Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 7 November 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Reform of Local Government: Discussion
Association of County and City Councils
We are here to discuss the reform of local government. I welcome Councillor Peter McVitty, president, Councillor Michael O’Brien, vice president, Councillor Hilary Quinlan, immediate past president, Councillor Pádraig McNally, and Mr. Liam Kenny, director, of the Association of County and City Councils. Thank you for your attendance here today.
I wish to draw your attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if you are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and you continue to so do, you are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also wish to advise you that the opening statement and any other documents you have submitted to the committee may be published on the committee website after the meeting.
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. I call on Councillor McVitty to address the committee.
Councillor Peter McVitty:
On behalf of the Association of County and City Councils I thank the members for meeting us today. I wish to apologise on behalf of Ms Connie Hanniffy who was due to be here but could not attend. As the Chairman said, Michael O'Brien, the vice president, Pádraig McNally, Hilary Quinlan and Liam Kenny are in attendance as well as others from the association in the Gallery.
The association had to analyse closely the document of the Minister, Deputy Hogan, Putting People First. As an association we have to be prepared to accept change but we are concerned about some issues in the document. I am sure we are talking to the converted in that some of the members are former county councillors and they understand our concerns about some aspects of the document. However, we will make our presentation to the committee, outline our concerns and work as best we can to make sure it works properly and that everybody is satisfied with the outcome. The boundary changes in our very large areas is a major change but we must accept change. I will hand over to Michael O'Brien, a member of the team in our association that examined the Bill closely, who will take us through our submission.
Councillor Michael O'Brien:
We welcome the opportunity to interact with the Chairman and his colleagues on this matter. In doing that we are conscience that our association has made constructive submissions on local government reform in the past 20 years in particular under its current name and its former name, the General Council of County Councils, to this Government and previous Governments. Looking around the room I am aware that we are fortunate to have the ear of past eminent members of our association who have served the public in that role.
We welcome that at least some measure of reform will result from the Local Government Bill 2013 that is before us. A central theme of the association's submissions over time has been the centrality of the county councils and city councils to the functioning of local government. The county councils are the only component of our local government system that serve all of the people. Whether it is the town centre dweller or the rural farmer, county level local government serves citizens in all environments - urban, suburban and rural.
Even in the case of town councils the county council's responsibility did not stop at the town boundary. Many services ranging from main roads to libraries and fire brigades were and still are provided by the county council. We see the reform proposed in the Local Government Bill 2013 as the logical conclusion to that reality on the ground. The town councils will now be integrated with the operation of the county councils providing a unified local government service to the public. We welcome this step forward as we have long believed that a unitary local government system, which is proven throughout Europe, would provide our citizens with best value while fully respecting the requirements of subsidiarity. We also welcome section 14 (a)(3) of the current Bill, which reiterates that the county and city councils are the primary units of local government and, as members are aware, they are enshrined in the 2001 Local Government Act.
We have certain concerns about Part 3 of the Bill, which relates to the establishment of municipal districts as a component of the county councils. While we accept that it is a step towards the unified delivery of local government we question whether the concept of municipal districts is a viable and practical one in the Irish situation. The concept of a municipal district acting in a kind of proxy capacity for the county council continues to dilute the aspiration for a streamlined and unified local government service. We are not trying to reinvent the wheel. The type of service we are talking about as outlined in the Bill is widespread throughout Europe in countries that practise a unitary local authority system. However, assuming the municipal districts go ahead, we must reiterate that the collection of household charges and commercial rates must be conducted by the county council. If such a function was to be given to the municipal districts it would, in effect, transform them into a town council by another name. We support the Minister's position that there will be only one budget-making authority in the new configuration.
