Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht

County and City Managers Association

11:35 am

Mr. Conn Murray:

The policy document Putting People First drives the direction that we are all going in. The document contains a couple of important statements. It clearly states:

Local Government will lead economic, social and community development locally. It will be the main vehicle of governance and public service at local level [...] Separate structures of public service will not therefore be established...
That is an important statement to begin with because now we can commence talking about what functions are relevant at local level and, therefore, what functions should fall under the remit of the council. As we will take a far stronger role in both economic and, primarily, community development, these functions, in my view, should be clearly within the remit of elected members. Let me give the small clear example of the transfer of rural transport to the local authority system and how that affects operations in terms of routes and so on.

Another aspect is the linking of local government reform with the education system. At present, we perform a function for the Department of Education and Skills by identifying sites for schools. Proper local planning and thinking ahead should be a council function and not a matter for the Department.

Members are probably well aware of another aspect. The national positive aging strategy recommended that councils for older people be established in each authority. At present 16 forums for older people have been established under the Age Friendly Town and Age Friendly County programmes, which directly link the community to elected members. In my view that is a strong area because it embraces education from youth to older people. We are starting to talk about welfare in that context and it should be considered at local level.

I was asked to comment on two more issues, the first of which was the refund of rates. My authority is one of the authorities that have split. Limerick City Council had one view and Limerick County Council had another view. There will be a very significant loss of revenue if the 50% refund is implemented. It is incumbent on the individuals on the ground to ensure that businesses are occupied. I am not saying that such an objective is easy, but it is part and parcel of the property tax. The initiative has worked well in the cities in which I have worked.

I would consider the idea of devolution, but members should make the decision on how to implement this. Once they have seen the impact on individuals and how it affects a council's finances and capacity to provide resources then perhaps a more realistic decision can be reached.

Earlier mergers were mentioned. Limerick is one place in which the authorities are in the process of merging. We have brought the two Limerick authorities together and also brought the regeneration agency under our remit. There has been a 25% reduction in the number of senior regeneration staff, and there will be a 50% reduction at senior level in terms of directorates within the next couple of years as a direct consequence of the merger. We are still working through the merger, so there has not been a similar effect on the operational side. To be honest, our focus is on providing better services, discovering the cost involved and finding the necessary resources, not whether there are more or fewer people.