Council. However, I imagine, in the context of the devolution of responsibility and whatever financial arrangements are entered into by Meath County Council and the Kells municipal district, that the rent or whatever financial matters that accrue from those lands would go to the Kells municipal district as part of the budgetary arrangements of that municipal district. I cannot find a legal basis other than that. We would have to ensure from the get-go that Meath County Council would understand that the benefit of whatever happens at Kells lands would be for the benefit of that area.

Senator Norris will note that we made a decision on Laois County Council for the purposes of payroll and superannuation. We have been in the process of putting in place administrative arrangements in the past six or seven weeks. It is for the purposes of giving legal certainty to that rather than anything else that we require this.

As far as I am concerned if it benefits Laois, then it is all right with me.

I understand. I knew it would be close to Senator Norris's heart.

I thank the Minister for looking at this. I agree with him that it is a difficult situation. It is difficult to come up with a concept. However, it is incumbent on us between now and Report Stage to do something. I encourage Kells Town Council in particular to put on thinking caps - I will do it myself - to see if anything can be done in terms of trusts. There is a substantial income from those lands at the moment. They can serve other benefits. If a company wishes to create jobs land can be sold or leased to such companies. This has created a huge number of jobs.

I have discussed the matter with people on the street in recent weeks. They have reminded me that people used to plant their potatoes on that land. It is to that extent in the minds of the people that this land belongs to them. I gather there are more formal arrangements in place now as regards letting. I agree it is a difficult situation but it is a matter that I have offered to help to resolve. The town council has the ultimate responsibility in terms of ideas. I realise everyone is working on it. I have spoken to some of the Minister’s colleagues in Fine Gael and the Labour Party. The Minister has spoken to them as well. I have spoken to senior officials in Meath County Council. I wish to be clear: no one there wants to sell this land. However, I cannot predict what future combination will be on the council. The Kells municipal area is far bigger than the town. The town will only have seven seats out of 40. The group will have a substantial minority of votes on the council in future.

It does no harm to have the wishes of the people and the intentions of the Minister reflected in debate today. I hope that will stay on the record for posterity and that a copy of the transcript of proceedings should be sent to the town council. Some work should be done between now and Report Stage to determine whether anything can be done on this matter.

I listened to the reply the Minister gave about the question that came from Senator Norris. The remit of amendment No. 99 goes far beyond County Laois.

I think it applies to all local authorities. There are two scenarios I wish to put. Many town councils had entered into arrangements with their county councils for certain functions to be discharged by the county council, sometimes perhaps by the officials of the county council. Since town councils are being abolished I would assume that all the particular functions of the town council automatically transfer to the county council. Therefore, I query why this would be included in so far as it might relate in any way to those type of arrangements. I said at an earlier stage that what is being done here is the corollary of subsidiarity. Powers are being brought upwards rather than downwards.

I am surprised to hear that coming from a businessman.

We have a very centralised approach. I have been a strong proponent of subsidiarity and, in particular, of the work town councils do, as in the Minister's city in Kilkenny and in my town and other towns in County Wexford. Much good work has been done by town councils. Once they are brought into the bigger grouping, particularly where there is a significant increase in the number of members, they will not be anywhere near as effective as at town council level. That is my personal view but I feel strongly about it.

There were also arrangements between county councils, sometimes because of the specific nature of a service or function. One county council would have entered into an arrangement with a neighbouring county council to undertake the administration and control of a particular function. I would have thought, given the new arrangements and this Bill which is changing the scheme significantly, one would go back to zero and that it would be up to those councils to make a decision as to whether they assumed responsibility for what has been transferred to another local authority or enter into a new arrangement. What is the thought process in not doing that?

I note the Minister referred to executive functions. In some of the documentation received, including from the Minister, he speaks of greater empowerment of the democratic process. I would have thought we would be eliminating executive functions. I think they should all be eliminated but, as far as possible, they certainly should be transferred to councillors who would then be accountable for the decisions they make. I do not know if the Minister can point to any provision in the Bill which meets the criteria of empowerment of the councils themselves, which should be an important part of local government.

I am sure Meath is not the only council that would have that if an auditor did a trawl of all the town councils. Section 17 provides for the dissolution of Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford councils. Section 18 provides that any decision made before that county was dissolved would stand after 2014 when the new local authority was established. Would that same power be understood if Meath County Council or any county council passed a motion before it was dissolved and before the coming into being in 2014 of the new districts whereby any decision made by that county would stand? Section 18 reads: "All acts duly done and decisions made before the 2014 establishment day by or on behalf of ... a local authority ... shall, subject to this Act, continue to have all such force and effect as they had immediately before that day [That is, before 2014]." I presume the theory would continue for town councils.