A trend over the past 30 years or so has been the advent of organisations that spend large amounts of public money on development projects at arm's length from the democratically elected county councils. This leads to two streams of public money being spent in the same county without any co-ordination between the two. We acknowledge the efforts expressed in Part 6 of the Bill in regard to drawing the development companies into an alignment with the statutory local authorities. However, there are a number of alarming features which in our view will compromise any meaningful alignment between the local authority and the local development sectors in each county.
We are also concerned about the method of selection of the members of the local and community development board. Section 35(2) inserts a section 128D(3)(a), which states that the chief officer of the local community development committee shall "seek and select nominees" to the committee. In other words, the selection of members of the committee is being left to an official, and it gets worse. The proposed section 128D(3)(b) states: "The nominees shall be appointed to the committee, without omission or addition, by resolution of the local authority. In other words, the local authority - the democratically elected forum of the people - is required to rubber stamp names put together by an officer or an official. We urge members to examine this undemocratic arrangement again when they resume scrutiny of the Bill.
Section 51 requires the Minister to meet an association at least once a year. We welcome that but we believe it falls short of the level of consultation required. A major complaint of our members is the volume of domestic and EU regulation which arrives at local government level without any consultation with the people who are expected to implement the new codes and regulations. Local authority members must be involved at the earliest stage possible in the development of such regulation. We note that the County and City Managers Association has a major involvement in the Custom House as regards developing policy for local government. We believe that wherever the managers are the councillors should be there also. That principle would provide that necessary system of checks and balances.
We welcome the broad vision for the reform as regards the creation of a single tier local authority system which blends subsidiarity with efficiency. However, we also have concerns about the Bill and we ask members to critically examine the aspects we have highlighted in our analysis, which we will circulate at an early stage.
I thank the members of the general council for making their views known to the committee. The Bill is on Committee Stage and my party is in the process of preparing amendments with a view to getting answers to many of the questions Councillor O'Brien has raised, such as the role of local development companies. We recognise the aspiration behind that move but we question the manner in which it is being implemented. We hope that amalgamations take place through negotiation rather than imposition and that the implications for staff, etc., are recognised. Those who represent staff will, I am sure, raise these issues. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government informed the Dáil last week that progress is being made in that regard. Questions also arise in regard to appointments to the boards and accountability. We will make a list of our proposed amendments available to the association at the earliest opportunity.
We do not agree with the thrust of the Bill. We recognise the need for reform but it must be meaningful reform. Town councils have played a leading role throughout the country. We accept the need for streamlining and ending duplication in the system but do not agree with the extent of the cull proposed in this regard and will be highlighting that on Committee Stage. We believe our amendments will reflect the opinions and aspirations of local authority members and we will be liaising with them in seeking to represent their views and ensuring we do not lose local democracy. There is nervousness on the part of many people throughout the country that the disconnect is larger than envisaged by virtue of these proposals. Many of the functions of local authorities have been diminished in recent years rather than enhanced. We will be introducing amendments that seek to devolve more powers than are currently proposed in the legislation as it stands.
I acknowledge the work that the witnesses do on behalf of their members and assure them we will do our best to represent those views when we introduce amendments to the legislation with a view to making it work more effectively for all concerned.
I welcome the delegation from the Association of County and City Councils and thank Councillor O'Brien for his contribution. In regard to the apportionment of commercial rates and the local property tax, how does the association envisage the money being distributed to individual municipal district councils?
I support Councillor O'Brien's suggestion about bringing community development boards under the aegis of county councils and note his concern about the fact that they will remain independent, to use his own term, in their functions. What changes does he think are necessary in the Bill if we are to ensure the money is controlled by local authority elected members as opposed to the local authority? I feel strongly about this issue. In regard to development companies, what changes are needed to the current structure of legislation?
