Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 23 October 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Comprehensive Action Programme for the Reform of Local Government: Discussion
We will now discuss the comprehensive action programme for the reform of local government, Putting People First, with representatives from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. I welcome Mr. Des Dowling, assistant secretary, local government division, Mr. Denis Conlan, principal officer, local government development section, Mr. Dónal Enright, principal officer, local government policy section, and Mr. Aidan O'Reilly, principal officer, community division, who are here on behalf of the Department. I thank them for attending.
I wish to draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of evidence they give to this committee.
However, if they are directed at any stage by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or persons or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her or it identifiable. The opening statement and other documents they have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee's website this afternoon. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
The document we are discussing was published last week. Members of the committee were displeased, to say the least, that they did not receive an official invite to the event and I empathise with them. It was an unfortunate oversight, but I realise that the decision was not within the remit of the officials before the committee. I thank them for appearing before it at short notice. I acknowledge that we have received a lengthy opening statement, despite the fact that we did not realistically expect to receive one, given the short timeframe between the issuing of the invitation and its acceptance.
Local government reform is a significant issue, one in which we are all interested. Almost without exception, Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas would have begun their careers on councils. Local government is an innate part of the role of the individuals with whom the delegation is engaging. We all know the system and its failings and how it should be reformed. Members will focus on certain issues. I call on the delegation to address how the new local government structures will be used to bind natural communities together in a community context. This relates to its role in terms of economic units enhancing local development, job creation opportunities and the important role local government has to play with regard to industrial units, agrifood units and creating sustainable jobs in rural areas, as well as the critical role of the planning process, especially in trying to maintain the vitality and vibrancy of town centres.
Local government is for everyone on all parts of the island, not only those in town centres. There is a critical role to be played in terms of areas not be covered by municipal district councils. I call on the delegation to elaborate on the role municipal districts will play. Obviously, there are reservations, in part due to the abolition of town councils. We can see the streamlining of local government and, in particular, the role municipal districts will play. They will have a role along the lines of that of area committees. We are keen to see the establishment of better local government and the creation of strategic policy committees. We want to avoid duplication and creating a system that, to all intents and purposes, is meaningless. This must be real reform. Reductionism is not reform; reform is led from the bottom up and the top down. It is a strong role. I am keen to tease out the issue of municipal districts, how they will be brought into being and the role the reformed local government sector will have in areas that are not town centres. Substantial hinterlands in counties have never been covered by a town council. What is to be the role played in respect of these areas in the future? I call on the delegation to address these points.
Mr. Des Dowling:
I thank the Chairman for giving us this opportunity to brief the committee. We are due to be joined by another colleague, Mr. Aidan O'Reilly, from our community division. He was unable to make it for the starting time, but I hope he will join us later.
We are grateful for the opportunity to brief the committee on the Government's recently launched document, Putting People First - Action Programme for Effective Local Government. We are at the committee's disposal to provide as much clarification as we can with regard to the programme which was published on 16 October following Government approval. We are keen to report to the Minister the views of the committee which could help to inform the more detailed development and implementation of the reform programme. This opening statement outlines the main features of the reform programme. It may help to set out a context for the committee's deliberations. We will be happy to deal as fully as possible with its questions on the contents of the programme. We note the issues the Chairman has drawn to our attention.
The action programme sets out Government policy for reform in all the main areas of local government, including structures, functions, funding, operational arrangements, governance, the role of the executive and the elected council and engagement with local communities. It addresses several fundamental issues in local government structures that have been problematic for several years, including outdated structures and the fact that the functions of local government are much narrower than in most democratic states. It draws on the constitutional status which local government enjoys as the second tier of government in the State. It also recognises the uniqueness of local government compared with other elements of the public service in terms of engaging with the public as citizens, as well as clients or customers.
The programme is based on a strong rationale and purpose for local government which is expressed in the vision for the future of local government set out at the start of the policy document. It states local government will be the main vehicle of governance and public service at local level, leading economic, social and community development, delivering efficient and good value services and representing citizens and communities as effectively and accountably as possible. In keeping with that vision, the document contains a firm commitment that local government will not in the future be bypassed by the establishment of other structures of local administration outside the local government system, unless there is a compelling reason for doing so. The logic of this principle is that it is wasteful and inefficient for local government in Ireland to be under-utilised. Since we have an extensive system of local government that extends throughout the country, with more than 28,000 staff and a total spend of some €7 billion, it should be used as fully as possible to perform the functions of public administration and service delivery at local level. Local government, rather than centralised agencies, should be the first port of call to solve local problems, decide local issues and provide local services. The action programme states the potential of local government will be maximised through effective, accountable representation and efficient delivery of services; a strong sense of local ownership and responsibility; and decision making close to the local community by those who best understand its needs and appreciate its potential.
The programme sets out a course of action to achieve the vision outlined for local government. The qualities and achievements of local government in Ireland are acknowledged, not least the response to the recent financial crisis, in respect of which, despite shedding 25% of staff and making savings of more than €830 million, local authorities have maintained services at a good standard. However, the shortcomings in the system and issues that need to be addressed are clearly and frankly identified. The document identifies a key problem with local government for many years, that is, a lack of confidence and credibility in the system. This was a key reason previous proposals to devolve functions from central to local government came to little. Lack of commitment on the part of central agencies and perhaps unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved quickly were probably also factors. There has been a reluctance to devolve functions that are standard activities of local government in most countries and a view that the current system of local government needs reform and modernisation to build credibility and confidence.
The local government system is often seen as outdated with anomalies, inconsistencies and structural and other deficiencies. These include structures that have changed little since Victorian times; a disparate array of authorities, many lacking the scale or resources to support significant functions; some small towns with their own council, while larger ones are without municipal status; boundaries that bear little resemblance to current realities; some neighbouring authorities that compete instead of co-operate; elected bodies with limited revenue-raising powers and, as a result, limited accountability, responsibility and self-reliance; fragmented operating arrangements, with duplication and diseconomies; and systems of governance, performance measurement and public engagement that have lagged behind best modern practice. The action programme for effective local government aims to address the weaknesses in the system, enhance capacity and improve performance throughout the entire system. This involves reform of all its key elements, including structures, functions, resources, operational arrangements and governance.
Strengthening the role of local government is a fundamental aim of reform. Several measures are being taken to bring this about. Local authorities are taking on key functions in the economic and local development areas. The incorporation of the micro enterprise support function was a landmark decision for local government. This will be augmented by several further enhancements to the economic function at local and regional level under the action programme.
Alignment of the local development and local government sectors will be carried forward on the basis of the report of an alignment steering group which has been published in conjunction with the launch of the reform programme. An initial programme of devolution from central agencies to local level will be undertaken, together with a process of delegation of greater responsibility to local authorities in respect of a range of matters in which they are involved but where there is scope to reduce the degree of central controls. Local authority involvement with other sectors will be increased. An ongoing process of devolution and widening of the role of local government will be implemented as reform of the local government system takes effect and there will be engagement with other Departments to identify additional functions that may be suitable for devolution.
