Seanad debates

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Adjournment Matters

Local Government Reform

6:05 pm

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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Tráthnóna, is mian liom an rún i dtaca leis an mBille rialtas áitiúil atá ag dul trí Tithe an Oireachtais faoi láthair a phlé, mar go bhfuil an Bille seo ag teacht in am ina bhuil go leor ceisteanna á ardú, chan amháin sa tír seo ach ag leibhéal na hEorpa. Mar shampla, since 2007 the Council of Europe has consistently warned of a general shift towards greater centralisation in Europe and Ireland. The Local Government Bill 2013 is nothing to do with reform but is a drastic attempt simply and naively to reduce overall Government expenditure. By definition "reform" should mean improvement or changing with the modern era but the abolition of town councils and democracy in the Bill is nothing to do with reform. On 31 October 2013 the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe recommended that the Irish authorities revise the Local Government Bill to ensure the subsidiarity principle is better enshrined and protected. It stated that the importance of this (subsidiarity) principle is not adequately reflected in the local government reform legislation. It further encouraged the Government to revise the legislation to ensure the subsidiarity principle is better enshrined and protected in law and to promote this crucial principle and practice in Irish public administration.

The principle of subsidiarity is fundamental to the functioning of the EU, specifically to European decision making, in particular the principle determines when the EU is competent to legislate and contribute to decisions being taken as closely as possible to the citizen, particularly at town council level. The principle of subsidiarity is established across the EU, including in Ireland, under Article 5 of the treaty on the European Union. It appears alongside two other principles that are also considered essential to European decision making, namely conferral and proportionality.

The Irish people overwhelmingly passed a referendum in 1999 which gave recognition for the first time in Irish law to local government structures being recognised in the Constitution, under Article 28A. That created a legitimate expectation that local government structured as it was at the time would continue to be voted on every five years in town and county council elections. The doctrine of legitimate expectation regarding town councils is being eradicated under the proposed legislation coming forward under the Local Government Bill without any consultation whatsoever by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister, Deputy Hogan.

I am not saying this. Fine Gael town councillors up and down the country are saying it. Last week a prominent Fine Gael county councillor in Mayo spoke on this issue locally and nationally. The members of Westport Town Council, controlled by Fine Gael, have written a very comprehensive document on this issue and I salute them for the work they have done in consultation with Fianna Fáil councillors. I mention Fine Gael councillors in particular because a Fine Gael-led Government is introducing this abolition Bill. The Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, is not responsible for this area but I call on the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan and the Government to park or suspend this legislation, listen to councillors up and down the country, particularly town councillors who represent the citizen at the closest possible level. A number of town councillors have spoken publicly on this.

I also call on the Government to listen to the recommendation from the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe and its rapporteurs who are concerned that consultation with local authorities and their associates has not occurred in this country. They also call for the legislation to be suspended or parked until adequate consultation happen with each town council.

I call for the Bill to parked or suspended, that 2014 be used as local government consultation year, not local government abolition year. Let us use it to talk to the people around the country about local government. When one examines it across Europe it is very interesting. We will put ourselves at the top of the pile regarding the average population per local authority. In France there is a local authority for every 1,500 people. In Germany there is one for every 6,500. We will move to the top of the pile and be less democratic than all the other OECD countries and will have one local authority for every 139,800 people.

We are going to make this the least democratic country in the OECD. What we are actually doing is following the UK example. The State broke with the Britain and we established our own local government structures under Michael Collins. We are now disenfranchising and going back to the same principle of local government that has evolved in the North of Ireland and throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. This is wrong because there has been no consultation. I am not the one who is saying this; I am only conveying the message on behalf of town councillors throughout the country. I ask the Minister of State whether he agrees that there needs to be more consultation and that the Bill should be parked.

6:15 pm

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Seanadóir as an ábhar seo a ardú. Tá mé ag seasamh isteach don Aire, an Teachta Hogan, nach féidir leis a bheith anseo.