What are Councillor O'Brien's concerns about the use of the term "mayor" at municipal district council level and county level? I agree with him on consultations with the association beyond the legislation, particularly in regard to EU legislation pertaining to local government. At present there is only fig-leaf consultation. Councillors are left to answer to the public regarding the strangest of EU directives which impact on people's lives locally but, as anyone with knowledge of European legislation will attest, it takes approximately two years for an idea to become a directive and, in some cases, a further two years to transpose it into Irish law. The process could take five years in total and we are then left to explain why an egg has to be a certain shape in order to be accepted into the market. How can we do something practical with the legislation to ensure that local government has an input into EU legislation?
Councillor Michael O'Brien:
The questions raised by Deputies Landy and Cowen are well thought out. Over a long period of time we have seen an incremental erosion of the role and status of the local elected member. To a large extent this was brought about by the European Union from the period when we were net beneficiaries and a variety of groups were established to operate in parallel with the local government system. It will not be easy to change a mindset and, as Deputy Cowen pointed out, there are implications for staff and career expectations in the reform of any aspect of the delivery of public services, particularly in regard to the development companies. There are currently 51 of these companies but there will be 31 local authorities. It does not necessarily make sense. Heretofore we had 88 planning authorities in a small country and it is sensible that the number is being reduced to 31. We will have 31 local government units in a country with a population of 4.5 million, which brings us roughly into line with other countries. Northern Ireland has a population of 1.8 million and it has 11 councils. Scotland, with a population of 5.2 million, has 32 local governments. What is happening in Ireland reflects a policy we developed several years ago and is bringing us in line with practices of local government that are comparable to neighbouring jurisdictions.
Senator Landy asked how we envisaged the devolution of resources and money to municipal district level. In every county council, the system proposed in the Bill is already there in practice. The local area committees provide the platform from which the central authority - that is, the county council - will distribute funds.
We are not trying to reinvent anything here. It is a simple process, but we tend to make simple processes very complicated in this country. There are two aspects to local government, the first being to provide the basis for democratic participation at local level and thereby feed into our national Parliament. The second element is to assist - that is all we are doing, assisting - in the fair and equal distribution of whatever resources are available. It is a two-pronged process which has been complicated by the inheritance of a British system in which rank and status predominated. We must change the system, and can cite, if we want to, local government in China or Scandinavia or wherever as a model. The bottom line, however, is that we are trying to assist the Government of the day to bring in a system that is beneficial to the people and is transparent and representative. It is incredible that we waited until 2013 to provide a scientific method of aligning the population to seat ratio. The current system was developed 114 years ago on the basis of the number of ratepayers. Now, at last, there will be a scientific way of dealing with it.
I am not sure whether I answered all of the questions.
Councillor Michael O'Brien:
I apologise; the Senator is correct. There will be 40 people sitting around the table and deciding on the distribution of the funds. For the State as a whole, it will, for the first time in many cases, be a case of local government in action. There will be only one source of resources for a county, although retaining the county system might not have been the best strategy. We should have done what they did in Northern Ireland and Scotland, for instance, and forget about towns and counties. However, the decision was made to retain the counties and the five cities, to make up a total of 31, and the members of each unit will decide on the fair and equal distribution of whatever funds are available in that particular county.
The main difficulty is that we have inherited a system in which nobody can tell how the local government fund is actually distributed. It would appear to be done on a historical basis, with each allocation being generally 1% or 2% greater or lesser than it was the previous year. Where distortions have arisen in the past, they have arisen when the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has been able to lever a little more funding for a particular county. This takes it out of synch with the rest of the county councils when it comes to the next allocation, because that allocation is dependent on historical figures.
Councillor Peter McVitty:
Senator Landy asked about the role of mayor at county and municipal district level. The document itself places great emphasis on the county council being the premier body in the county. We are passionately of the view that we must distinguish the role of the mayor as the leader of that particular body as distinct from the municipal entity. We do not have an issue with the new structure in so far as it proposes the establishment of municipal entities. Each municipal district will require a chairman, which role would carry certain recognition at various events. We see a role for that person on a localised basis. As both a town and county councillor, I see the demise of the town council as a huge loss to a large number of towns. We share the belief, however, that the head of the premier body should be clearly distinctive on any public occasion. By allowing the role of mayor to exist at all levels, there would be a significant dilution of the role. We are particularly concerned that this should not happen.
