Commencement Matters

Local Government Reform

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to take this matter. I greatly appreciate it, as I am aware that she was under some time constraint to get here.

In October 2012 the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Phil Hogan, published a document entitled, Putting People First - Action Programme for Effective Local Government. That document, numbering more than 198 pages, set out a mechanism for changing local government across the country. It was discussed by the various councillor associations and interested bodies and it came into play following the 2014 local elections. The document set out how to change local government through full implementation of local government at a local level to maximise representational effectiveness and to improve structures, functions, resources, operational arrangements and governance. It also aims to enhance the role of the elected member in the areas of economic development and enterprise support. It sets as a target the devolution of powers from the centre. It also provided for the abolition of town councils, a provision with which I greatly disagreed. It provided functions for councillors in the areas of the environment, water, foreshore licensing, local development, food safety and housing, and for the setting up of new municipal district areas. It proposed the amalgamation of various local authorities such as the two authorities in Waterford - the area of my colleague, Senator Maurice Cummins - which became one authority and the two authorities in Tipperary and Limerick which also became one authority.

A year on from the implementation phase of that document, I have found that councillors and councillor associations have raised many issues with me. Furthermore, anywhere I go, be it to a match or a funeral, a councillor will raise an issue related to the changes that have been implemented. I ask that Putting People First be reviewed now that its provisions have been in operation for one year. I will give a flavour of the issues that have been raised with me. One issue is that of the general municipal allocation, under which each municipal area gets an allocation of money for spending on projects, in which it has discretion. It seems the executive, rather than the councillors, is deciding where that allocation is spent. That is a significant issue, particularly for councillors in Limerick who have contacted me about it and who are very exercised about it. They say that section 2.1 of Putting People First is purposely being misinterpreted. That is a very serious matter.

The use of motions to discuss issues outside the realm of the council is becoming a bugbear for councillors. Issues to do with the other side of the world are being discussed, but it seems the local issues that need to be resolved are not being taken up. The non-attendance of relevant executive staff at meetings is also an issue. Of particular concern was the division of Kilkenny city into two electoral areas, and the Minister of State, who comes from that county, will know about the issue. A number of councillors have contacted me to say the new division is not working. It is not feasible. Instead of bringing local autonomy to people, it is claimed that Putting People First is taking it away from people and taking powers from local councillors and into the executive.

The review I seek should examine the terms and conditions of employment of councillors vis-à-vis their ability to carry out their work on the salary they are getting. It should examine the change in terms of geographical areas. Electoral areas in Cork and other counties can span a distance of 100 miles. A councillor is expected to carry out his or her functions under the old system of remuneration. Another issue is the time councillors are expected to put in and the distance they are expected to travel.

The road budget allocation system is not being implemented in line with what is provided for in the document. There is also the issue of pay related social insurance which I have raised with the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, on several occasions and on which we are doing some work. If a review is carried out - I sincerely hope it will be and I am getting good vibes about it - it will need to include the input of members of local authorities, their representative associations and the spokespersons on local government in the Dáil and the Seanad. Such a review would require a clear set of terms of reference and a timescale.

We also need to see the inclusion of practitioners of local government in the review group. I hope the Minister of State has good news and that it can happen. Putting People First is a broad document, setting out a lot of aims and objectives. After one year, we need to analyse what has happened, what was good and bad, how we can improve and how councillors can have an opportunity to have an input. They are the people who elected me, Senator Maurice Cummins and many others. It is our duty to answer to them on issues of concern to them.

I tabled this Commencement matter in order that we can liaise and communicate with them. I hope the Minister of State will be able to announce a review today, if possible, and, if not, that she can indicate when it will happen.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I came up through the local authority structure. The Senator has referred to nothing today that I am not aware of and I continue to raise these issues, in particular those concerning supports for members. The amount of travel involved has been brought to my attention. As I have a lengthy response, I ask the Cathaoirleach to allow me to continue or tell me when my time us up.

We are easy on time.

It is certainly a reformed and improved system. The majority of the policy decisions, first announced in Putting People First - Action Programme for Effective Local Government and subsequently given statutory effect under the Local Government Reform Act 2014, came into effect on 1 June 2014. The changes included enhanced roles for local authorities in economic development and local and community development, the dissolution of local authorities in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford and the establishment of new merged entities in their place, the replacement of town councils, to which the Senator referred, by municipal districts and provision for the reconfiguration of regional structures.

There are also new governance arrangements such as provision for an enhanced policy making role for elected members, new citizen participation measures, CPM, local authority service delivery plans, the redesignation of the position of manager to chief executive, stronger oversight powers for the elected council on the implementation of policy and increased obligations on the executive in relation to the elected council. Together, the measures I have mentioned present a significant reform agenda and I will mention some of the benefits.