The most fundamental reorganisation of local government structures since the current system began in the 1800s will be undertaken. A number of city and county local authorities will be unified. There will be extensive change at regional level, with rationalisation of structures and updating and upgrading of functions. At sub-county level, a new system of municipal governance will be introduced. The existing local authority towns and larger centres that do not have local authority status will be combined with their natural hinterlands within their own counties to form municipal districts. Members will be elected in the first instance to the district, with the members from all the districts in a county combining to form the county council.
Members will perform a substantial range of functions at district level on a fully devolved basis, including, for example, adoption of local area plans, housing services plans, by-laws, approval of annual roads programmes and so on. Matters of relevance to the district will, as far as possible, be decided by the municipal district council while those of wider strategic interest, such as the county development plan, overall estimates, housing allocation schemes, development contribution schemes, and new functions under the programme relating to economic development plans and local and community plans will be dealt with county level. While a range of reserved functions will be performed at district level, the administrative and operational organisation will be integrated on a county-wide basis and that strengthened resource will be at the disposal of the members at both county and district level. It will be for the members and executive in each county to determine the most effective organisation and delivery of the various services within the county.
The action programme envisages a range of benefits arising from the new arrangements. Anomalies and inconsistencies will be removed and the current uneven assortment of town councils will be replaced by a comprehensive and streamlined system of municipal government closer to the European model. Functions will be matched to structures and resources and duplication will be eliminated. Decision making and the business of councils will be brought closer to local communities. The practice of having duplicate town and county services, multiple processes and documents such as development plans within a county - for instance, as many as ten in Cork and nine in Tipperary - will be ended. Similarly, the practice of people in a town and its suburbs having to deal with different offices will no longer apply. In other words, there will be no duplicate representation in towns.
The action programme confirms that the city or county will continue to be the core element of local government. However, the system will be strengthened by unification of authorities in some areas, while fully maintaining county identities. This process is well under way in Limerick and Tipperary and reports by the implementation groups have been published. The Government has now decided that Waterford city and county councils should also be combined to form a single local authority, with Waterford city at its centre becoming a much more dynamic force for growth in the future. The identity and civic status of the city, including the office of mayor, will be maintained in the new municipal system. This decision is based on the strong recommendation of the statutory committee whose report has also been published. The next phase will be the appointment of an independently chaired implementation group to oversee and guide the reorganisation process.
The Minister will announce the appointment of an independent statutory committee to carry out a local electoral review on which the new municipal districts will be based. Criteria and parameters for the new sub-county system are set out in the action programme and will be reflected in the committee's terms of reference. The electoral review will have a specific goal of achieving better balance and consistency in representational ratios, while taking particular account of factors such as the location of towns and local identities in the new municipal governance arrangement. The terms of reference for the review will contain the parameters defining the total number of seats on each council. These will take account of the significant population changes that have taken place since the current numbers were decided while, at the same time, ensuring adequate numbers for effective representation and governance in lower population counties.
Local government funding, accountability and governance will be strengthened in a number of ways. The combined budgets of local authorities totalled approximately €7 billion in 2011, made up of €4.8 billion of current expenditure and an estimated €2.2 billion in capital outlay. Some 41% of current expenditure is funded from central sources, with the remainder being funded largely by a combination of commercial rates, which accounted for 30%, and charges for local authority goods and services at 27%. The action programme recognises the role of an equitable property tax, which is the subject of a report by an independently chaired interdepartmental expert group, in funding local authority services. The programme also acknowledges the logical link between financial responsibility and local democratic decision making. The Minister has referred to the objective of giving local authorities an appropriate measure of discretion in regard to the level of property tax.
A new system of local government oversight will be introduced, involving the establishment of a national oversight and audit commission. Aspects of the local government audit system will be strengthened. The role and functions of the elected council will be increased and policy-making structures will be reviewed. The local government ethics code will be strengthened and merged into a single national system. Important changes will be made to the directive powers of councillors arising from certain recommendations of the Mahon tribunal. This involves excluding the use of powers under section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001 and decisions involving financial or other benefit to an individual or a specific organisation.
The action programme incorporates a major efficiency agenda, based particularly on implementation of measures arising from the local government efficiency review. Significant annual savings will be achieved through efficiency measures and workforce planning in local authorities. There will be a more robust system of performance monitoring with a focus on key indicators, outcomes rather than outputs, value for money, and comparative performance of authorities. Customer service arrangements in local authorities will be further enhanced. Ways of promoting greater community and citizen engagement with local government will be explored, and local authorities will be required to provide better quality public information. It is estimated that the measures outlined in the programme will lead to savings of more than €400 million per annum when all the reforms are in place. These will be enduring savings in the budgets of local authorities.
The Government has decided that changes such as the introduction of an office of directly elected mayor in Dublin, as has been suggested, should not take place without a more fundamental, rigorous review of local governance generally in the area. It has, therefore, decided that a forum on local governance in Dublin should be convened. Based on these deliberations, proposals will be put to a plebiscite in conjunction with the 2014 elections. However, the electoral review will be based on increased representation in the Dublin areas, to address current high ratios of population to councillors. The question of replacing sub-county structures does not arise in Dublin as in other counties. However, the county councils will be given power to operate a system of devolved decision making at electoral level if they so choose.
The shape of future governance arrangements in Dublin will depend on the outcome of the proposed forum. However, the action programme indicates there is a case in principle for a metropolitan council or assembly, but only in the context of revised and efficient local governance arrangements. Such an authority would need to have significant functions and budget, with the possibility of a directly elected mayor, depending on the outcome of the forum and a subsequent plebiscite. Functions and funding would inevitably come from transfer from the current local authorities and central Departments and agencies. The types of sectors from which metropolitan level functions might, in principle, be drawn include transport, economic and spatial strategy, education, policing, emergency planning, waste management and a co-ordination and oversight, or "call-in", role in respect of certain local authority functions having a metropolitan impact. Proposals for revised local government arrangements in Dublin must, however, take account of cost implications and will be subject to prevailing economic circumstances.
Implementation of the reforms will be challenging, both at local and national level, requiring a major programme of legislation and reorganisation in the coming years. It is essential to deliver that programme successfully ahead of the 2014 local elections. Indeed, some elements, like the electoral review, must be completed at least 12 months in advance of those elections. As well as implementing significant changes from 2014, the action programme has the objective of positioning the local government sector for continued development.
By putting in place stronger structures, functions, resources, governance and operational arrangements, the reforms should enable the local government sector to play a much wider and more effective role in the longer term, with the possibility of taking on a much wider range of functions of the sort that local authorities perform in other European countries.
The reform programme will move quickly to the implementation phase and there will be opportunity for interested parties, including the committee, to make an input particularly in the context of the legislation. Today's meeting is a very good way of beginning that process. My colleague, Mr. O'Reilly, has now joined us.
