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Local Government Reform

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 12 June 2013

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Ceisteanna (2)

Brian Stanley

Ceist:

2. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in view of the new municipal districts proposed by the Local Boundary Commission, noting that some of these cover large geographical areas and in view of his stated intention to devolve further powers and functions to councillors, his views on whether councillors in the new municipal districts will be able to properly represent all their constituents. [28200/13]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (11 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Environment)

I am confident that the new governance arrangements within counties will enable councillors to represent their constituents more effectively than under current arrangements. While the recommendations of the local electoral area boundary committee involve an overall reduction in the number of local electoral areas, the level of representation across local authorities will be more proportionate to population while maintaining a higher ratio of members to population in counties with lower populations. An important benefit of the new system is that different functions will be performed by members at county and district levels. This will result in greater effectiveness than the current parallel town and county system, which involves a significant element of duplication of functions as well as other weaknesses and anomalies.

The division of functions between county and district levels under the relevant legislation will be determined on the basis of what is most relevant to each level. Local matters will be dealt with at municipal district level, while those of wider strategic application will be decided at county level, without duplication between county and district jurisdictions. The elected members will perform a range of important reserved functions at district level on a fully devolved basis, subject to certain requirements for consistency with overall local authority policy.

This is a practical problem for councillors who are to be elected next year. Their electoral areas will be 50 km or 60 km in length with very large municipal districts. Sinn Féin supports reform, and certainly local government needs reform, but care needs to be taken with regard to the type of reform. We support the devolution of powers and functions but if the Minister carries this through - I have not seen any great signs yet - this will also mean an extra workload for councillors.

I have some information about practices in other jurisdictions. In France there is one councillor for every 118 people; in Germany there is a councillor for every 315 people; in Finland there is a councillor for every 410 people; and in Belgium there is a councillor for every 811. Even in England there is one councillor for every 2,603 people. Under this proposal Ireland will have one councillor for every 4,830 people, and the electoral areas will be very large. My concern is about part-time councillors. We want more people to get involved in politics. However, women with families - and also men, because they too have families - will have difficulties doing the work after 6 p.m. They have family and work commitments and I ask how they will carry out their functions as councillors.

I subscribe to the general principle-----

I include Fine Gael councillors, who have raised this concern with me.

I have an idea what they are thinking. I will tell the Deputy what Sinn Féin was thinking in advance.

The Minister should not mind that.

I agree in principle with the Deputy that councillors will be covering a wider geographical area and we will have a look at resource supports to ensure that the people in local government are able to do the job for which they are elected. They will have a lot more responsibility and devolved functions, as the Deputy will see when the legislation is published.

The Deputy is making the case about the size of the areas. I draw his attention to the Sinn Féin submission to the local electoral area boundary committee, which proposed 123 local electoral areas. This is 14 fewer than the 137 local electoral areas that would arise based on the committee's recommendations, which were published recently. The smallest local electoral area that the boundary committee could recommend had six members. Following the review there are to be 67 such areas. Had the Sinn Féin proposal been accepted, there would have been only 14 of these six-member local electoral areas. Most of the recommended local electoral areas in the boundary committee's report have six and seven members, which is in contrast to Sinn Féin's proposal.

We had to respond on the basis of the criteria and terms of reference of the committee. We were in a straitjacket in that regard. If the Northern model was followed there would be 1,180 councillors, 230 more councillors than the Minister is proposing. I welcome the fact that the Minister will examine the issue of resources, considering the number of meetings, the category of each council and the fact that representatives will attend monthly municipal authority meetings and also county council meetings.

The Minister has set out a menu of possible provisions for the devolution of powers. However, the only ones to which he is giving serious consideration are to do with tourism and economic development, the realignment of local development and the establishment of an economic development officer. Sinn Féin supports the establishment of the position of economic development officer for local authorities. However, I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to other areas. A menu is in existence and power must be shifted out from the centre. It must not be a power grab. There are signs of this, including the Minister's reduction of the number of councillors who will sit on the regional authorities to only two per authority. This rules out everyone bar the bigger parties. I have a real concern about that and I ask the Minister to address my concern.

I am disappointed at Deputy Stanley's negativity about a legislative proposal for local government reform which he has not seen yet.

It is in the book: two per council.

I will be delighted to deal with Deputy Stanley's amendments on Committee Stage. I will be very open with anyone who brings forward suggestions. I remind the Deputy that the local government system has not been reformed for a long time. I am doing what I can to devolve more functions from central government and agencies to local government. I have abolished half the agencies in my Department which are no longer required. I want to devolve as many functions as possible at the lowest level to be as near as possible to the citizen. We have introduced a local property tax - with which Sinn Féin has a problem in this jurisdiction but no problem in Northern Ireland - which gives councillors an opportunity to have a say in the priorities for their own local areas and how they can access the funds. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating with regard to the legislation. We look forward to a constructive approach when the legislation is published and put before the House. It is hoped it will be enacted between now and the end of the year if everyone co-operates. This will ensure we have a body of powers at the lowest possible level to assist in giving our people a better and more effective service with fewer councillors.

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