Councillor Pádraig McNally:
Senator Denis Landy asked about how local authorities will engage with enterprise boards and local enterprise offices under the new structure. I made clear to members of the committee on previous occasions that it is a matter of great concern to us that elected representatives will, under the proposals as they stand, have no say on these boards. Under the existing structure, we are close to the people who are seeking grants and it works well. The allocations might be small but they mean a great deal to people who are trying to start a business. I appeal to the committee, as I did before, to seek changes to the Bill to address this issue.
I welcome the delegates and thank them for their positive and constructive engagement. It assists us as parliamentarians as we work through the legislation to hear suggestions as to how it can be improved upon. The witnesses have a very positive contribution to make in that respect, both as individual representatives of local government and as members of the Association of County City Councils, which has been active in this area for generations. We are listening closely and intently to what the delegates are saying.
I share some of their concerns regarding the local development committees and associated selection process. How do the delegates foresee that selection process taking place? Would it work similarly to the existing community fora whereby community organisations put forward representatives and select from among themselves in a bottom-up approach. How do the witnesses envisage the local and community development aspect of local government being represented? I agree that it needs to be transparent and accountable to the elected council, but what is the best way to select the membership and get the boards up and running?
I note the points in the submission regarding practical representation, ratios and bringing us into line with other countries. What are the delegates' views on how the metropolitan areas will work within the new structures? There will be several amalgamations, including in Waterford, Limerick and Tipperary. Will the witnesses comment on how they envisage those amalgamations proceeding?
I expect that much of the difficulty that might arise will relate to status and titles, as occurs traditionally in any field or sector. There is a great deal of confusion about the number of mayors. In Waterford alone, we have five mayors at this time. It is very confusing for the public but, in my view, there is really one mayor, namely, the mayor of Waterford city. Under the new structure, will the primary body be headed up by a mayor or a cathaoirleach? My personal view is that it should be the latter, but I understand the delegates have concerns that such a position might not be recognised internationally. Will they comment on that? I am not sure we will ever get agreement on status and titles. It is a difficult issue.
As I said, we are noting with interest what the delegates are saying today. Their contribution will be very helpful to us as the Bill progresses.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions. Getting views from the bottom up is very important. Having spent most of my political life as a member of a local authority, I know the importance of the role of local government. I was delighted to hear references to reform being the "logical conclusion". There is a great deal of learning to do in the reform process, and today's meeting is important in that regard. The proposals we are discussing represent the most radical change in the structure of local government since its foundation. To get that type of radical change right must involve listening and learning as we go along.
Devolution of function has been the mantra of every local authority representative organisation for some time.
When I looked at the Local Government Bill, I noticed that 78 functions were newly devolved to the district. We might have described some of them as Mickey Mouse functions when we were councillors, but sometimes Mickey Mouse functions such as local authority parking are very important to an area. What goes in one area may not be appropriate to another and the local councillors know about this. Multiplying 78 functions that districts can decide is a positive element. Parking is important, as are other functions.
Budgeting has been working through area committees for many years but this amounted to the rubber-stamping of a budget presented to an area committee. Not enough thought was put into it. Once thought is put into it by local districts and it is ratified by the council, it will bring about better functioning and greater input from local authority members. If the legislative onus is put on the shoulders of the councillors, the onus is on them to do it.
The methodology of selection to the committees is something we must look at to ensure we do not end up in a situation in which the official has responsibility. That cannot happen because this document is about devolving more powers downwards. I thank the witnesses for bringing that point to our attention. When I read the document, my understanding was that the function was to seek and select. In seeking, one asks people to put forward names, and my interpretation was that first one seeks names and then the names come in. In ratification, local authority members cannot automatically de-select all of the community members and say they do not want any of them and they want more of their own. It was a safeguard against that, but we will examine the point.
