Thursday, 13 December 2012
Local Government Reform
I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs to the House. I will not make a detailed submission. If we had a concept known as parliamentary questions in this House, which we might have the next time around, I would be placing same but my Adjournment motion speaks for itself. Cork County Council is unique in that it has three health divisions and, therefore, three administrative divisions within the county - north, south and west, all of which have managers, directors of services, chief engineers and divisional headquarters. As part of the new local government reform and new boundary provisions for local authorities, will the county of Cork be treated as three separate entities, as it currently is, or as a singular area for the division of the proposed 55 seats. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter on the Adjournment. The action programme for effective local government setting out Government decisions for local government reform was published on 16 October 2012. It sets out the most fundamental reorganisation of local government structures since the current system began in the 1800s. City and county councils in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford will be unified. There will be extensive change at regional level, with rationalisation of structures and updating of functions. At sub-county level, a new system of municipal governance will be introduced.
This will involve a complete territorial configuration of each county into municipal districts in which the elected members will perform a range of important local functions on a fully devolved basis. The districts will be designed, as far as possible, around existing town authorities and large urban centres which do not currently enjoy municipal status. Overall, the number of council seats will reduce from 1,627 to no more than 950.
On 15 November last, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government established an independent statutory local electoral area boundary committee to carry out a local electoral area review on which the new municipal districts will be based. The committee has been asked to review and make recommendations on local electoral area boundaries in the context of the results of census 2011 and the action programme for effective local Government, and to report no later than 31 May 2013.
The committee has been asked to consider and make recommendations on the division of each council area, other than Cork city, into local electoral areas, and to make recommendations on the number of members of each council to be assigned to each local electoral area. The terms of reference for the committee are set out in the Schedule to the establishment order. In paragraph 6 of that Schedule, it is provided that the number of councillors representing a local electoral area should typically be seven and not more than ten or fewer than six. In paragraph 7, it is provided that within the county the variance in representation of each local electoral area from the average for the county should, as far as practicable, be within a range of plus or minus 10%. In paragraph 8, it is provided that the number of members shall be fixed at 55 in Cork County Council.
These are the parameters within which the committee will operate for Cork county as regards numbers. There is no specific reference to any divisional structure. However, in recommending changes to local electoral areas, the committee is required to take due account, as far as practicable, of existing local authority electoral and administrative areas.
I understand that the committee has invited submissions to be made by 25 January 2013 so if the Senator has views on local electoral areas in the county of Cork he might consider making a submission to the committee in response to that invitation.
I thank the Minister of State for attending but in respect of the response, which I know comes from the Department, my query should not be beyond answer. I am disappointed, therefore, that the Minister of State was not provided with an answer because my question is very basic. Unlike any other county in this Republic, under the law of the land, there are separate health and administrative districts for north, south and west Cork with their own council divisional headquarters, managers and individual structures. We are told that each county is to have at least 18 councillors under the new provision. The three divisions within Cork are treated as singular counties to all intents and purposes.
Could the Minister of State arrange for my question to be answered? It is not a matter of opinion because I am not advocating for or against. I simply want to know what the legal position is because north Cork, south Cork and west Cork are all legal entities. If they are to remain as legal entities, that will have a dramatic impact on what the committee can or cannot do for County Cork. I asked a colleague of mine in the other House to table a question but he was unable to get clear, precise information.
I ask the Minister of State to take my question to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and arrange for us to get the factual answer next week to the question of whether north, west and south Cork will remain the separate entities they legally are with their managers, divisional engineers and directors of services. Once we know that, we can then make submissions about reconfigurating the council areas. It is crucial that we receive that information because there is no point in us making submissions until we know how County Cork is being treated. I would appreciate if the Minister for State could arrange for the Minister to either make a decision or clarify any decision that has already been made in respect of County Cork. I appreciate the Minister of State's answer but my question still requires a full and precise answer.
I assure the Senator that his query and concerns will be conveyed to the Minister as soon as possible. As I have said, if the Senator wishes to make a submission to the committee on foot of the information obtained or provided by the Minister, he is free to do so and I am sure the committee would welcome his comments given that he was a member of the local authority and one of the youngest members in the country at the time of his election. It is great to see that he is still a publicly-elected representative.