Obviously, Senator Jim Walsh has not read my Second Stage contribution in relation to what I indicated were new powers and responsibilities to the local government sector. This amendment reflects the shared service nature of what we will have in the future. Many Members of the House have said to me, and I am sure Senator Jim Walsh, as a businessman, would agree, that things move on and there are new ways in which we communicate with people and do business. There will be 83 fewer local authorities and consequent reductions in reports, audits, corporate functions, budgets and various processes. There will be 192 fewer structures when account is taken of the dissolution of regional authorities, county development boards, county enterprise boards and various other boards. What we had under Better Local Government - A Programme for Change, with which the Senator will be familiar, was the setting up of a huge number of additional structures in local government, but that did not always mean a better service was provided to the people. There were directors of services and a mushrooming of additional grades. This did not mean a more meaningful engagement with the public. In fact, there was centralisation of all services in national government, particularly since the abolition of domestic rates. All sorts of agencies have been established that have bypassed local government. I propose to reverse that trend.

The shared services agenda, which is part and parcel of the public service reform agenda of this Government, is an opportunity for one or more authorities to come together, by agreement, as Senator David Norris has rightly pointed out, to share services for the purposes of efficiency and in order that administrative arrangements can be entered into that are more satisfactory. The cost of delivering those services, given that people will pay more in user charges at local level, will mean a lesser burden on people who are paying currently, particularly the small business sector. I would have thought Senator Walsh would have supported me on that issue. If we are to reduce the burden of commercial rates on small businesses and provide more resources to the priorities of a particular municipal district or between authorities in a region, for example, in the south east if Wexford is of a mind to co-operate with Kilkenny to develop, say, Rosbercon, that can be done under the provisions of this legislation. That would ensure Waterford and Kilkenny would co-operate better and that Wexford and Kilkenny would co-operate better on various matters. There has not always been good co-operation.

Equally in regard to executive implementation of the policy decisions of the elected members, a structure is not needed in every town and village to provide a service. We are not in the horse and cart era any more. Thankfully, we have moved to the 21st century where we have different means of communications than in 1898. While those structures fitted the time, they do not fit it now.

Senator Cáit Keane asked about passing a motion and whether it would have a benefit in the Kells situation. I cannot predict what the Kells members of Meath County Council will do but I am giving an assurance to members of Meath County Council that if they use that opportunity for the rates or the charges that come from those particular lands, I am sure a commonsense approach will be adopted that will allow the income from those lands to accrue for the benefit of the people for whom it was originally intended in the Kells area.

I do not share the Minister's view that we are updating and providing more powers under the Bill. The Minister's assertion that somehow the Bill is moving from the 1800s to 2014 is not accurate because we are moving local government into a sphere where it will be the least democratically accountable in western Europe with one elected local representative per 4,800 people. Currently, we have one elected local representative per approximately 2,700 people.

The Senator is moving away from the amendment.

I am only reacting to the point made by the Minister. He pointed out that the Bill was somehow providing more decision-making power locally. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are removing the level of democracy closest to the citizen, town councils, which is the most efficient and effective and involves the least cost burden to the taxpayer where decisions are made. They are being abolished. On the other hand all the powers in respect of decision-making on water charging and wastewater issues are being transferred from councillors to Irish Water, a new quango. It is not fair to say that local councillors are being given additional powers.

In relation to the local property tax, commitments were given that 80% of the moneys collected would be transferred to the local authorities.

That has nothing to do with the property tax.

That is now being reneged on. The proposal in the Bill of providing more local powers is far from the reality.

The issue of costs has been raised. Much has been said about the efficiency savings of €440 million following the implementation of the provisions of the Bill. Will the Minister outline the exact areas in which these savings will be made?

These amendments are not about costs.

The amendment relates to the transfer of powers. If the Minister wishes to reply to my questions on another part of the Bill, that is fine.

I am guided by the Chair.

In a recent parliamentary reply, the Minister outlined that he was not in a position to provide any detailed breakdown of where the saving would come from. Has there been a change in his position since last week?

One would expect that when a major Bill such as this is going through the Oireachtas, everyone would be clearly aware of the areas in which the money would be saved. That is not clear.

Through the Chair, may I say that I did not read the Minister's Second Stage speech, but I listened to it. The Minister will be aware that what the Government says and what the Government does are strangers to each other a lot of the time.

What I say will happen, as the Senator knows.

That is what I have come to learn in the past three years.

I have no difficulty with sharing services in the most cost-effective way. I fully subscribe to that. It is a sine qua non, from the point of view of having cost effective administration of services. The Minister gave examples of that in Wexford and Kilkenny and neighbouring counties. We have worked in conjunction with County Wicklow on roads. We tried but failed to work with County Kilkenny on roads. As the Minister knows, when travelling from the south-east corner to the Midlands, one is travelling through 19th century roads in County Kilkenny. We would have talked about upgrading these roads but that has never been done. We campaigned for years for the New Ross-Waterford road, which is the gateway to the west and south west.

That will be done.

Eventually it was done. I know that significant improvements are coming. It took ages to get County Kilkenny to move away from the focus on Kilkenny city.