I welcome Mr. O'Reilly to the meeting. I will call the five spokespersons for each of the groups in the order in which I should call them. I urge members to ask questions because if we give an opinion and then ask the witnesses if they agree with it, that is not asking a question. Given the interest the committee has in this issue, this can be a very good, productive and robust exchange. I will call the five spokespersons first and then I will take a group questions from other members. I will take the first question from the Fianna Fáil spokesperson, Senator O'Sullivan.
The Chairman took me a little by surprise there. I welcome the delegation and thank Mr. Dowling for his presentation. Is it fair to say that this policy, as enunciated by Mr. Dowling, has been in the process of being developed for the past ten or more years and that the officials' predecessors in the Department have been generally working towards this outcome? Is that one of the reasons we have seen a steady diminution and devolution of responsibilities from town councils to county councils in terms of water services and so on?
Mr. Dowling is no doubt aware that we in Ireland have almost the smallest local authority operation in the whole of the EU in that each elected representative in Ireland at local level is elected by approximately 2,500 people on the register of electors, as opposed to approximately 1,000 in Denmark and significantly fewer than that in France. Bearing that knowledge in mind, how does Mr. Dowling make sense of a drastic swingeing reduction in the number of elected members and a reduction in the number of local authorities and assemblies? I cannot figure that out nor the rationale behind it unless it is a straightforward cost-cutting method and, if it is, I ask him to step forward and say so.
Mr. Des Dowling:
The Minister would be quick to say that his reform programme is completely different from anything that has been done previously. We hope we learned from the past and previous work that has been undertaken but the practical position is that there has not been a reform programme on a scale which has sought to tackle the range of issues. The Deputy is right in that there have been difficulties in regard to the interplay between town and county structures and the reform programme is intended to resolve this for once and for all. The Chairman asked about this point in terms of the municipal districts. It is important before I deal with the Deputy's second question to spend a little time on this point, if that is appropriate at this stage. It is crucial to the overall reform process that we would all have a shared understanding of what is intended as part of the municipal districts proposal.
In terms of the facts, I will outline the principal features of the model. It is important to do this because it will resolve the question that this is not some kind of a continuum of an approach in regard to towns when it is quite the opposite. Our sub-county structures are intended to resolve a series of issues which have bedevilled local government as it has operated between the county and town. There will be a comprehensive territorial configuration of each county into municipal districts. We do not have that in place at present because some places have towns and often towns have formed there for simply historical reasons. As I said in my statement, and Deputies will know this, many substantial towns do not have a similar structure in this respect and therefore there is an issue of coverage.
Second, members in the first instance will be elected to the municipal districts. I understand the Minister said in the Dáil earlier today that this is not a question of the abolition of structures but of generating new structures that integrate municipal representation which at present is currently undertaken through towns. l believe the Minister would also emphasise his recognition and acknowledgment of the very strong connectivity at local level in towns between elected members and their constituents. The approach here seeks to build on that very strong relationship.
Third, there will not be a separate or parallel set of local authority members at the two levels. This is critical in terms of resolving this issue as between the different levels of government. Therefore, there will not be rivalry, competition or any inconsistency between what can happen within counties at the sub-county and county level. Furthermore, there will be a single countywide executive or operational structure and no duplicate administrative or organisational overhead to eliminate the need for duplication of structures because in a sense there will be a single administrative structure which supports the representation of the municipal district level and the county level.
The organisation format of local government will involve a single corporate entity incorporating the two elements of jurisdiction for the elected members, namely, the countywide level and the district level. In a sense we will not have duplication of organisational structures, instead we will have different forms of representation which will come together to resolve these various issues.
This bring me to the question of functions. The key emphasis here is on subsidiarity to ensure that matters which should be dealt with locally at the level of the citizen at municipal level are dealt with at the level. We gave some examples in the statement and there are further examples in the action programme such as the local area plans, the housing services plans and so on. On the other hand, and in response to a point the Deputy raised, we know there have been particular difficulties in trying to secure a coherent approach to planning where there can often be competing development plans. We know equally that in terms of the engagement of businesses with local government there can often be competing issues between the rating decisions taken by individual towns and the rating decisions taken by wider country. This approach seeks to resolve these issues which have stood in the way of previous reform efforts. We do not underestimate the challenge involved in putting these arrangements in place but there will be significant legislation to do it, as I said in the statement. It will have to be done well in advance of the local elections to give people time to prepare for that but there will also be time in terms of the preparation of the legislation when we can hear people's further views as to the way in which powers between the sub-county, the municipal district level and county level ought to be developed.
As regards the overall numbers, and my colleagues may wish to supplement what I have said on these matters, the committee will recognise that there is huge unevenness in the ratio of representation throughout the country. The restructuring will seek to ensure there will be greater evenness across that to secure an appropriate level of representation. The Minister said in the Dáil earlier today that the primary objective here is not to achieve financial savings but that given the economic position would we not be very inconsistent if we did not bring forward proposals which had a major benefit in terms of the public finances. If we take the three central issues at present as being the need to create and sustain jobs, protect competitiveness and address the public finances, this overall programme, the Minister suggests, addresses all three through building new structures, modernising our approaches to efficiency and, hopefully, in time building greater confidence in our local government system. We can draw enough inspiration from experiences abroad to show that we are on the right track in terms of the municipal approach trying to reconcile the different levels of government as between regional, county and municipal, and the doing of that will also hopefully bring about reductions and make the contributions local government has done during the past few years in terms of the public finances. Mr. Conlan may wish to make some further comments on the municipal districts approach.
Mr. Denis Conlan:
One point occurs to me that is relevant to the question and which has escaped much of the reportage, which is the policy document proposes that a significant range of reserved functions of the elected members will be devolved to district level. This is a significant distinction from the current system of area committees, which really are advisory structures. I also wish to make the related point that in respect of the historical trend regarding towns, functions and so on, it generally is accepted that the town authorities have become somewhat marginalised over the years. If one considers different reports that have been published, I note a report was adopted in 1972 by the then Government, which effectively would have replaced the 80 town authorities by committees of the county council. In 1991, the Barrington report contained two divided recommendations, one of which again recommended replacement of the town councils by area committees. In recent years, the McCarthy report recommended the outright abolition of town authorities. The local government efficiency review did not have in its terms of reference the authority to make recommendations on the structures but it recommended that rating, housing, roads and planning functions would be removed from town authorities. Consequently, what is proposed in the document under discussion should be considered against that background.
Part of the problem in the past regarding what one might call a dismissive attitude to town councils has been that the recommendations tended to be largely grounded on the considerations of operational efficiency. The view was taken that towns are too small to be efficient and therefore they must go. This document attempts to differentiate between the operational and the administrative element and the policy making, the role of the elected members. This is an absolutely fundamental and key aspect of this action programme that must be borne in mind. The document proposes that there be operational and administrative integration but devolved decision making across a significant range of functions to the districts and to members meeting as a municipal district council. Moreover, as Mr. Des Dowling has stated, it will cover the totality of the State, including some very large centres of population that have no sub-county authorities at present. This may be one relevant point to bear in mind with regard to functions, the trend in local government and the different views that have been taken over the years. This is a significant change in that respect.
