Seanad debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Media Report on Governance in Local Authorities: Statements

 

10:30 am

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)

I thank Members for their contributions. In the context of this discussion on reforming local authorities and governance structures in the 31 local authorities, it is interesting that 75% of the speakers in the debate were from the Government side, exclusively from my party, Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil. That demonstrates in terms of debates in this House how much the Government is interested in solving the issues in respect of local authorities. I note there is 45 minutes remaining of the time allotted to the debate. That is an interesting point.

One of the things I took on when I took over my brief was to be an advocate for local councillors. I refer to the responsibility that has been placed on them. With the reduction in the number of local authorities, from 114 right down to 31, the geographical area councillors have to cover increased significantly. In addition, there are 360 statutory bodies across the country to which local authority members have to be nominated, as well as approximately 400 external bodies. There are well in excess of 2,000 nominations of local authority members to bodies on which they serve the public. There are also other issues such as the public participation networks. In the first instance, I wish to acknowledge the work done by local councillors. I hope that we will get a lot more reform done in my remaining time in the Custom House, such as providing for maternity leave for female councillors. I refer to what are almost significant human rights that councillors have been denied. We have a lot more reform to do in that regard.

As regards the powers councillors have, it is often forgotten that the county development plan is the cornerstone document that unlocks and develops the potential of the county right across its geographical area. Local authority members have control of determining that policy. They have control in terms of development levies - how much of levies should be ring-fenced and at what rate - to develop key public infrastructure to underpin all that development in their county. Those are significant powers. In terms of revenue-raising powers, they have powers to strike a rate, adopt a budget and implement property tax. All those issues are being enhanced, especially under the property tax review that is currently ongoing. Obviously, they have total control in terms of the disposal of property and the granting of permissions under material contravention. There have been significant votes in the latter regard right across the country. There is a formal process for them to input into many SHD planning applications. I know that process is now concluded but local authority members always had an input on some of those major issues.

As regards accountability, local authority members have significant powers, including suspension, to hold a chief executive to account if they believe he or she has performed inappropriately. Those powers are at their disposal. Those are facts. It is the reality under the Local Government Act.

As regards the work of local authorities, in the context of directly elected mayors reference was made to the programme of reform we are progressing. We are aiming to hold a plebiscite in all the local authority areas that wish to have a directly elected mayor. Obviously, it will be their choice, but that is significant reform. Senator Horkan referred to devolving power down to local authorities. Local authorities deliver more than 1,000 services for citizens. The response of Ministers to attempts to bring more reform down is interesting, however. It can be difficult. I refer to the Government decision in respect of a mayor for Limerick and the devolution of autonomy and authority to the local authority there. When one goes about that process, however, it is challenging. I have first-hand experience of that in the context of trying to have bilateral engagements with various Departments. We are working at pace to do that. The Senator referred to the Citizens' Assembly under the chairmanship of Jim Gavin in terms of what the response will be in respect of a directly elected mayor for Dublin. That is interesting. There is no doubt it is a complex issue. The Senator pointed out some of the issues in that regard.

As regards transparency, I referred to the Local Government Audit Service, as well as the National Oversight and Audit Commission, NOAC, which provides that service. Senator Cummins raised issues relating to timing. One of the challenges relates to when the data are certified and ready. I refer to linking or mirroring Departments having their accounts done with local authorities having the end-of-year figures certified. As an accountant, I know that can be frustrating. The Revenue Commissioners will attest to that also. The gap between a problem first happening and it being identified can be significant. Unfortunately, a lot may have happened by the time one gets to change or even identify it. That can be challenging in every sector. I hear the Senator's points regarding an enhanced role for NOAC in terms of carrying out performance reviews. I know that I and the other Ministers at the Department have powers to request it to review positions within the local authority system. That is a good power that is at the disposal of the Ministers under the Act.

Senator Warfield referred to section 212 of the Local Government Act 2001, relating to public inquiries. I understand there are several reasons the provision has not been commenced, not least the potential cost of local public inquiries and concerns that individuals involved could subsequently seek to assert their rights through the courts. It is important to recognise that in October 2011, a referendum was held on a proposed amendment to the Constitution that, if successful, would have granted full investigative powers to Oireachtas Members to hold inquiries. That amendment was rejected by the electorate. Concerns cited at the time related to how the granting of judicial powers to a non-judicial body would operate in practice and, in particular, how sufficient safeguards in respect of the constitutional rights of individuals subject to inquiries could be provided. Those are significant items that would have to be considered first. The Government currently has no plan to commence the section.

I thank Members for their interaction. It is important that we work hard to reform local government. The Programme for Government: Our Shared Future has a clear body of work to deliver that reform.We all know from our various roles that it is challenging in our local authority system but I cannot think of another body or authority that, when Covid came, responded within 48 hours through the community call. These staff members were men and women throughout this country who protected the most vulnerable. They were there to organise a system within 48 hours to protect our community.

As we see in respect of the Ukrainian crisis, local authorities are again stepping up to the mark. We all know there are areas where we have to improve and there are deficiencies. Sometimes, as a society, we throw everything at our local authorities and expect them to deliver everything. That is one thing I would say in life. Significant responsibility is placed on the shoulders of staff who work in the local authority system and sometimes we have to realise it can be difficult when there are so many competing interests in society. In the main, however, I am confident and comfortable that the majority do the best job they can, sometimes in very difficult circumstances.

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