At county and city level, while greater efficiency and economies of scale are among the objectives of the local authority amalgamations in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford, stronger local government was the main aim. Over time, benefits will arise following the establishment of single authorities which will be better positioned to achieve the overall goals of leading economic, social and community development, delivering efficient and good value services and representing citizens and communities effectively and accountably. Mergers have also addressed issues related to boundaries, particularly where urban development has extended beyond the administrative boundary. Moreover, we can expect greater efficiency and more productive use of resources due, for example, to the elimination of duplication and reduced staffing requirements. At sub-county level, municipal districts now cover the entire territory of each county, reflecting European norms, removing outdated boundaries and ending the anomaly of small towns having municipal status and dual representation, while some larger centres and rural areas lacked any sub-county governance.

As well as creating a more rational and comprehensive structural arrangement, the new system enables more effective and community-focused decision-making and implementation in county councils. Under the new arrangements, there is full integration of local authority resources across each county and elimination of duplication in administrative and electoral terms.

An important additional benefit of the reconfigured local government system is a more appropriate assignment of functions. The performance of different functions by members at county and district levels over time will result in greater effectiveness than the previous parallel town and county system, which involved a significant element of duplication. The division of functions between county and district levels has been determined on the basis of what is most relevant to each level. Local matters are to be dealt with at municipal district level, while those of wider strategic application are decided at county level without duplication between the county and district jurisdictions. Following this principle, the pressure of business on the plenary council can be relieved.

The reform programme has seen important functions being transferred to local government in the areas of economic and community development. The basis has also been set down for more far-reaching expansion of the role of local government into the future, as the reform structures, finances, governance and operational arrangements take effect and build greater confidence.

While much has been achieved in terms of reform under the action programme and the Local Government Reform Act 2014, it is important to recognise that 1 June 2015 will mark the first full year of the operation of the structural and other changes in the local government system. We are obviously at an early point in the operation of the new arrangements. Nonetheless, it is essential to ensure the new system is being operated effectively and as intended. We have, therefore, initiated an operational review of the new arrangements, which has been undertaken by a broadly based advisory group, together with a local government forum, for engagement with councillors through the Association of Irish Local Government. As indicated in the response to a matter in the Seanad on 5 March, the reintroduction of the pre-reform configuration of town councils is not under consideration. The operational review will provide solid evidence for any adjustments that might need to be considered in the operation of the revised structures. We also envisaged this being a continuing feature of engagement between central and local government, in particular to facilitate input by local authority members to the ongoing development and review of policy. Priority matters under consideration in the short term include the operation of the municipal district arrangements, particularly the exercise of powers and functions by elected members to ensure that the new system is being operated as intended and that the various components of the new local government system are working effectively; civic aspects such as in relation to the title of mayor; and the work of elected local authority members in the context of the new local government arrangements.

As Members will be aware, a further important departure relating to local government is under way in the form of the review of local government arrangements in Cork and Galway by independent statutory committees. These reviews are progressing well and I look forward to the reports in the autumn, which can have a major bearing on the future success of, and progress in, the areas under review.

The Government's intention is that local government will progress to become the main vehicle of governance and public service at local level, with improved subsidiarity, coherence and efficiency, resulting in better value for money and improved services for clients. Local government reform and development is not a once-off event but an ongoing process.

I ask the Senator to continue his deliberations, as he is very passionate about local government, to continue to lobby and be the watchdog for local government in this House. I thank him for raising this extremely important issue.

I thank the Minister of State to taking this matter as I know she was under a time constraint in getting to the House. I am pleased, in the main, with the response. Now that we have established a review is going ahead, I ask her to follow up on the terms of reference and the timescale for the outcome of the review, as well as the invitation to the spokespersons on local government in both Houses to attend those meetings and make submissions to the review.

This is a fairly standard request at any level in a review of this type in order to achieve the maximum from the review and the best outcome. If the Minister of State can give a commitment that we can do this before we finish, I would even give Kilkenny three points of a lead in the all-Ireland next year against Tipperary.

I thank the Senator. I am not sure if we are going to need his help in September but no doubt we will be delighted to take it. I ask him and other Members to continue the engagement. On the roads issue to which he specifically refers, I ask if he might send me some correspondence. It is a particular issue that I would like to examine personally. The same applies to the discretionary spend to which he refers. The submissions would be extremely important with regard to the timescale of the review. I give an undertaking that I will work with the Senator and other Members to have these important points addressed.

I thank the Minister of State.

Sitting suspended at 10.50 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.