May I ask two questions in that regard? They are cosmetic or aesthetic at least. What will become of the premises that will be vacated in those areas in which town councils will depart? Second, what will become of the staff? Will they transfer to the county council or be offered voluntary redundancies? I note that in the area I represent, five buildings will be vacated as a result of the abolition.
Mr. Denis Conlan:
The ultimate decisions will be for the local authority as to what is the best and most efficient use of the buildings. Clearly, there will be need for the municipal district council to have a meeting place and there will be an identity for the district. It will be a wider identity in that effectively it will involve the town being joined by its natural hinterland. However, it will be a matter for the councils in each case to decide, as part of their own financial dispensation and so forth, what is the best use to make of those buildings. As for the staff, the staff of all town councils will become part of the unified staff. As I noted just now, on the administrative side the proposal is for full integration into a countywide administrative structure. As for how things go with regard to numbers and similar matters, that is part of the wider process. It already is clear that the local government sector has reduced staffing more than any other part of the public service and the Minister himself dealt with this issue at some length today during Question Time in the Dáil. While a further reduction in staff of 500 is scheduled, it is clear they all will be managed within the framework of the Croke Park agreement.
I thank the witnesses for the presentation and have one question in this regard. How can the new chief executives be accountable to the elected members if the powers of such elected members are being eroded?
Mr. Des Dowling:
I will try to break this down into its key elements. The priority in the action programme obviously is to give emphasis to the role of the elected member in the first instance. This is something to which we gave a fair amount of attention in the advance discussions on and subsequent preparation of the document because it often is the case that as they discuss these issues with us, even members themselves acknowledge they often underestimate the extent of the powers available to them. The document sets out at considerable length the range of powers for the elected member, as opposed to the executives or the managers, as they are described at present. The Minister sought to reinforce this emphasis by stating that in terms of a current approach, the elected council effectively should be perceived, in business parlance, as the board of directors and the manager should be perceived as being the chief executive and reporting to the council in that way. There are two dimensions to this, the first of which is to recognise the powers elected members already have. The second is to seek to try to enhance them and obviously, the operation of the municipal district approach should enhance that further in respect of pushing it down to the lowest possible level. Thereafter, the manager or then chief executive - which will require legislation - will be clearly answerable in that regard and should report in the same way as does a chief executive to a board of directors in a business organisation. There is the substantive issue but also the important issue of its appearance, that is, that the individual concerned is the chief executive but reports to the elected members.
Mr. Denis Conlan:
I will mention a few small points in this regard. It is worth referring to chapter 11 of the policy document, which indicates that the reserved functions of the elected members are being added to, even in this programme itself. There will be some new functions straightaway, such as the adoption of economic development, local and community and service plans. There is a commitment to consider further additional reserved functions. Moreover, in the legislation that must be introduced to implement these proposals, there is a commitment to making changes in the provisions relating to the powers of members versus managers that would strengthen the obligation on managers to comply with the policy decisions of the elected members. In this respect, my guess is that some of the reportage perhaps again has created the impression of a reduction in members' powers by focusing on the provision relating to section 140. This is something that tends to be latched onto a little bit and is presented as a wholesale reduction in members' powers but in fact, the thrust of the document is very much in the other direction and the change to the title and role of chief executive is consistent with that.
In his presentation, Mr. Dowling stated that structures have changed little since Victorian times. When considering the county council system and the county being selected as the core, it does not appear to me that anything much has altered. While the area committees have been an improvement, much of what happened at town council level has not been a duplication. Instead, there has been a community building role at that level, which is a soft service as opposed to some of the harder services which obviously are the bread and butter of county councils. I am seriously concerned that the entire area of community building will be lost.
I will but first I was obliged to explain this aspect could be lost. I consider it to be a strength of the Irish community system, never mind the local government system.
It is a paradox to talk about the ratio of county councillors to members of the population, while at the same time an unelected regional authority is proposed with two for everyone in the audience. It seems a crazy way of dealing with regional authorities.
The third issue concerns staffing. The Chairman has made the same point on resources, including buildings. On a practical level, if former urban district councils and town commissions are included - which would have been better resourced in the county council - the staff are already in those locations. It may not be viable to have somebody going from one end of Cork to the other - that county involves the greatest change in numbers, along with Tipperary. Will we not end up with a lot of people in the wrong place? It will be pretty difficult to have a uniform system of service delivery within the range of municipal districts in the context of that change and with the backdrop of a reduction in numbers rather than an increase.
In areas that have lost an urban council, there is an expectation that they will continue to have the same level of service. On a practical level that seems to be a serious problem and I do not see where it will be addressed. There is not an even spread of staffing around the country. Some of the counties that have grown rapidly in recent times have slimmer staff numbers so there will be an unequal level of service in, or an inability to service, these municipal authorities. Has that been considered in terms of costs rather than savings?
Mr. Des Dowling:
Deputy Murphy's questions touch on some of the issues that Senator O'Sullivan mentioned. To start at the top level, the emphasis has been on trying to maintain a connection with the citizen wherever possible. I know about the Deputy's own experience at town government level and anybody involved in that sector continuously emphasises this point. The practical position is, however, that there is huge unevenness among towns across the country. It has grown from a historical aspect rather than from a planned approach. We have to move from the present system to try to achieve greater evenness. As the policy document says, we must capitalise on that connectivity at a local level but in a way that does not compete with the interests of managing matters overall in the county.
We should make a distinction between the way area committees have operated and what the new municipal districts will do. The area committees deal with county matters from an area viewpoint, which is quite different to the range of functions town authorities have traditionally had and which municipal districts will have in the new configuration. They are intended to be integrated at county level.
Notwithstanding the connectivity the Deputy has mentioned, we should also acknowledge the duplication in various counties between town and county. That is not in the interest of citizens who may wish to do their business in a particular way but may have both town and county offices in a particular area. The programme seeks to rationalise that in a way that makes sense to the citizen, rather than from a bureaucrat's perspective.
This will not necessarily be a quick process but it can only lead to a better outcome for ratepayers and taxpayers. There will be work involved in rationalising offices. Mr. Conlan has already referred to the extent to which council chambers and meeting places will be required for municipal districts. In respect of functions at local level, certain service points have to be provided for people who want to do their business with the local authority. As the Deputy's question implied, each local authority will have a different position depending on the current dispensation and the extent to which town authorities already have offices in the area. Starting from now, authorities will put in place plans to lead to a better organisation.
Earlier this afternoon in the Dáil, the Minister covered regional government fairly closely. The emphasis was to try to maximise representation at the lowest possible level, by securing election in the first instance to municipal districts and secondly at county level. That will be used as the basis for provision of representation at regional level, rather than setting up a directly elected third and separate tier for regional assemblies. Those are the main points I wanted to make.
