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Local Government Reform

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 18 September 2012

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Ceisteanna (43, 56, 69, 74)

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

43. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for the Environment; Community and Local Government the status of his local government reform document; the timeframe for its publication; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39000/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brian Stanley

Ceist:

56. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for the Environment; Community and Local Government his plans to reform town councils; and if so, the criteria he will be using and the consultation that will take place with the public and with elected representatives. [39071/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Catherine Murphy

Ceist:

69. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for the Environment; Community and Local Government the date on which he intends to publish new proposals for the reform of local government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39040/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brian Stanley

Ceist:

74. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for the Environment; Community and Local Government the stage of his proposals for local government reform; when same will be made public; and the programme of consultation with the public and elected representative that will take place. [39076/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (21 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Environment)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 43, 56, 69 and 74 together.

The Government’s broad policy approach in this area was set out in the programme for Government. In line with this, I intend to publish shortly a detailed policy statement and action programme for the reform of local government. The programme will set out a clear vision for the future of local government and proposals to achieve it, with particular focus on strengthening structures generally at regional, county and sub-county levels, expanding the role of local government, maximising operational and organisational efficiency and improving governance, oversight, local political and executive leadership and citizen engagement.

The reform programme will also reflect other work under way in regard to various aspects of local government, including local authority mergers, efficiency implementation, local government funding and alignment of local and community development with local government. The statement will outline implementation arrangements for the reform programme and certain issues which will be the subject of further policy work in the future.

Work on the development of these policy proposals has been informed by the extensive analysis and consultation that has taken place in regard to reform over the years. In recent times, I have received submissions from, and held discussions with, the local government representative associations, with individual local authority members and with interested groups. Some months ago, I also invited each individual councillor in the country to submit views to me on a number of issues relating to local government reform.

Publication of the policy statement will provide a further opportunity for public comment and input ahead of the development of legislation to provide for these reform measures and this legislation will be brought forward in 2013, in time for the local elections in 2014. The content of local government reform legislation will be a matter for Government decision in the first instance and will, of course, be the subject of Oireachtas scrutiny and debate in the normal way. In due course, I will be letting the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht know the exact details of this legislation and of the implementation of our policy statement.

I thank the Minister for his answer. When he brings forward his local government reform package I hope he does not simply seek to grab headlines and score political points by cutting councils and councillors for the sake of it. I am aware of the need for streamlining in this area. We cannot have, for example, up to 115 representatives in one county. I am also aware that local authorities have lost many of their functions over the years. They are no longer responsible for primary roads or waste collection and the Government now proposes to remove their responsibility for water services. Lack of funding has led to the deterioration or curtailment of other services, such as library facilities and fire services.

I hope whatever reform package the Minister introduces will give more power to local authorities. Whether in welfare, education or health, local authorities must be given more leverage to become better functioning authorities, which they can do with a proper reform package.

There has been much debate by the Minister's colleagues in Government about the performance of the Croke Park agreement and how each Department has effected the required savings. What savings has the Minister achieved in his Department, within the parameters of the agreement? Can he keep us constantly updated on such savings and let us know the savings he envisages in the coming years until a new agreement is put in place?

It is only right that Ministers begin to account for the management of their Departments. It is too easy to appeal, in soundbites, to certain sections of their own supporters and say that savings cannot be effected when pay is not on the table.

I am glad Deputy Cowen has decided to acknowledge that the decisions I make regarding my Department are not made for any populist reasons.

That is for sure.

I am doing what I believe is right and it does not matter to the members of the public if the public or private sector delivers services as long as they get a good quality service. The public wants services from local authorities that are delivered effectively and effectively. Over the last three years, 8,000 staff have left the local government system, with numbers falling from 37,000 to 29,000 and those staff are still expected to deliver the same level of services. All of the various allowances and matters under benchmarking, which I opposed at the time, have imposed an enormous cost on the delivery of those services to the consumer. That is why so many local authorities got out of the waste collection system, because it was much more expensive to operate than in the private sector.

This year we will save €195 million by putting in place measures to achieve efficiencies through better procurement, IT and HR centralisation and shared services and over the next year we will see those savings accruing to the local government sector. They will not all be achieved this year but there will be €195 million savings as set out on in detail in the local government efficiency review group.

Estimated savings of €800 million could be made in local government in the next few years. Those savings have been identified by the local government efficiency review group out of the €7 billion we are providing in current and capital expenditure to the local government sector. There are opportunities to deliver better and more effective services without the traditional structures that have built up over the years.

I have listened carefully to the Minister's reply and I am no clearer where this is going. It is in the programme for Government that local government reform will be introduced. On that subject, we are at one with the Minister; reform is needed and it has not happened under previous Governments. Local government must be modernised because the system does not match up properly. Town councils in some areas with a small population have huge powers while other large towns have town commission status. There are all sorts of anomalies in the system that we have discussed before. The Minister told me a number of times he would announce the reform programme before the summer recess but we have not heard anything. I have listened carefully to the Minister over the summer and I heard nothing about this. We need that reform. When will we have the policy statement and when can the House discuss it? When will the Oireachtas committee be able to discuss the services local authorities should provide and their functions, powers, finances and boundaries? Are we talking about county councils or town and district councils?

I acknowledge the savings that have been made and that local authority numbers have fallen from 37,000 to 29,000 and that this new staff complement is doing the same amount of work. That is a testament to those working in local authorities. One area the Minister might examine is directors of services and senior executive officers. There are two grades at the top of departments in small councils. We should examine if there is a need for both. Could a manager not liaise directly with a senior executive officer and do the same job?

I am anxious to see the Minister's proposals and would like to know when we will have the discussion.

