Thursday, 21 January 2016
Local Government Reform
I am grateful for the opportunity to ask the Minister of State to outline the current position regarding the promised review of the 2014 local authority boundaries, workload and ancillary matters. The reform of local government in 2014, which resulted in the abolition of town councils and the creation of municipal districts, was a sea change in local government. In retrospect, many people have come to the conclusion that some of the changes have had a negative impact. In particular, there is a growing view that local government structures at town and community level must be reviewed again. I am sure many municipal districts are working effectively, but some of them are large. For example, a number in County Cork are 18 miles long. Once a municipal district is of that scale, the word "local" is removed from the concept of local government and local democracy. We are more than three years away from the next local government elections. Unfortunately, these elections are held on a fixed five-year basis, but we have time to plan ahead.
In the immediate aftermath of the changes, a number of senior and junior Ministers, led by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, stated that they felt a review was required and consideration should be given to a town council structure in particular. If there is a willingness to do that, we must look beyond the traditional town councils. Many large towns and urban areas never had a town council, and I hope that a review would consider areas where new structures are required. What is the current status of the operational review? Where is it heading from the point of view of its thinking and philosophy on local government reform and local structures? We still complain in this country about top-down decision-making in Brussels and about centralised thinking and political decision-making, but that is what have begun to do at local government level. If we want to empower and engage citizens and if we want communities to work with and on behalf of each other, driving local services, newer and small local government structures will be required.
I hope all of this is being considered in the review. I am simply seeking an update. Will the Minister of State put on the agenda the possibility of returning to sub-county structures by way of town and community or district councils? We are beginning to learn that removing councillors from communities was a retrograde step. Town councils and town councillors did not have all the answers, but they were a visible form of local government and local decision-making and people could engage almost on a daily basis with at least one of their town councillors. This brought local government and politics closer to people, which is where it should be. Smaller councils should have a role to play in the fruits of any review. I am seeking an update on the review and on the Minister of State's thinking. She served on a council in Kilkenny and she will be aware of the fantastic work that can be done in a non-political, non-partisan way at local government level. This was done on a daily basis without any fanfare and I would like to return to that place. I would like the Minister of State's views and observations.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue, as it gives me an opportunity to update the House on the matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. The majority of the policy decisions, first announced in the action programme for effective local government, Putting People First, and subsequently given statutory effect under the Local Government Reform Act 2014, came into effect on 1 June 2014. Those changes include enhanced roles for local authorities in economic development and local and community development; the dissolution of local authorities in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford and the establishment of new merged entities in their place; the replacement of town councils by municipal districts; and provision for the reconfiguration of regional structures. There were also a series of new governance arrangements, such as provision for an enhanced policy making role for elected members; new citizen participation measures; local authority service delivery plans; the redesignation of the position of manager to chief executive; stronger oversight powers for the elected council in the implementation of policy; and increased obligations on the executive in respect of the elected council.
The new structures and reform measures are still at an early stage of implementation, and it is likely to take a full five-year period of operation before a definitive assessment can be made. It is important, none the less, to ensure that the reformed system is operating effectively and as intended. To this end, the Minister initiated an operational review of new arrangements in 2015 involving an advisory group, on which both elected members and local authority chief executives are represented together with a local government forum for engagement with the Association of Local Government in Ireland. The feedback to date from these groups suggests that the revised structures are generally operating quite well but will need more time to bed down fully. The discussions at the forum indicate that there is no significant demand for any reversion to the pre-reform structures, and the Minister has indicated that this is not an option.However, if any adjustments to the operation of the system are needed, these can be considered.
One aspect on which concern has been raised is the pressure on councillors due to increased demands, and the Senator spoke of the size of the districts which a councillor now has to represent. This is partly a result of the increased governance, oversight and policy responsibilities of elected councils, which are positive developments in themselves. It also reflects issues that can be addressed in the future, such as the size of local electoral areas. There may also be issues around how council business is organised and the need to take account of the fact that local authority membership is not a full-time occupation for most councillors. I also stress the need for the executive to provide maximum support and appropriate facilities to enable the members to perform their new roles effectively. Already, some adjustments to the local authority budgetary process have been implemented arising mainly from the work of the advisory group. The next stage of the review process involves surveys of elected members and the executive in relation to the operation of the new structures and related matters. This process is well advanced and the results should be useful in helping the advisory group to report on how the system is operating and whether any adjustments might be warranted.
In conclusion, the Government’s intention in this area is that local government will act as the main vehicle of governance and public service at local level, with the potential for improved subsidiarity, coherence and efficiency resulting in better value for money and, ultimately, improved service delivery for citizens. The review that is now under way will provide a sound evidence base upon which to consider the operation of the new structures and arrangements generally and whether any further changes to local government and local democracy, structural or otherwise, are warranted.
Would the Minister of State agree that if the advisory group is made up of representatives of local authority chief executives etc., as we have learned here, and if, as we are being advised by the Minister, there is no going back to pre-reform days, then the people most affected by the changed structures, the people who would have represented town councils which have now disappeared, are not in a position to input into this dialogue? This is the converted speaking to themselves but the group needs to stretch beyond the comfort zone of the representatives of the current system. My argument, which I will keep pressing as strongly as I can, is that we need to look at the fact that local government is no longer local, given the size of our municipal districts and towns. Town councils and, in previous eras, town commissions and other such structures gave a very strong democratic imprint to their communities and people. While we are nationally demanding subsidiarity from Brussels and talking about the power of communities and local people, we are actually stripping away that power in the name of local government reform. I am disappointed that the Minister has indicated that a return is not an option. Clearly he is at odds with some of his party and Cabinet colleagues who have spoken in a different vein. I hope all possible structures of local government are being considered and not simply how to slightly improve the status quo.
The good news is that there is a three-year window until the next local elections and I am the first to concede that it is not the biggest issue on the doorstep but the concept of local government, local democracy and local representation at the lowest and most local level feasible is very important and we have to have a very open mind on the work of this advisory group. I would be very disappointed if its hands were already tied behind its back by what the Minister is saying is not on the table for discussion. I ask the Minister of State to pass my comments on to the Minister, Deputy Kelly. I am sure he is aware of the town councils in Templemore, Thurles, Nenagh and Cashel, all of which worked very effectively and gave us low-cost democracy in this country. I would like them not to be permanently consigned to the scrapheap.
I take the Senator's points on board and, perhaps at some point in the future, they will deserve to be debated. However, the process with the advisory group is well advanced and, because the process has begun, it is prudent to hear what the group has to say before we begin to make more changes and to see how the changes are bedding in before we try to undo the the process. I draw the Senator's attention to the fact that the Association of Local Government in Ireland could raise this issue and would do so in a very forceful way if it was a burning issue. The association represents the elected members and it is well able to do that. I have an open mind myself on this issue and if it is a burning issue then, after the general election, we can return to it, with the help of God.