Mr. Des Dowling:
The staffing issue is associated with existing office structures. There are different staffing levels in each authority, which have developed incrementally over time. They are a function of a variety of matters, including the authority's capacity to fund local services based on its own resources and the extent to which particular functions have been a priority for the elected council concerned. The issue is the degree to which the current factual position can be made as even as possible within the existing structures. Due to the approach that will be taken, we are building on existing town structures and dealing with existing hinterlands. That gives the potential to draw on existing resources, so there should not be a huge mismatch between staffing and resources at municipal level, which can then be integrated into an overall county-based approach. We are drawing heavily on what is already there, while hopefully filling in gaps where they exist.
The witnesses are welcome. I have a couple of questions concerning the opening statement. It was said that significant annual savings would be achieved through efficiency measures and workforce planning in local authorities. Can Mr. Dowling expand on this? Members will be aware that there is provision for a targeted redundancy package within local authorities, so how will this work? Will county managers or the new chief executive officers be asked by the Department to recommend reductions of key personnel at certain levels, such as senior executive engineers, directors of services and other higher grades? Will existing personnel covering smaller counties be asked to extend their remit across other counties to share services involving fire officers, veterinary officers, county librarians, arts officers and heritage officers? Does Mr. Dowling think this can be achieved in the plan?
I have another question concerning my own local authority in Sligo. "Municipal authorities" is the name suggested for the sub-level of local government in the document. Will some towns or cities be called municipal boroughs mainly for historic reasons? I know it will apply in a number of boroughs. Sligo Borough Council, for example, was granted this title in 1613 by King James I. If the council was allowed to keep this name for historical and tourism reasons it would be a good step. It would not in any way dilute the Department's proposal, particularly from a cost viewpoint.
On page 54, the report refers to the establishment of a socioeconomic committee, SEC, by each city and county council, which will have responsibility for planning and oversight of all local community and development programmes. The SEC will play a key role in decision making on EU and national funding programmes and interventions, as well as certain co-ordination functions of county development boards, which will in effect be replaced by the SECs.
This will afford local authorities opportunities for greater involvement in planning oversight and management of locally focused programmes, as well as providing for greater co-ordination across the full breadth of these programmes. How does the Department see the role of the current boards following the establishment of the new socioeconomic committees, SECs? Will they have a diminished function? Will local authority members still sit on these boards or has this been worked out yet?
Mr. Des Dowling:
With regard to the overall question of savings, we did contextualise this in terms of the overall reform process. The Deputy is correct that there is an indication that we would seek to achieve a further reduction of around 500 members of staff on a voluntary basis, specifically arising from an exercise in workforce planning. The main objective was to recognise that as the local government sector has sought to reduce overall numbers, it can happen in an ad hoc way. One of the tools we needed was to be able to look at each authority and have a template whereby one could judge the extent to which the structure was in keeping with the requirements and funding available. Accordingly, the Department engaged with the County and City Managers Association, CCMA, to put together a workforce plan. This was particularly aimed at administrative and management levels. There would have been recognition that, in the reductions to date and partly due to demographic factors of an older workforce at front-line level, we needed to go faster in reductions at management and administrative level. It was also recognised, however, that we needed to have a workforce plan that would provide a template against which that would be judged. The additional 500 will be mainly at those management levels.
It will be in line with the Croke Park agreement, as we averted to earlier. There is a variety of means by which those reductions can be achieved, whether through redeployment or a redundancy package. Overall, we want to get the least and optimal in terms of individual structures for local authorities. Again, one can see significant variation across authorities on this. The McLaughlin group originally drew attention to this. For example, there were 230 people at director of service level. That is now below 200 on the basis of the McLaughlin recommendation that it should be 190. I would foresee it going below that level further through the workforce planning exercise.
The Deputy referred to cross-boundary arrangements which already exist. For example, Dublin City Council manages on a national basis the internal movement of hazardous waste while Offaly County Council has become the lead authority in respect of waste collection permitting. While we want to progress a shared-services approach, it can happen at both national and local level. The Minister has said that while he certainly sees the need for a single executive leader reporting to elected local authority members, he also sees significant scope for a shared services approach. As regards the boroughs, the action programme does give recognition to this issue. While the terminology and so on will be set out in legislation, it would be anticipated that one would have an arrangement equivalent to borough districts to recognise those locations where a borough council exists and take in its hinterland as well as retain the ceremonial and other civic elements of those structures.
The SECs fits within the broader question of the relationship between local government and local development entities. This has been the subject of examination by a steering group and the report of it was published with the action programme. The task has been to recognise first the community function rests with the Minister. Accordingly, there must be recognition that this community element has developed and has its own strengths. In seeking to achieve the best alignment between it and local government, we must draw on both their strengths and the bottom-up approach which has been developed on the community side. Alongside of that, there must be recognition that within counties the very best interactions and results in either the social or economic area are invariably achieved through good interagency co-operation. There is very mixed experience in this but we need a structure which fully involves and takes in the community piece, as well as the funding and organisation of that. The SEC is to give the appropriate emphasis to and recognise, as the action programme does, the role of local authorities in the economic area including the new local enterprise offices.
As my party's spokesperson on local government in the Seanad, I thank the officials for attending today’s meeting. The action programme is quite detailed and has led to some confusion in the past week. Last Saturday, I attended a special delegate conference of my nominating body, the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, AMAI, at which more than 130 councillors were present. To say they were confused would be an understatement. Several questions were raised with me at the meeting.
The establishment of the new local government system is arrived at by dividing 4,830 people into the population of the country giving a figure of 950 councillors. How was this formula devised? The original announcement was that there would six to nine councillors per district. It has now increased to ten. Is there further flexibility in that?
Much play has been made of the abolition of section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001. I have been informed strongly that most of the planning scandals came from other mechanisms of altering planning as opposed to provisions under section 140. In rural areas, section 140 dealt with specific one-off housing cases involving families and family members. Will the rest of the planning issues be examined which have been raised in the Mahon tribunal report?
It is proposed to change the county or city manager title to chief executive officer. My understanding is that chief executive officers implement policy but do not make it. There is no reference in the proposals to the City and County Management (Amendment) Act 1955 which gives the managers most of the powers they have. Will that legislation be rescinded?
Mr. Dowling indicated that he will seek to enhance the role of councillors by giving them new powers. For the last 18 months we were told that the designation of managers as CEOs meant that they would be doing the job of a CEO in terms of implementing policy rather than making it. I ask for clarification in that regard.
When will the boundary commission be established? This is an issue of great concern because people are awaiting the opportunity to make submissions to it. When will we see first light of the legislation, or at least the heads of a Bill? Will it be published before Christmas? For 18 months the new bodies were referred to as municipal district councils but the documents now refer to them as municipal districts, which has a completely different meaning to "municipal district councils". Can we ensure that the new legislation gives them the proper title of "municipal district councils"?