The proposals on local government are before Government and I hope we will be in a position to clear them in the next week or two. The efforts being made to achieve this, because it is so important, are significant. Deputy Cowen mentioned the level of savings that could be achieved through doing things better and differently. In the last two and half years in local government, €553 million has been saved by delivering certain services differently, with some being outsourced and some being privatised, and others organised using structures that achieve better outcomes. That thinking informs some of the 106 recommendations made in 2010 by Mr. McLaughlin's group on local government efficiency. The public expects that.

The Deputy is particularly interested in structures on an all-Ireland basis and structures are being significantly reduced in Northern Ireland. The outcome of our discussions on these matters will lead to reductions in the number of authorities and public representatives. Those are not all of the proposals we will make, they are just two of many.

We do not have a local government system in this country in the real sense of the word, we have a local administration. If we are to change that, it will not happen as an event but through a process. Could the Minister outline how he sees that playing out? Will there be legislation next year followed by a process over a period years after that? What will be the final shape of the local government system?

When the last Government issued a Green Paper on local government, it was very frank about the mistrust between local and national government and how that has persisted since the foundation of the State. If we are to have a real system of local government, that must be addressed and there must be a transfer of powers between the administration to those who were elected. Will that form any part of the changes that will be made?

When we talk about reform, the only aspects that are discussed are the efficiencies from the point of view of costs. I acknowledge those are important but they are not the only issues that must be covered. We are missing an opportunity to reform the entire political system by not reforming the local government system in the first instance. I hope this will be an ambitious plan. Will the Minister outline the final shape envisaged for local government and the timeframe involved in shaping it?

The policy statement will be implemented between now and the 2014 local elections, that is the timeframe for the enactment of the legislation and the establishment of the new structures. The Boundary Commission must be established and report in good time to allow people to decide which electoral area they wish to stand in and to allow candidates and parties to get organised. On the last occasion, the Boundary Commission report was published in June 2008 for elections in 2009. I hope to give more time than that during this process for those who wish to consider standing.

I agree with Deputy Murphy in that we have had local administration rather than local government. I am anxious to secure agreement from my colleagues in Government that the process of devolution of powers from central Government and national agencies to local level is at the heart of the policy statement.

In line with those proposals for 2014, can the Minister inform us if there will be a directly elected mayor for Dublin by then?

The Deputy must wait until I get Government approval for the suite of measures on local government reform before I can answer that question.

Does the Minister agree that a more democratic and autonomous local government system would be in our best interests if we are to get citizen participation in local communities? We need a bottom up approach rather than top down, which is what we have had for a long time.

I agree with Deputy Wallace and I was taken with Deputy Cowen's remarks earlier that we are removing functions from local government when we have the most centralised system in the world thanks to his predecessors in Government taking away powers from local authorities and giving them to agencies and quangos. I want to see the reorganisation of local government structures resulting in more decisions being made at local level and community and with local development programmes aligned with local government to a greater extent.

The issue we must grapple with, the funding of such services, must also be addressed. Funding is critical for power at local level and that challenge exists for all local representatives who are genuinely interested in local government and its funding. It must be possible to raise and spend money at local level more openly and freely on the basis of local priorities.

Three other Deputies have indicated and we are running out of time so I ask them to put their questions. The Minister will then reply.

Does the Minister agree there is a certain contradiction between him saying he aspires to more devolution and greater powers at local level while Government policy seems to be removing decision making from local authorities? How will he square that circle against the backdrop of a public sector recruitment embargo? Is it not the case that he is engaged in a slash and burn butchering of the number of councils and dressing it up as reform when it is just a continuation of the status quo?

Will the Minister consider empowering councillors with the ability to represent people in respect of medical card applications and social welfare inquiries? Deputies currently do many of these jobs through the Oireachtas inquiry lines and this would free up the time of parliamentarians to deal with legislative issues. If the number of councillors is reduced, will he consider making these positions fully salaried to address the jumping through hoops process that exists whereby councillors drive all over the country attending conferences and so on, which is a waste of everybody's time? Will the Minister consider these proposals as part of the overall reform of local government?

The last Boundary Commission report was published in 2008 and it caused problems for councillors, particularly a few in the Minister's party who were caught out on the wrong side of a boundary. Given the local elections will be held in June 2014, if the commission is to report earlier this time, it would have to do so late this year or early next year to improve on what the previous Government did. I hope the Minister will do that.

With regard to the North, there have been huge local government reforms but huge powers have also been devolved to local government.

My question relates to Deputy Daly's question. Does the Minister not feel it is ridiculously ironic that he is telling the House he will bring forward a reform document that will empower local authorities and give them more functions and legislative powers while, at the same time, he is taking away water facilities and the water protection system? He is taking away the local knowledge that was most evident during our big freeze the winter before last. That local knowledge and expertise is being taken away from local authorities. What can he give them that is not being taken from them? He wanted to blame the previous Government for centralising local authority facilities and services.

I will retain local knowledge and the involvement of the local government system in Irish Water, as I said earlier. I will devolve as many functions as I can with the agreement of my colleagues. The agreement of Cabinet colleagues and agencies is needed on such issues. I intend to ensure devolution as far as possible.

In response to Deputy Daly, I am in favour of greater devolution. If she feels that 114 local authorities for a country of this size and in the current circumstances is too few, I disagree with her.

No, I do not, but the Minister might give them a few powers.

I am anxious to ensure we have sufficient representation, greater democratic input and greater decision making at local level, as I said in reply to Deputy Wallace. I expect to bring forward a Boundary Commission report in March or April next year.

With regard to Deputy Griffin's questions, local councillors make representations. As a former councillor, I made many representations on national issues, especially where offices were located locally. That is what I intend but I subscribe to the Deputy's overall principle that we need to ensure more powers are vested in local councillors in order that Parliament can have more of an opportunity to deal with national issues.

Question No. 44 answered with Question No. 42.
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