My priority is to see the devolution of functions. I sincerely welcome the 78 devolved functions. The Minister has asked each Department to see what remits could be devolved further. That works as well at local government level in other countries.
I will put one question to the witnesses while I have their sound heads here. It concerns the funding of local government and how they spend money. Different local authorities have different methodologies for implementing the local authority property tax. If local authority houses are exempt from the property tax, some see that the local authority should bear the brunt of it and so the local authority pays. Others say it should be passed on at a rate of €2 extra per household. If the witnesses have a view on this, it would be valuable. It is important that this is streamlined. In a county or a city, one side of the road may have one methodology while the other side of the road has another. That is not good, so we must streamline it.
I apologise for being late to the committee; I was trying to cover two meetings. I welcome the delegation. Fianna Fáil has serious problems with this Local Government Bill and it will be rigorously tested as it proceeds through both Houses. We are totally opposed to the abolition of town councils, which is a serious error on the part of the Minister. A system of local government that has lasted over a century and served the country well has been tossed out in the same manner in which the Government tried to abolish the Seanad. It has already abolished Údarás na Gaeltachta. Local democracy is not flourishing under the current regime. I will not say any more until all three representative council groups have appeared. Having been a councillor for over 20 years, I am with them 100%.
I welcome the delegation. I am surprised by the statement that the reform will bring us to par in terms of the ratio of councillors to population. In fact, it does not; it drives it further out of line. I am not sure how these figures are being compared. In Denmark, there is one councillor for every 1,115 people and in France there is one for every 118 people; we will have one for every 4,830. Applying the ratio in the North, the new reforms will lead to one councillor per 1,190 people. Sinn Féin is not happy with that but we live with it because we must negotiate with people. This drives us out of line with the North. We will have fewer councillors per head of population than we will have in the North under the reform.
What powers and functions would the Association of County and City Councils like to see devolved? It has been mentioned that much of the power devolved to local municipality districts is Mickey Mouse stuff, but this is by default and by virtue of the fact that they are being set up. Can the witnesses name three powers they would like to see devolved from central government? What powers would they like to see transferred from county managers or from executive functions to reserved functions? The Association of County and City Councils has complained about this over the years and we stand with them.
Can the witnesses indicate their position on the fact that each local authority will have two representatives on regional authorities? How will that pan out in terms of party or group representation? It could mean that two parties will control the regional assemblies. I will repeat the questions because the witnesses got distracted for a minute.
They involve the powers to be devolved from central government, the powers that could be transferred from county managers or from executive to reserved functions, and a comment on the fact that there are only two representatives on regional authorities.
Councillor Hilary Quinlan:
With regard to Deputy Coffey's point on mayors, Waterford, Limerick and Tipperary are being merged. In the case of Waterford and Limerick, there must be a mayor in the metropolitan area and a Cathaoirleach in the county. Councillor Michael O'Brien referred to the fact that there are only 31 authorities. Outside of the amalgamated counties, there should be a mayor of a county and a chair of each municipal district. This would result in less confusion. In times past, there were too many mayors of big and small towns and villages, which demeaned the civic title of mayor.
Councillor Peter McVitty:
I thank the members for meeting us. They have a fair idea of what our problem is. We do not want this to be political. We want a proper set-up and the committee should work together so that the amalgamation of two bodies works. We do not want to make it political; we want local authorities to work properly. I ask the committee members to examine some of the issues raised. We will be in contact again directly with more of our problems in a private capacity.
I thank Councillor McVitty, Councillor O'Brien, Councillor Quinlan, Councillor McNally and Mr. Kenny. When I was a young councillor I found the General Council of County Councillors, as it was then, to be very helpful. In the face of Acts and bureaucracy and the myriad of local government issues, it was a helpful facility for members. I thank the witnesses for their attendance.