Deputy Catherine Murphy referred to the fact that three regional assemblies are to be established. I am interested in the powers they will be given. I served on a regional authority for many years and I also served on the committee of the regions. The disparity between what regional government does in this country compared with every other country in Europe is immeasurable. Can Mr. Dowling clearly explain the role that the new regional assemblies will play? Will they have powers to disburse European funding?
How will the budgets for district councils be arrived at? Will they be required to make annual submissions to the county councils for their budgets? Has a template for such a process been devised and, if not, how is the process envisaged and how will the new property tax impinge on it? Despite that fact that we are in the middle of the worst recession in many years, many town councils enjoy budget surpluses or own property. In County Meath, for example, a large tract of land was handed over to Kells Town Council by a private donor. What will happen to these surpluses and properties in the new structure?
How often will the new municipal district councils and county councils hold meetings? Will Irish Water be answerable to the new local government system? I was led to believe by the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy O'Dowd, that it would be answerable solely to the Oireachtas. In regard to economic development at local level, will the new entity comprise elected members or will the four pillars continue to be involved?
Mr. Des Dowling:
I will ask my colleagues to address some of the wide range of questions raised by Senator Landy. We have worked closely with the AMAI but I recognise this is a significant document and a new approach. We will probably have to do more on the communications side to explain what it involves and this will happen as implementation proceeds.
The Senator referred to the question of the boundary committee. I do not have definitive information on that issue, although clearly it will have to proceed fairly quickly. I expect that the Minister will make an announcement reasonably soon because, as we noted earlier, the local elections are the end point at which the new electoral structures must be ready. It has been suggested to us that prospective members need at least 12 months in advance of the elections to prepare accordingly. This would mean that the boundary committee needs to complete its work and provide a template that can be put into legislation by the middle of next year. This is clearly a significant task but beyond setting out the timetable we have not yet taken a decision which can be communicated to the committee. I do not doubt the Minister will be making his announcement as soon as he is able to do so.
The other element is the legislation governing the structural aspects of the municipal districts and a range of other matters. The approach in this regard will be to give ourselves as much time as possible in advance of the local elections but we cannot determine whether we will be preparing one comprehensive Bill or a number of smaller Bills until we study the details of what is involved.
I will ask Mr. Conlan to answer the question on ratios but I will continue to answer some of the other questions the Senator raised. Perhaps the media have put too much emphasis on section 140. The Minister addressed this issue in the Dáil today. The practical position is that the number of uses of section 140 in very recent years has been relatively few but it is an issue to which the Mahon tribunal drew attention. A range of other measures will be introduced regarding ethics in planning sphere and other areas. In parallel with this reform process, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is considering an ethics scheme that would cover the entire public service and the Minister, Deputy Hogan, has indicated that any updating of the ethics regime as it applies to local government should fit within that broader context. The Minister has stated that restoring public confidence in the planning system is a key objective and that he will be proceeding with the implementation of the 12 actions contained in the planning review report published in June 2012. These will entail legislative change and consolidation, revised non-statutory guidelines and improved management systems in planning authorities. A range of important initiatives are being taken in this regard but most of them are not within my own area.
The regional assemblies will have a range of functions. We want to build on their successful involvement in regional planning guidelines and, as the action programme makes clear, we intend to develop an oversight role in how national policy is delivered at local level, as well as a regional perspective. The question of the EU role will be addressed in time and it will ultimately be a matter for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. However, the general desire is that all State authorities and agencies should seek to co-ordinate around the revised regional structures as far as is practical.
I cannot provide precise details on how the funding arrangements between municipal district and county level will operate at this stage. These matters will have to be contained in the legislation. There will be a need for an aggregated budget which can be dealt with at county level. We foresee some kind of block grant arrangements being put in place but it is important to recognise that the same members will be acting at county level and at municipal district level. In a sense, the same people will be making decisions on funding.
Mr. Des Dowling:
This is an important point. They will be elected at municipal district level but they will come together at the integrated county level to make overall budgetary decisions which, in turn, have a local dimension.
The Minister spoke earlier about the local property tax. The action programme recognises the potential for this tax in two areas, first, as a source of funding for local government and, second, as the missing link in the interplay between funding decisions and provision of services.
We have touched on the question of properties and town councils and so on. There are different experiences in terms of the extent to which properties and assets are held at the town level. Part of the objective of the new arrangement is to eliminate whatever inconsistencies there might be between these different levels to achieve a result which, for the citizens of the county, is better.
The measures relating to Irish Water are being developed and there will be transitional arrangements before we get to the final point in this regard. The Minister has spoken on this issue also and I am not sure I can add hugely to what has been placed in the public domain. The precise arrangements will be worked out in time, but, clearly, the objective is to create an entity that will have the capacity to raise funds and deliver the water programme while drawing on the experience and resources within the local government system, with Bord Gáis as the overall project leader in the short to medium term.
Mr. Denis Conlan:
Mr. Dowling has mentioned that I deal with the question of ratios and representation. With regard to the budgets for the municipal districts, from recollection, the document states specifically that the overall budget for the county will have to take account of the decisions made by members at district level. It also makes reference to a number of other possible ways of giving specific recognition to the district in the estimates and the funding process, for example, by taking account of it in the determination of block allocations, by taking account of the level of revenue raised within the particular district and - Deputy Murphy referred to this in the Dáil earlier - the fact that towns, including non-rating authorities, have the power to add a certain amount through locally applicable charges. Something along these lines is mentioned. However, it will have to be worked out in greater detail in the development of the legislation.
At regional level, the starting point for the functions of the new regional assemblies should be a combination of the functions of the current assemblies and the regional authorities subject to the point Mr. Dowling made about the next round of EU funding. It has yet to be fully clarified and determined and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has the lead role in that regard. The hope is that will be the starting point. That means, for example, that the regional planning guidelines function will remain and the document provides that it will be significantly strengthened by expanding it to include regional, spatial and economic strategies, with a requirement that all State agencies engage in a more meaningful way with the regional authorities in adopting these strategies and that they adhere to them, particularly in the context of economic development with all of the economic agencies. The problem up to now has been up that many of the agencies such as IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, FÁS and its replacement have had difficulty in engaging with the local government system at county level. It has become difficult to do it with reduced resources and so forth. The regional level, therefore, will have a much stronger role in economic development and ensuring there is a coherent approach across the region in order that different cities and areas will not be competing for inward investment with all the players involved at regional level. The role of the regional assemblies in local government oversight functions is also additional.
