Friday, 16 July 2021
Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage
Barry Ward (Fine Gael)
There has been some discussion about the local property tax, LPT, system and about its flaws. There is no denying that it is a blunt instrument and is flawed. It is not what any one of us would like to put in place but it is part of what I always understood to be a move towards self-financing of local authorities. As somebody who spent 11 years on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, I have always welcomed the idea that local authorities would be self-sufficient and autonomous to the greatest extent possible. In fact, my experience, as both a Member of this House and as a member of a local authority, is that central government seems do things in exactly the opposite direction. It continues to take powers and discretion away from local government and from members of local government, from the people who are on the ground listening to the citizens in a way that officials either at central government level or at local authority level will never do. Something I would often have said in the council is that the chief executive of the council never knocks on a door and asks people what they think about an issue. They do not have time to do that and it is not their role. It is the role of the councillors and they are doing that every day of every week and of every month of the year. They know what people think.
I have always favoured the notion that they would have the real discretion to make changes and decisions at local level. The reality is that since the Planning and Development Act 2000, we have continuously stripped away powers from councillors and have continuously removed their discretion to make decisions in the interests of the people they represent. That is why I have always supported the idea of LPT. It makes sense to pay locally for local services but I also accept the criticisms of the system in terms of how flawed and blunt it is. That is why I also appreciate what is in this Bill because in some respects it updates the system. There are missed opportunities in other respects but the rebalancing is very important in that there are people who bought houses almost a decade ago who have not paid local property tax while their neighbours who have older houses have. There is a fundamental unfairness in that and it is very welcome that this Bill fixes that and creates a level playing field that should have been there. I understand, particularly in the aftermath of the financial instabilities ten years ago, why it took time to do that but it is welcome and it is about time it was done.
I note comments from my colleagues, Senator Carrigy and others, that when this was announced there was much concern among people that they would see an increase in their property tax. I spoke to a neighbour in Deansgrange recently who is on a fixed income, is a pensioner and is particularly worried about an increase she may experience. It is important to remind people that the vast majority of people will not experience an increase and that the 30% of households will see themselves move only one band. Hopefully, this will not represent a very significant change in what they have to deal with.
The real missed opportunities in this Bill are in respect of the discretion of councillors. They are restricted in how much they can vary the local property tax. I come from a local authority in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown where we pay the highest rates of local property tax in the country. We are not, by any stretch, the wealthiest local authority although that is a common misconception. The reality is that we have a low commercial rates base so the property tax that is collected in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown - it is also, incidentally, not the largest collection of property tax which I believe is Dublin Council - in the per-household-charge is higher than in any other local authority in the country. We collect about €50 million. In the past €10 million of that was immediately lodged in the equalisation fund, which I am pleased to see is also being rectified in this Bill. In a local authority like ours, it was always appropriate that we would adjust the rate being paid in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown downwards by the 15% that is allowed under the legislation. It is still not appropriate to restrict that percentage. In 2012 when the original legislation came through, the idea always was that local authorities like Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown would have an opportunity to vary their tax downwards to reflect the fact they pay very high rates and that local authorities, like Longford, Carlow and others where the rates they paid were lower per household, would be entitled to increase their local property tax to reflect what they needed to take from it but also to reflect the individual burdens on households.
When I was a councillor on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, and during the entire time Fine Gael has been voting on local property tax in this council, we have voted to decrease it for that reason, which is to reduce the very significant burden per household in this area. Last year, despite the votes of Fine Gael councillors to decrease it, it was de factoincreased by 17.7% which is a regressive move.
The missed opportunity in this Bill is that we could vest in councillors the trust to make the right decision for their area and about how much to vary it, upwards or downwards, and to take away that 15% restrictive margin that is there. That is one of the missed opportunities. Unfortunately, I do not have more time to discuss others.
I welcome the Bill, however, and it is about time that we put a level playing field in place and that we put a little bit of equality back between households. On that basis, I support the Bill.