Tuesday, 17 July 2012
Local Government Reform
I welcome the Minister and I am glad my colleague, Senator Landy, is also raising the subject of local government reform. We are speaking with less than two years to go until the local government elections. While the timescale is getter shorter it still gives the Minister, the Government and the House an opportunity to make final decisions on the structures, role and size of local government but decisions will be required in the very near future. I hope the Minister will indicate his current thinking on the situation. This matter has been debated previously in the House but decisions will need to be taken in the very near future. The Minister has both the opportunity and the challenge of deciding the future of local government and of putting structures in place which are to last for 25 to 40 years. It has been at least a political generation since significant local government reform took place and the structure now requires another reform. We will need to have a debate about the size of town and county councils, the possibility of sub-structures and the format of same. I do not wish to be prescriptive but I ask that these decisions are made soon so that current local councillors and the hundreds of people who are interested in running in the local government elections would have a reasonable idea in sufficient time of what will be the new structures and powers of local authorities. This debate will continue until the elections in 2014 but I ask the Minister to provide an interim report.
I am also seeking an update from the Minister about the future of local government. I know common ground has been reached on this matter between the Government parties and across the political spectrum but we are no closer to a definite announcement-----
Many councillors are contacting me and the three associations representing councillors, AMAI, LAMA and ACC, have been in contact with spokespersons and with individual Oireachtas Members in recent weeks. They are asking for some final decisions on the process. I commend the Minister on his decision to take action on this rather than go through a process of producing Green Papers and White Papers, as was done on so many other occasions. I am anxious to ensure that the urbanised society in which we all now live can continue and that the structures put in place will facilitate this. We currently have the least representative local government system in Europe, and we do not wish to see that slipping further.
Reform should not mean reduction in representation but simply reform. As Senator Bradford said, powers must be devolved from central government and there must be a rebalance of powers between the current executive management at local government level and councillors. Most important, we must have some sign of a timescale on this issue. The horse can eat grass for only so long; eventually it will need proper feed. I would appreciate if the Minister could give us an update on this matter.
I thank Senators Bradford and Landy for raising this matter. They have a genuine interest in local government reform and have a genuine interaction with local representatives. The Government's broad policy approach to local government reform was set out in the programme for Government. My approach to taking this forward has been characterised by initial decisions in the cases of Limerick and Tipperary, which I made early in the Government's term of office. I also established the Waterford local government committee to consider whether Waterford city and county councils should be unified, and the report of this committee has been examined. In addition, a considerable amount of work has been under way for the past eight to nine months relating to the implementation of the local government efficiency agenda, the alignment of the local government and local development sectors, and how to implement plans at local level through new means of local government funding.
To build on this progress, I intend to bring proposals to the Government very shortly for an extensive programme to reform and develop the local government system. I assure the Senators I will not hold this up in any way. Subject to the Government's decisions, I propose to publish a comprehensive policy statement setting out a vision for the future of local government and proposals to achieve it in the form of an action programme on local government. I agree with Senator Landy that we could have Green Papers and White Papers but what is needed now is an action programme for reforming the system.
There will be a particular focus in this programme on strengthening the structures of local government generally at each level of the system - regional, county and sub-county. Any structure that exists should ensure that it has a meaningful existence and that it has sufficient power and responsibility to act at that level. There will be a strong emphasis on strengthening and expanding the role of local government, with an indication of functions that have potential for devolution from central level to local level and where greater delegation of responsibility or reduction of central control is proposed. lmportantly, this includes strengthening and clarifying the role of local government in economic development and enterprise support. This is underpinned already by the decision to establish the new local enterprise offices in local authorities, integrating the micro-enterprise support functions of the county and city enterprise boards with local authorities' business support units.