I inform the Senator and the House that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government did have a very successful trip to County Donegal at the weekend, where I understand he addressed a public meeting in Ballyshannon at which many of these issues were addressed. I believe his contribution was very impressive and that people's fears and concerns were allayed to a great extent. While I was not present at the meeting, I have read the media reports on what happened.

I am glad to have the opportunity to provide a policy context and some detail in the context of the Local Government Bill 2013, with particular reference to changes at sub-county level, a matter which has been raised on the Adjournment of the House a number of times recently. As Members are aware, the Government's action programme for effective local government, published in October 2012, sets out Government policy decisions on a range of measures to reform and strengthen local government structures, functions, funding, governance and operational arrangements. Chapter 6 of the action programme sets out arrangements to replace town councils with a new comprehensive model of municipal governance based on principal towns and designed to strengthen local government within counties and address weaknesses and anomalies in the current system.

Local government reform has been the subject of deliberation and discussion for many years. The process of consultation, prior to the current reform programme, effectively began with the public consultations in the context of the 2008 Green Paper on local government and has continued in the context of the 2012 action programme, the current Bill and specific aspects of the reform agenda such as the alignment of community and local development with local government and implementation of the local government efficiency review. These previous deliberations and consultations helped to inform the development of reform proposals in the action programme.

Since coming to office, the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, has considered submissions from and held discussions with the local government representative associations, individual local authorities and other interested groups and individuals. He also invited each individual councillor in the country to submit views to him on a number of issues relating to local government reform to help in finalising the production of last year's action programme. Following the publication last year of the reform action programme, a specific structured process was put in place for engagement with the local authority members' associations in the local government reform implementation process. This took the form of a working group for engagement with, and input by, the associations in regard to the development of the legislative provisions, including those relating to sub-county reorganisation, thereby providing a direct conduit for input and involvement by councillors in the reform implementation process. I record appreciation for the positive engagement on the part of the members' associations which has helped to inform the provisions included in the Bill.

The content of local government reform legislation was, of course, a matter for Government decision in the first instance and is now the subject of Oireachtas scrutiny and debate in the normal way. The Minister will be giving careful consideration to relevant issues, views and suggestions raised in that context within the parameters of the policy decisions taken by the Government.

Without question, the sub-county reform in the action programme is a radical departure and the decision to change fundamentally our approach to local government arrangements within counties was not taken lightly. It was taken, for example, in the full knowledge that town councils had enjoyed advantages such as proximity to citizens and the ability to respond to local needs. There is also a considerable element of history, heritage and civic status associated with town authorities. However, these strengths cannot hide the fact that the existing system of town local government contains glaring weaknesses, including limited functions, outdated boundaries, duplication of administration and insufficient scale to maximise efficiency or support expertise or resources to carry out a range of complex functions. This duplication is illustrated, for example, by the fact that in Tipperary, a county with a population of just under 160,000, there are nine local authorities involving nine sets of elections, nine annual budgets, nine annual reports, nine corporate plans, nine development plans and many other examples of political and administrative duplication. Similarly, a situation where town councillors nationally account for 46% of all local authority representatives but represent only 14% of the population is not sustainable in a modern, democratic society.

The new model of municipal governance will address these and other limitations. Equally, there is no reason whatsoever the strengths and qualities associated with many town councils cannot be extended beyond the "town walls", as it were, to embrace the wider hinterlands of the towns which are linked with them for a range of social, commercial, educational, employment and other purposes. Municipal districts will cover the entire territory of each county, reflecting European norms, removing outdated boundaries and ending the anomaly of small towns having municipal status and dual representation, while some larger centres and rural areas lack any sub-county governance. The performance of appropriate functions by members at county and district levels, respectively, will result in greater effectiveness than the current parallel town and county system. The allocation of functions between county and district levels will be determined on the basis of what is most relevant to each level. Local matters will be dealt with at municipal district level, while those of wider strategic application will be decided at county level.