I refer to the ratios and from where the figures and so on come. Clearly, there will be a significant reduction in the total number of elected members as a result of the changes proposed and, in recognition of this, the Government looked at the scope for increasing the number at county council level. As a component of this at the district level, clearly in the current financial climate the scope for increased county and city level numbers was somewhat limited and, as a result, the overall number that emerged in the Government decision which is reflected in the document was 950. It is from this figure that the ratio of 1:4,830 emerges. If the total population is divided by 950, that is the figure that emerges. However, the number per area will only emerge as the terms of reference for the electoral review are published and it is a matter for the Minister to set up a committee under the Local Government Acts and set out the terms of reference. The report gives strong pointers in that direction. It refers to the figure of 4,830 as a benchmark. It also refers to the case for having a weighting for the distribution of existing municipal towns that have a local authority and other large centres of population that do not and for town councils and the city areas within the authorities that are merging in Limerick and Waterford.
Mr. Denis Conlan:
That is about all that can be said on that subject until the terms of reference emerge.
The Senator referred to the terminology used relating to districts and councils. The district is the territory or area that is referred to throughout. The council includes the members who will be elected for that district and I expect that they will be referred to as the members of the municipal district council in the legislation. I see no reason not to do so.
Mr. Denis Conlan:
The Senator asked how often the municipal district council would meet. That is very much a matter for the members themselves to determine. They will have all these decisions to make for themselves and there is an expectation stated in the document that the districts will take a significant volume of local business away from the county council. The Minister will not lay down the law in that regard.
A good deal of one chapter of the report is devoted to economic development. The Minister sees the role of local authorities in economic development as important and the integration of the local enterprise function into the local government system will be a significant development in that regard, in addition to the alignment of the local development sector which has a significant economic component and drawing on best practice. It is probably a mixed practice currently in that some local authorities have achieved a great deal - others less so - in leading economic development and promoting the attraction of inward investment. The role of local government is far from clear in terms of its legal provisions which will be clarified and strengthened.
Mr. Des Dowling:
I refer to two issues, including one raised by the Chairman regarding economic matters. I reinforce what Mr. Conlan said about the parameters the boundary committee might review. It is settled policy as set down within the report and decided by the Government.
On the economic side, the Chairman might be aware that a sectoral policy for local government was recently published. Among other things, it catalogued 2,000 separate initiatives that local authorities have undertaken in conjunction with local partners of various kinds, be they business, community or other interests. These are things the local authority might not necessarily fund directly but which would not have happened without some local authority involvement. This is very much the approach we want to build so that local authorities are involved in individual initiatives but they are also involved in a much more strategic way. We want to develop the experience we are building up in respect of Limerick and the experiences of the very best local authorities where councils and managers are reactive in this area. It is not that these things are not being done but they may be done on an uneven basis across the system.
I thank the delegation for its presentation which I caught on television before I got down here. It is refreshing to hear people who are members of the Government asking robust questions about this issue because I did not think it would happen and I congratulate the ones who have. It is interesting and gives me some hope.
The Department looked at other models of local government around the world, for example, in Switzerland. What models did the Department look at? Like anything, there is no point in reinventing the wheel when there are good versions of it already. How will the proposed system enhance the role of a local representative when it comes to holding the executive to account? Under the current system, it was the other way around. My experience and that of many other people was that the more one held them to account, the less they answered the phone. It is troublesome if that has not been improved.
When the Department looked at cost savings, did it consider the wages of county managers? In Roscommon, we pay the county manager 50% more than is paid to the Spanish Prime Minister. It seems that planning powers are being taken away from county councillors. Why does the Department believe elected representatives are in a sense less trustworthy than un-elected people because that is what it suggests? I would prefer someone who was elected and who I have the choice to put out if I was not happy with him or her making these decisions. A member of the delegation spoke about how section 140 is rarely used. I know of several occasions where councillors wanted to use it but they pulled back because they were afraid of the consequences of doing so. In other words, the telephone would not be answered yet again.
If the Department was really interested in devolving power to the lowest possible level, why not have more town councils with more powers? They do not necessarily have to cost money. Someone once told me that all they could see in the reform was that the Department got rid of the cheap councillors and kept the expensive ones. If someone from the delegation could answer those questions, I would appreciate it.
I thank the delegation for attending this afternoon. I have a few questions. My first concerns the strengthening of the powers of local government and what is new in this plan. Mr. Conlan mentioned the reference to district councils and I would agree with that. It is important that we keep the name of the body.
In respect of the regional assemblies, does the delegation see any difficulties with including Dublin with the eastern and midlands region because the demographics are so different between the city and the rural counties? Does the delegation foresee any difficulties and was any consideration given to keeping Dublin on its own as a regional assembly? Reference is also made to the oversight of local authority performance by the regional assemblies. How does the delegation see that playing out? Does the delegation think the strategic policy committees have greater potential than they have shown to date in some cases or does it think their role could be enhanced in this new system? Finally, I have a local observation. I am delighted Offaly County Council is the lead authority in waste permitting.
I thank the delegation for coming before the committee because I believe communication and information around this document is essential even at this early stage. Many of the issues I wanted to cover have already been covered so I will ask some specific questions. The metropolitan areas are mentioned within the document and identified as being established within municipal districts. What is the actual definition of the metropolitan area in this context? Is any population threshold set for such metropolitan designation? Are there any mechanisms in the new reform proposals that will allow metropolitan areas to adopt development plans for areas in adjacent local authorities, for example, through service level agreements? Two examples are Limerick city, which goes into County Clare, and Waterford city, which has Ferrybank in County Kilkenny directly adjacent but is in that same urban area. Many would agree that there should be some mechanism to allow the metropolitan or city area to adopt development plans for those urban areas through agreement.
Mr. Dowling spoke about the amalgamation of Waterford city and county councils. He said the identity and civic status of the city, including the office of mayor, will be maintained. Could he define how will they be maintained? There is a view that amalgamation will diminish the status of Waterford city as the gateway city of the south east. What are Mr. Dowling's views on that? Can he tell us how he would reassure those who say this that it is not the case? Again, in respect of the amalgamation in Waterford, which is my constituency, savings of approximately €5 million to €9 million have been mentioned. Can Mr. Dowling give details of how those figures were derived or where they were derived from?
I thank the Chairman because I was in first and had not developed a few of my ideas at the time. In respect of a point made by Deputy Flanagan about lack of trust in councillors, I return to my opening remark. No matter what configuration one has in local government and there are many good ideas in the document, none of them seem to be predicated on reducing the number of councillors so why should we reduce the number of councillors by such a huge number in the context of Ireland having smaller number of councillors per capita than most of Europe. I cannot get my head around what these municipal councils will be like. I spent 22 years as a councillor at urban and county level and know what a town council is and what it is to be a county councillor. They are two totally different job descriptions. They involve different types of work, engagement with the public and demand. Clearly, this municipal council will not be just like the area council and will be a different animal. My town of Listowel has nine town councillors but has not had a county councillor since I was elected to the Seanad in 2007. That happened for unusual reasons, much of them to do with the political dynamism of the place and family dynasties. Will we have a situation where there will be a Listowel municipal council without a single councillor from the town and where the chairman of this new council could live 30 miles away, as do some councillors in the electoral district at the moment? That does not add up to my idea of what a municipal council should be like. If it is to be based around the municipal unit, surely the election process must be weighted to ensure the municipal town remains at the core of the municipal district?