An important element of the programme will be to continue and reinforce measures to maximise operational and organisational efficiency, with particular reference to the implementation of the local government efficiency review measures. There will also be emphasis on improving local government performance generally and the standard of service that it provides for citizens. When more people are paying for more services, the least they can expect is a good standard and quality of service. A range of issues that are essential components of a modern system of local government will also be addressed. This includes: providing for a robust framework of governance, with effective arrangements and mechanisms for policy formulation; accountability; oversight of local authority performance at executive level; ethical standards for councillors and employees; local political and executive leadership; and effective citizen participation and engagement in local authority affairs. There must be a rebalancing between the powers of management and executive and those of the local democratically-elected councillors.
The programme will indicate the arrangements required to implement the reform programme and certain issues that will be the subject of further policy development work. Whatever we propose will require legislation, so there is an opportunity to enhance the programme or policy of reform when the legislative programme will be giving effect to those reforms in 2013. Of course, proposals to put in place a sound, stable and equitable system of local government funding, with a significant element of local responsibility for raising resources and deciding spending priorities, is fundamental to the reform and development of local government. Opportunities for local funding is a key essential to ensuring there is greater autonomy for the local elected representative. The ultimate aim of the action programme is to have a local government system that supports a good quality of life and delivers value for money for people in local communities, and that makes a substantial contribution to the national recovery effort.
Work on the development of policy proposals for Government consideration in this area is informed by the extensive analysis that has already taken place on local government reform over the past 20 years. I have received submissions, even up to recently, from councillors throughout the country. I thank the 21% of them who responded to the recent survey and the local government representative associations. Individual local authorities have made submissions over the years and principally in the past year. I have engaged with all the representative organisations, as well as with many individuals, about reform of local government. The publication of the action programme on local government will provide a further opportunity for public comment and input ahead of the development of the legislation, and the legislation will also provide an opportunity to Senators and Deputies to further advance any additional measures they wish to include. The content of local government reform legislation will be a matter for Government decision in the first instance and will, of course, be the subject of Oireachtas scrutiny and debate in the normal way.
I hope that whatever proposals on policy for local government reform that emerge in the context of our public statement will be meaningful and will give an additional opportunity to people to engage robustly on the new opportunities for local government, where it will have more power, more devolution of responsibility, more opportunities for funding and better structures for the elected member. That will give greater accountability for the money that is spent at local level and councillors will be in a better position to scrutinise the management and executive of the local authority with the additional powers and responsibility given to them, so there will be a meaningful opportunity for them to engage with the executive to deliver better quality services for the people who elected them.
The Minister indicated that 21% of councillors responded to the survey. On a lighter note, he will recall that when our mutual friend, the late Senator Jackie Daly, conducted a similar survey on local government and I believe he received a 100% response.
On a point of information, our great friend, the late Senator Jack Daly, carried out a survey to find out whether the 1984 local elections should be postponed, and he received an 85% response.
And 100% support. On the action programme which the Minister will publish in the near future, the Minister indicated that it will allow for an input before the drafting of legislation. Will the action programme contain his decisions regarding the structures of local government, the number of town and county councillors and so forth, or is the action programme the first part of a phase that will lead to an announcement on the future of county councils, town councils, numbers and so forth? My question is on behalf of the councillors who contacted me. When will the Minister announce the number of councillors, the size of the areas and the future of town councils? Will that be in the action programme? It does not have to be. It is important that we have this ongoing and broad debate. Let us get it right rather than rush it. Will the action programme allow the ongoing process to continue, in terms of the debate for and against big councils, small councils and so forth? When will those decisions be made?
I can confirm to Senator Bradford that as part of the policy statement a boundary commission will have to be established for the purpose of looking at the wards in each county and local government area. That will be established by early September with a view to reporting in January 2013. That will give people who are interested in standing in the local elections 18 months to get their feet into the right electoral area to get the right result for themselves.
It is hard to answer that question. When I put something to the Government I always do so on the basis that there will be a positive outcome, but I cannot prejudge the discussions that take place in Cabinet. I would like to have it sooner rather than later but, in fairness to my Cabinet colleagues, they should have an input into it. They will be having an input very shortly.