Thursday, 12 May 2022
Media Report on Governance in Local Authorities: Statements
Paddy Burke (Fine Gael)
I welcome the Minister of State, who is a great attender of debates in this House. This is a great opportunity to discuss this very important issue with him. It arose out of the RTÉ programme, which local authorities did not come out of very well. There were certain local authorities involved but one could say it represented every local authority because I am sure there are a lot of shortcomings in a lot of local authorities.
As Senator Fitzpatrick pointed out, when all of the local authorities are amalgamated together, it is quite a sizeable organisation with 30,000 employees and more than €5 billion of a budget. That is a great deal of money and many employees. Those employees do an awful lot of work. When we go through the work they carry out, it includes all of those essential services, from utilities to houses, to business and the arts. The local authority is involved in everything.
It is a great honour to be elected as a member of a local authority and to represent one's community. From the time I was elected as a local authority member, I have witnessed huge changes in the local authority system. I have to say they are not all for the best. The powers of local authority members have been stripped away, year after year, Government after Government. This Government has to do something about it.
Local authorities in the main are not efficient. When people go to their local authority or to a local authority representative or councillor, they should be able to get answers but the public cannot get answers. What I would like to see the Minister of State do is to pick one local authority on a pilot basis and see what it takes to make it completely efficient. In other words, to run it like a business and provide all of the services. This could mean dealing with staff, with management, with councillors, with unions and with whoever it takes to make it more efficient. It could well mean there would have to be bonus payments or some form of incentives for staff or management. However, all of those things should be taken into consideration on a pilot basis, and who better to do this than the Minister of State. He was a councillor, and he is a Deputy and a Minister of State. He knows the system and how it works, and he knows the management of local authorities. What I have outlined would be a very worthwhile exercise from the Department's point of view.
No matter what public representative one talks to, whether it is a councillor, a Senator or a Deputy, they are all frustrated when trying to get work done. When I was first a councillor, local authorities were responsible for housing, water, sewerage and planning. Nearly all of those are now stripped away from the local authorities, mainly because councillors were afraid to make decisions in many cases. We should look at generating new services to be brought into the local authorities but to do that, we have to make the local authorities more efficient and more service friendly. As I said, a pilot scheme would be a great start.
We have all seen the decay in every town centre throughout the country. Councillor after councillor, council after council, and Deputies and Senators have been raising this issue for years. The local authorities were not able to do anything in regard to improvements, even though it was then within their jurisdiction. Now, because we have the hand of the Government and the funds from the Department involved, something can be done in every town centre and in every local authority - and rightly so - because this was sucking the heart out of towns.
If right was right, the local authorities should have been making a case, whether a financial case or otherwise, to whatever Department. When they make a case like that, they should be heard, but they were not heard because no heed was paid to it, with the result that we all know, namely, the decay in the centre of towns, with businesses closed. At the same time, there is a great deal of upstairs accommodation that could be turned into worthwhile and very nice living accommodation. This would bring the heart back into towns and encourage people to live in towns.There is nothing nicer than going through a town and seeing doors open downstairs or windows open upstairs. Where there are people, there is life. We need people to have life and if people are living in those buildings, there is life in them.
What could you say about the "RTÉ Investigates" programme? It was picked up by the Local Government Audit Service and the Department auditor, which goes to show that those organs of the State are working. I can see how it happened in the case in Mayo. The council did not want to say that it did not want any more money so it was probably saying it would work the system. If it was worked in a transparent way, you might say that was fair enough but it was hard to hide something like that. It did give back the money. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, is waiting for an independent report from the county manager regarding this issue. I hope that she will see that this is resolved quickly and that the continuation and flow of funds to County Mayo, which has stalled, will continue. I have more to say but I do not have time on this occasion.