There were a significant number of questions. The delegation might answer Deputy Flanagan's questions first, of which there were five. They related to European models of local government, how the system could enhance the role of the representative in holding management to account and salary levels for managers.
Another question asked was why elected people were less trustworthy, and I presume this is with regard to the section 140 issue. A question was also asked as to why not have more town councils.
Mr. Des Dowling:
I will start and other colleagues may contribute. With regard to the overall models, as I touched on earlier we drew inspiration from these rather than stating a definitive model exists which will fit in Ireland. We participate in the Council of Europe which comprises very different experiences and we have looked further afield. The manager system as we have it came from the United States. We look at a variety of models. The previous Green Paper set out some of these at length, in terms of harvesting previous work done. However, when it came to it we were more guided by the variety of submissions made from within the country and the key issue has been to try to reconcile the viewpoints on town-based and county-based approaches. As I stated, perhaps the way the municipality system works in France supports this. Ultimately, we have had to develop an approach which is unique to here.
Some of the other questions touch on the benefits of various forms of local administration - we will discuss Waterford later - and the idea of local identity, whether it be with a town or city, and trying to incorporate these into a model of governance which would work in Ireland. The best answer I can give is that while we drew inspiration from various approaches and from looking further afield, none of them translate directly into the Irish context. We have tried in the programme to put an emphasis on the elected member, and we drew inspiration from foreign models which seek to emphasise this. The question of how to enhance this will ultimately be a matter for the members themselves over time. We want to ensure members have as many tools as possible available to them.
Mr. Des Dowling:
One of the specific recommendations is to make the local government auditor available to elected members to provide them with assistance and information they might need to probe the executive with regard to financial matters. Mr. Conlon referred specifically to examining legislation to ensure elected members can hold the managers and chief executives to account in this way. Significant powers are already available but we are open to seeing how they can be enhanced further. The audit is one element and a more general capacity to obtain answers from the executive would be another.
We did not specifically deal with the question of managers' salaries because they are dealt with in a broader public service context with regard to overall senior management salaries. The committee is aware of actions have been taken in this regard. As with other posts, the overall rates have been reduced and the general arrangements for appointment have been brought into line with the Government's new approach using the Top Level Appointments Committee. The Minister did not consider it necessary to deal with them other than how they have already been dealt with in these broader ways. Of course there will be fewer county managers and chief executives under the new arrangements.
We have tried to emphasise that section 140 is an issue, and we would be happy to hear more of what the Deputy has in mind with regard to its particular difficulties and its use or non-use, and how we can further ensure the weighting in decision-making is with the elected member rather than the executive. Certainly this is the intention of the programme.
With regard to the overall strengthening of local government, in the documents we have set out a range of functions which would move from central to local government and, in turn, those which would move from county level to municipal level. This is the starting basis but it is possible, if legislation is being developed, to add to it. I am certain the Minister will engage further with his colleagues on the move from central to local government in the first instance and then on the local element between city and county authorities and municipal authorities.
I appreciate there will be as many views on the regional construction as there are variations. In Dublin we have questions with regard to the city council and the three other local authorities, and when it comes to the region questions raised include what is the greater Dublin area, as this can include parts of Meath, Kildare and Wicklow. Others may consider the eastern seaboard extending as far as Louth to be part of the region. A balanced view must be taken on how to deal with these considerations, and the Government concluded the best way of trying to resolve this was not by trying to draw a line around Dublin city and county authorities but to deal with it as part of the broader Leinster configurations.
With regard to Waterford, my colleagues will discuss section 140, strategic policy committees, powers and waste. The overall savings of amalgamation are set out in the report of the independent group, and are assessed at approximately between €5 million and €9 million. This is with regard to an overall budget of approximately €127 million between the two local authorities. It was felt this was a reasonable assessment of what would be achievable having regard to potential duplication of approaches. It goes without saying corporate services and other headquarter functions have scope for efficiencies when the two authorities are brought together. The Minister has been at pains to state this is to benefit Waterford as a whole. Waterford is a very important gateway and this bears on the regional approach, of which Wexford, Kilkenny and Carlow are also part, which recognises Waterford's pre-eminence in the south east. As the Minister stated in the Dáil, it is quite possible to preserve, retain and build on the civic identity as part of this new configuration. There is no competition between the broader county and the city, which ought to be the key point or pull of attraction for the area.
Mr. Denis Conlan:
I will pick up on some of the questions on models. In the developing the report, a number of sources were examined as was the case with previous reviews. In the sub-county area in particular it is valid to state the concept of a wider municipality rather than simply the built-up area of a town is very much in line with the European model.
In France, for example, the sign for a town will be five or six miles - 10 km - outside it. This fits in with Senator Ned O'Sullivan's question on Listowel which is the centre of its wider hinterland, which is in line with the European model. Instead of having isolated town authorities, there would be a municipality with an urban centre. This reflects the fact that communication between a town and its hinterland is greater now than it was when the local government system was put in place in the late 19th century.
Regarding section 140, it is important to point out that the decision is a response to a specific recommendation in the Mahon report rather than any expression of mistrust of elected members.
In terms of regional assemblies, Mr. Dowling mentioned Dublin and the wider area. Dublin's reach is long and it is difficult to know where exactly to draw a line. There is no strong regional identity in Ireland. In Germany and Spain, for example, there are strong and self-defined regional identities that relate to their histories. It is the same in France to some extent. Italy was divided until the mid-19th century. We do not have that type of regional configuration. However, Dublin and the eastern area have been influenced strongly by spatial considerations, in that Dublin now exerts an influence over a wider area.
The potential of strategic policy committees, SPCs, is referred to in chapter 11. There are proposals to review their role. The experience to date of their effectiveness has been mixed. Proposals include more specific accountability by the relevant directors to SPCs and a general commitment to strengthening the role of SPCs and their chairpersons. The document recognises the potential in this regard.
The document is not prescriptive about population thresholds in metropolitan areas, but a figure of 100,000 was referred to in the original report by Mr. Denis Brosnan's group and is quoted in this document as the expected target figure for Limerick and its hinterland. The figure for Waterford encompasses the city and county areas. The report of the group chaired by Mr. Seán Aylward has referred to a natural geographic area consisting of the city and an area in the county's eastern side as suggesting itself as a wider metropolitan area.
Adjacent counties were mentioned. The terms of reference of the groups dealing with the unification process specifically instructed them to have regard to the need to develop arrangements, be they service level agreements or agency arrangements, to deal with the overspill from city areas into adjoining areas. The report of the Waterford group highlights the benefit of drawing up planning strategies, for example, retail strategies that take account of the influence of adjacent counties.
The Senator can also raise the matter on the Adjournment in the Seanad.
I thank our guests for their interaction with the committee at such short notice. We appreciate their level of engagement. I propose that the committee reflect on the proceedings of the past two hours or so and that we use private session next week to decide on actions to take.