The new sub-county governance arrangements will deliver the administrative and operational efficiency of a single county-wide organisation, while bringing county council decision making closer to local communities by virtue of assigning a range of reserved functions to elected members at district level, improving accountability and responsiveness. The increased measure of subsidiarity which the new sub-county arrangements will bring has been recognised in the recent report on local democracy in Ireland, published on 30 October by the Congress of the Council of Europe. While drawing attention to certain weaknesses in Ireland's system of local government which have developed over the decades and which the current reform programme is designed to address , the report specifically welcomed the action programme for effective local government which it referred to as "ambitious" and endorsed particular measures in it, including the structural changes at sub-county level.

Some people have disingenuously tried to suggest the Council of Europe has criticised the Bill because the congress report recommended changes in "legislation". In fact, what the report was referring to was the current legislation, since the report was drafted well before the Local Government Bill was published. On the specific issue of the replacement of town councils by municipal districts, the Council of Europe's report had the following to say:

In the rapporteurs' opinion, the structural changes are a positive element of the proposed reform, as it provides a solution to an unfair situation whereby those living in towns had two votes as compared to the rural areas which had one. It also simplifies the structure. These changes are also expected to be followed by other important steps, including greater subsidiarity, avoidance of duplication, a review of boundaries, better representational balance between urban and rural areas and a cohesive administrative/executive reorganisation.
There could hardly be a clearer endorsement of the reforms. This is entirely consistent with the fact that two amendments critical of Ireland's reform programme were voted down in the Council of Europe chamber by a large majority of the representatives of local authorities from across Europe.

I will refer back briefly to the overall local government reform programme by reminding Members that the core purpose of the programme is to put local government in a position to deliver better services, amenities and governance to communities by strengthening the structures, finances and operations generally of the system. In the context of future governance arrangements within counties, the principle of strength through unity will be a key factor in ensuring these objectives are delivered on to the benefit of all communities, urban and rural. The Local Government Bill 2013 reflects the benefits of consultation to date, the extensive studies undertaken of local government during the years and the input provided from a range of sources, not least the elected members of local authorities.

Different views are an inherent feature of democratic debate but the status quoin local government is not a realistic option. Change inevitably involves difficult decisions. It is a responsibility of the Government to take decisions that will make a real difference and the decisions that the Government have made will bring significant net benefits to local government and the communities it serves. They will deliver on the vision set out in the action programme on making local government the primary vehicle of governance and public service at local level.

6:25 pm

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State's response did not address my question. He selectively quoted the Council of Europe but the chair of the monitoring committee of the Council specifically asked the Government not to pass the legislation until adequate consultation has taken place with local authorities. In regard to the principle of subsidiarity, the report recommended that the recommendation be revised in order to ensure that principle is better enshrined in and protected by law, to promote best practice in Irish public administration as set out in article 5 of the founding treaty.

On the issue of consultation, 14% of the Irish population live in areas governed by town councils. There is one town councillor for every 865 of these people. That ratio will now decrease to one councillor per 4,830 people. That is a major democratic shift. If the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government wants consultation, why has he failed to meet the elected members of Letterkenny Town Council despite umpteen requests? He was in Letterkenny last week but he failed to meet the members of the council. I attended a public meeting in the town on the issue and I am aware that similar views are being expressed in town councils all over the country. It is time for consultation not abolition. The people spoke on the Government's recent attempt to abolish the Seanad and I believe if the people in these towns were given an opportunity to speak, they would not agree with the Minister in this regard.

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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I do not agree with the Senator. I have outlined comprehensively the widespread consultation that took place with organisations representing members of local government bodies. They were invited to make submissions and, given that the legislation is currently going through the Oireachtas, it is difficult to imagine that the Minister would have a bilateral meeting with a town council here or there. The consultations have taken place and the Minister was available at another function in Donegal. I do not want to be parochial but I happened to be at the function and I am aware that he addressed the matter extensively. The fears expressed by those in attendance were allayed by his comments. Senator Ó Domhnaill can cite the Council of Europe but I have quoted an expansive and positive response from it to the Bill.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 13 November 2013.