Thursday, 28 June 2012
Local Government Reform
Question 3: To ask the Minister for the Environment; Community and Local Government when he intends to announce his reform package for local authorities; if he will outline his proposals; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31384/12]
Question 5: To ask the Minister for the Environment; Community and Local Government the consultation with stakeholders that will take place in preparing his proposals for local government reform; and when will these proposals be ready. [31373/12]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 and 5 together.
The Government's broad policy approach in this area was set out in the programme for Government. In line with this, I intend to bring proposals to the Government before the Dáil summer recess for an extensive programme of local government reform. Subject to the Government's decisions, I propose to publish a comprehensive policy statement setting out a clear vision for the future of local government and proposals to achieve it, with particular focus on strengthening structures generally at regional, county and sub-county levels, expanding the role of local government, maximising operational and organisational efficiency and improving governance, oversight, local political and executive leadership and citizen engagement. The reform programme will also reflect other work on various aspects of local government, including local authority mergers, efficiency implementation, local government funding and alignment of local and community development with local government. The statement will also outline implementation arrangements for the reform programme and certain issues which will be the subject of further policy development work.
Work on the development of policy proposals for the Government's consideration in this area is informed by the extensive analysis, consultation, deliberation and debate that has already taken place on local government reform over many years. I have received submissions from, and held discussions with the local government representative associations, with individual local authorities and with other interested groups and individuals. I also recently invited each individual councillor in the country to submit views to me on a number of issues relating to local government reform.
Publication of the policy statement on local government will provide a further opportunity for public comment and input ahead of the development of legislation required to provide for reform measures. The content of the local government reform legislation will be a matter for a decision by the Government in the first instance and will, of course, be the subject of Oireachtas scrutiny and debate in the normal way.
I thank the Minister for his reply. The Minister mentioned there would be an implementation plan after the policy statement is introduced. Does he anticipate that many of the changes will be in place before the local elections, due to take place in 2014? There is a real desire for reform in this area and it is difficult to see how there could be Oireachtas reform without having local government reform in conjunction. There will be an acceptance of change and this is a unique opportunity. Does the Minister propose to have mergers or does he intend to make changes to the town council structure? Will there be fewer town councils, or more? Will the county system still be regarded as the primary tier of local government or, in the event of mergers, will the Minister propose changes to that tier?
The county and city authorities will be the primary unit of local government. I am not in a position to state anything further until my Government colleagues discuss the ultimate structures at county and sub-county level. The policy paper will indicate the functions and structures of local government and how we can better deliver services at local level. We will attempt to introduce new proposals whereby there can be greater devolution of function, and delivery of services as near as possible to the citizen. In the context of the EU-IMF agreement, this gives us an opportunity to have a local source of funding. All these issues will be part of the reform proposals and will form part of the statement on policy that must be agreed in the first instance by Government.
As the Minister is aware, Sinn Féin supports radical local government reform and seeks maximum power and decision-making to devolve to local authorities. This means that local government should have increased powers over planning, waste management, housing policy, education and roads while retaining its powers over supply of water. We also support having directly elected mayors in towns and cities. I realise this does not sit well with some of the Minister's ideas on water, and where the related control will lie. However, we look forward to the arrival of this debate. I will watch very carefully what is to happen on the ground in the local authorities, in what ways they will be changed and whether some towns will lose councillors. It is very important.
I do not know whether that was a comment or a question. We will have to wait and see the proposals before we can comment. I believe that is what the Deputy indicated. I hope we will be able to get a fair measure of agreement on the need for reform, that more functions should be devolved from central to local government and that there should be greater operational efficiency in how we deliver the services. There is now also an opportunity to provide a source of funding and it will be interesting to see how seriously councillors will take their responsibility when it comes to providing the necessary funds for the provision of services at local level.
The Minister did not tell me very much in his reply although I accept proposals must go to the Cabinet and decisions must be made. It would be reasonable, however, to expect to know if some of the changes are expected to be in place in time for the local elections. That should not be a secret or require Cabinet commitment.
I refer to town councils. Will there be changes at that level? It is not an unreasonable question.and one should expect a reply. The Minister has not exactly been silent on the matter. It would be useful to hear some indication.
One of the areas of concern for me is the loss of functions in local authorities. That is an important issue. I will wait to see what are the Minister's plans in that area. There are plans for the Road Safety Authority to take over the issuing of driving licences, there are other issues of monitoring and there are questions over Irish Water and what will be taken out of the hands of local authorities. These are significant issues. Only recently, within Dublin City Council there was a ballot on the different sections that concern water and the outcome was very negative in regard to the Minister's plans. I look forward to seeing and debating the proposals. This goes against the way things should be, namely, that the local authority should handle these issues.
As Deputy Ellis knows - or perhaps he does not wish to know - there will be a very strong relationship between Irish Water and local government in respect of the knowledge and expertise in the operational delivery of water. There has been engagement with the unions about this and it is the intention of Government to ensure there is more capital investment in water and waster water, bringing further employment and more opportunity for people to be gainfully employed in the provision of water and waste water services. The Deputy will now be able to put people at ease, arising from that statement. There will be a continued and very strong involvement of local government with Irish Water.