There are other instances of local authorities working together, where both local authorities co-operate.

My central point is that the Minister has changed the structure of local government. By abolishing the town councils, their functions will be automatically assumed into the county council structure, but that does not mean they will be carried out more cost effectively. I concur with the Minister's point on reducing the burden on small businesses but he will acknowledge that a plethora of charges have been heaped on small businesses over the years. I can give examples in my own area, New Ross, but I can speak on behalf of all the town council in County Wexford. There are four major towns with four major local authorities and in the towns we were consistently well below the rate to be applied to businesses as distinct from the rate applied by the county councils.

The Senator is moving away from the two amendments.

The Senator is moving from the two amendments.

These issues will now transfer to the county council. The Minister raised the issue and I am sure the Cathaoirleach heard him say, that reducing the burden on small businesses should be an objective. I fully support that. However, I also support dynamic, progressive local government systems that will deliver both services, policies and development for its citizens. I know that in Wexford we resisted increasing the number on the county council for many years, but at the stroke of a pen, the Minister has increased the number from 21 to 34 people. Everybody, including officials, agrees that it will make it much more ineffective. In effect the Minister is creating talking shops, in place of the more focused business driven local government systems. The town councils delivered well in each of the towns and I think the direction the Minister is taking is highly regrettable.

I think it is important, and this is the point I am making in amendment No. 99, that the elected members of the local authorities would have the opportunity to review these shared arrangements and see if in fact it will be best practice for the delivery of these services to the people they represent, or whether it should be reviewed and a new approach adopted in the current circumstances.

As I read the Bill, and please correct me if I am wrong, the Minister is stating that any such prior arrangements that had been entered into by management will continue to operate and therefore he is taking it out of the scope of the local authority members who will be elected in 2014 to decide whether that is in the interest of their local authority and communities. I query the reason for doing this, as I do not see the logic of it. I think that existing inter-county council arrangements could be planned on a clean sheet from hereon in. There is significant dismantling of the services that local government have been providing. It is only appropriate that members conduct a review and then make decisions. In my opinion that is what true local democracy is about.

I am surprised that Senator Walsh would not acknowledge that most of his business is in the planning authority in County Kilkenny, where the lowest rate in the country applies. That is the reason he is getting such a very good service and a cheap one.

Is it any wonder I have so many grey hairs?

What we are talking about in the Bill is more administrative functions, which is the operational side of a local authority. I do not know if Senator Walsh wants the local authority members to become involved in the day-to-day administration and operation of functions. I do not anticipate that anybody else does. There is much more oversight being given in this legislation to councillors to make decisions on policy matters and on oversight but one does not expect councillors to become members of an executive team to implement the decisions of a board of directors, which is the elected members of the New Ross municipal district. Under the Bill the elected members will have more powers and responsibilities in those areas than they had in the past through New Ross Town Council. Across the country some 70% of all local authorities are accounted for by town councillors but they have 7% of the local government activity The municipal districts will have more powers, responsibilities and functions than that. I am sure the Senator will agree that is an enhancement of powers and measures and functions as close as possible to the citizen, rather than having everything - at present 93% of the activity - housed in Wexford County Hall. I want to devolve responsibility from Wexford County Hall to the municipal districts and not continue the current sham of 7% of all local government activity based around New Ross town council or other town councils.

I have got agreement from Government that the councils will be able to vary the local property tax. They will have a great deal more discretion to spend money raised at local level based on the priorities of the local areas. The same councillors elected for the municipal district will be able to go to the county hall plenary session and argue the case, which they cannot do at present. The councillors at municipal district level will have many more reserved functions than the present town councils. All the measure we are taking, including in this amendment, will mean saving a significant amount of money through shared services, in fact €4.3 million per annum in payroll and superannuation. Laois County Council will be the lead authority. I expect that local authorities in every region will want to come together to deliver a better service. One does not need all the various layers of management right across the country as we have at present. We do not need the same level of directors. The local government staff grading structure is being analysed and worked through by my officials in conjunction with officials of local authorities to see what we can do in terms of having efficient delivery of service, with staff being redeployed into areas in which they can do other functions rather than the current functions which perhaps can be delivered in a different way. Local authorities will be much more involved in economic and community planning and moneys will be channelled through the local authorities and not by-passed through private companies as is happening at present. What will happen is contrary to what Senator Walsh has said.

A significant number of additional powers, devolved from central government, are being bestowed at municipal and county level. There will be a great deal more oversight through the national oversight commission, in respect of which the regional assemblies will have a role to play. Where best practice can be replicated throughout the country - regardless of location - this will be done. The amendment is designed to allow the maximum opportunity for policy positions to be adopted at local authority member level. Equally, if the best way of efficiently delivering services at local level - and saving money for citizens - is on a shared service basis between authorities, then the opportunity to do so is also catered for.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.
Sitting suspended at 5.01 p.m. and resumed at 6.10 p.m.