Monday, 8 February 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Local Government Reform
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke, to the House and I thank for his time. He is familiar with Galway and I am hopeful that will help the case.
In Irish terms, Galway is a massive geographic county, inclusive of four offshore islands. It is the second largest county by land mass in the country. It takes two and a half hours to travel from west Connemara to the county border in Ballinasloe. It is too large an area to be served by one council. This will result in less connection with people of the county and diminish the importance of current electoral areas. The needs of Connemara and Galway city are very different and neither will be best served by a merger. My colleague, Senator Eugene Murphy, will elaborate further on that in his contribution.
International research of mergers of councils in other countries, primarily the UK and Australia, shows that bigger does not equal better. Irish local authorities are already large in size and they constitute some of the largest local councils in the OECD. Prior to the 2014 local government reforms, Ireland's average local authority size was approximately 40,000 residents. Now, with 31 local authorities, the average size is 150,000 residents, with the EU and OECD average less than 140,000. The population of County Galway is well in excess of 250,000 people. When combined with the geographic area already mentioned, it is clear both councils are required to serve the people of the county effectively.
The staffing and resources issue identified by the 2018 review, which found that both councils were significantly underfunded in comparison with other councils across the country, is a far more important issue to resolve. The advisory group stated that this funding shortfall must be addressed before any discussions regarding a merger could commence.
The Leas-Chathaoirleach is taking up my time. An allocation of €1 million was assigned to Galway County Council last September. In areas where synergies and savings can be made, for example, library services, fire services and salaries, this is already happening and this can continue in other areas, if justified, on a financial basis without the need for a merger. In the consultation process there was an almost united front on the part of elected representatives that this merger should not proceed. Aside from local representatives, the overwhelming majority of general submissions received did not support the proposed merger. Frankly, ignoring such widespread opposition to the proposal undermines the purpose of the consultation process and undermines the recommendation which ignored this opposition.
There are more than 275,000 people in the Galway city and county region. Senator Crowe and I spoke about this issue a couple of weeks ago, following which we decided to raise this matter jointly. I am concerned about the towns along the Roscommon-Galway border such as Ballinasloe, which I am convinced is suffering because its town council was removed, but we are hoping to have reinstated. Other towns such as Ballygar, Glenamaddy, Dunmore, Williamstown and Newbridge will suffer if this merger goes ahead. It is the wrong decision, although I acknowledge it is only at the consultation phase.While we can share services, we must keep the two areas separate - the county council and the city council. We must remember Galway city has huge potential and is growing and, as Senator Crowe said, it has a big rural spread as well. I would be in favour of keeping the city council and county council in place.
I thank Senators Crowe and Murphy for putting down this Commencement matter.
First, I will give the historical context. In 2015, a Galway local government committee unanimously recommended the establishment of a new unified Galway authority on the basis that it would maximise the potential of the region to maintain, secure and grow a sustainable economic base into the future, by combining the respective strengths of the two existing authorities in terms of resources, staff and expertise. On foot of that recommendation, the Galway expert advisory group was established in December 2016 to carry out further detailed examination and planning. The group engaged extensively with key stakeholders in the course of its work, including elected members from both councils, the County and City Management Association, the Association of Irish Local Government, the Local Authority Members Association and also with members of the public.
The merger of Galway City Council and Galway County Council to create a single administrative area was recommended unanimously by the advisory group in April 2018. It was noted that the merger would allow Galway to maximise funding opportunities under the national planning framework. It noted that this was all the more urgent in order to capitalise on the funding opportunities under the national planning framework and drive the development of Galway in the context of its regional, national and international remit. This recommendation was endorsed by a Government decision in June 2018 and provisions to give effect to the policy decision were included in the Local Government Bill 2018. The provisions to create a new unified Galway authority passed all Stages in the Dáil but were defeated in the Seanad and withdrawn to allow the rest of the 2018 Bill to proceed.
While the logic underpinning the recommendations of the advisory group remains, a review of those recommendations should include fresh consultations to take account of, in particular, the local government administrative and governance developments since 2018. The track record of previous mergers, such as those in Limerick city and county and those in Waterford city and county, have been positive and this should inform the reviews of the advisory group's recommendations.
While the new review has not yet commenced, I would welcome input from Members of the Oireachtas and I am grateful to Senator Crowe and Senator Murphy for giving me the opportunity to update the Seanad on this important matter. With the next local elections not due to take place until 2024, there is an opportunity to revisit the matter, to engage in very careful consultation and to revert in due course with a clear recommendation. Should any colleagues in the Oireachtas have any specific observations to make in this regard, I would be grateful if they could contact my Department and we will in due course commence the review and take them into account.
I thank Minister of State, Deputy Burke, for his response. What I am asking for is that the Government would focus on addressing the funding issues which were identified previously. As my colleague Senator Murphy outlined, we want more people in our city and county involved in the political process. As the Minister of State knows, the census was deferred to this year, but one is talking about in the region of 250 to 275,000 people even though all councils have in the region of 150,000. As I have outlined, there is synergy and savings in a number of areas that are justified and welcome. However, when one looks at the broad range of the city and county of Galway, there is a vast geographical reason for this. I will leave it at that for now.
I welcome the Minister of State's statement. It is quite consolatory in terms of reviews and allowing for more points to be made if we need to make them.
The one region in Ireland that is underdeveloped, that needs to be developed and that would bring great hope to Ireland is the west. If we go through with a move like this in Galway, it will stifle proper community development centred in the county of Galway and Galway city.It is very important that we realise it is a very underdeveloped area. In my view - I disagree with the learned people on the advisory committee on this - having spoken to people on the ground, it would stifle the future development of Galway county and Galway city.
I thank both Senators for putting down the Commencement matter and their outline of the financial circumstances that pertain in both local authorities.
Before the budgetary process, I met the city manager and their team as well as the county manager and their team in respect of the pressures on discretionary funding from our parking, swimming pools and leisure facilities. Both are very progressive and we look forward to working with them in the future and working with both Senators. The context and the discussions about mergers are controversial. There is no doubt in that. Hopefully, if we all work together through this review, we will be able to get an outcome that can meet the needs of the citizens of Galway, because there is huge potential in Galway. I spent probably the best three years of my life in the National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG. It was very enjoyable. The city has huge potential as does the county.