Local Government Funding: Motion.

Wednesday, 29 April 1998

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 155 No. 7

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Mr. Coogan: Information on Fintan A. Coogan  Zoom on Fintan A. Coogan  I move:

That Seanad Éireann condemns the Government for its failure to adequately consult all interested parties on its plans for the restructuring and financing of Local Government.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, to the House. He has a wealth of experience in local government having served on Galway County Council and Galway Corporation where he was a colleague of mine. I want to extend my thanks to the Leader for the extra time he is allowing for the Private Members' debate on this issue. Hopefully, as many speakers as possible will have an opportunity to air their views on a subject close to their hearts. That is important as a majority of the Members of this House are elected by, and representative of, local authorities. An indication of the importance of the Private Members' debate can be seen in the number of Senators who have indicated their desire [416] to speak on the issue. I doubt whether, in spite of the Leader's generosity, everyone will have an opportunity to make a contribution in the time allocated.

The call for the Private Members' debate and the proposal of the motion that Seanad Éireann condemn the Government for its failure to adequately consult all interested parties on its plans for the restructuring and financing of local authorities are not undertaken lightly nor with the intention of simply attacking the Government, something which is a prerogative of Opposition. I have moved this motion because I, and many of my colleagues, feel there has been inadequate consultation in regard to the proposed funding for local government.

The current proposals to finance local authorities through motor taxation are much more onerous on motorists than the system advocated by the previous Government which decided, in the summer of 1996, to provide for a maximum increase of 6 per cent on motor taxation over a three year period. The current Administration, however, proposes a mandatory increase of 6 per cent over a period of less than 21 months. This places an unfair burden on motorists and penalises people who cannot avail of public transport and must use their private cars, something which is particularly true of rural areas.

The position in regard to motor taxation is that any necessary future increase in funding will be ensured through increased sales in the car market. There is a touch of “live horse and eat grass” about these proposals in so far as there is no guarantee that Irish people will buy more cars in the future. Can the Minister guarantee that the Celtic tiger economy will continue into the future?

The number of cars per 1,000 of population in Ireland is 246 while the average in Europe is 428. In real terms then, car ownership in Ireland is only half the European average. In fact, we are second from the bottom in the European league of car ownership. This would appear to indicate that there will possibly be a rise in the number of cars sold in Ireland in the future.

Leaving the motor tax element aside we move to the more contentious issue which was the basis of the Fine Gael motion. Originally called the equalisation fund it is simply called the fund in the Bill. This contribution of £270 million will, unfortunately, not come into being until 1999. This means that local government will continue to be under-funded until then and may continue to be under-funded even subsequent to that date, in spite of index linking.

I welcome the provision that the base line will be amended to take account of any additional functions that local authorities may take on. However, I would like the Minister to explain to this side of the House the exact basis on which these provisions will be amended. Does he mean that local government will be taking on extra functions and will receive an increase in their contribution [417] or does he mean that if a local authority sees an opportunity to provide better or new services or identifies a development necessary for the local infrastructure the base line provision will be amended to allow the local authority to carry out that particular project? In other words, if it was decided that a county such as Leitrim with a declining population was to be the location for a new city, would the local authority in Leitrim be allowed to request money from the fund which would leave other authorities denuded? I return to the nub of the argument. There has been a lack of consultation and we simply do not know what will be provided.

In 1996, during a debate on local government reform in Dublin Castle, as chairperson of the General Council of County Councils I proposed to the then Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, the establishment of an independent commission to decide on the distribution of Exchequer contributions. This proposed group would contain representatives of managers, local authorities and a member from each of the major representative bodies such as the General Council of County Councils, LAMA and the AMAI. The proposal was greeted with horror by the Minister who immediately denied the need for such a commission. I said to him, and I say now, that local authority members should be represented. They have a wealth of experience and knowledge and a major contribution to make with regard to such funding. Many have expressed anger at their exclusion, feeling that it is a slight upon them, almost indicating that they are incapable of carrying out such duties.

I can think of no reason for the exclusion of councillors' representatives from whatever group or committee the Minister has established to decide on the distribution of the Exchequer fund particularly as local authority members are the people most affected in the distribution of funds. Can the Minister explain why councillors have been taken out of the loop? Will he consult with representative groups so that they can ensure that equity and fairness underpins any decision made with regard to the £125 million fund?

We are approaching the centenary of the establishment of local government in Ireland and it is right that we reflect on the contribution that local government, and local authority members, have made. These contributions have largely gone unrecognised and unrewarded. Local government has made an impressive contribution to the social and economic life of the state. The much vaunted Celtic tiger is presented as a triumph of social partnership and enterpreneurial spirit. There is truth in this but neither social partnership nor enterpreneurial spirit could have made any progress were it not for the foundations put in place by local authorities over many years. It is right that we remind ourselves of the variety and vastness of this contribution in areas such as the establishment of our universities, — a little recognised fact — the development of second level [418] vocational education and unglamorous but essential work such as water and sewerage network provision and the building and maintenance of national and local roads. These are just some examples of how county and city councils have put in place the solid and concrete foundations which form the bedrock of our current economic success.

On a social level the provision of housing by local authorities both directly and through loans and other supports has contributed greatly to the social fabric of our urban and rural areas. I recognise that mistakes were made in the past although the concentration of house building in large numbers at a time met a real and pressing need. Local authorities have moved on from simply building houses and are also, in a real sense, building communities through the leadership of estate management schemes and similar social initiatives. I trust the Minister is reminded of such management schemes.

In a totally different area the cultural and artistic dimensions have been supported by local government through the provision of libraries and arts development services and through the establishment of such staff members as arts officers. From all of this we can see that local government has influenced vast areas of Irish life for the better as befits a sector which accounts for more than 10 per cent of public spending each year.

Local government, in a less tangible but very real way, has provided access to the democratic process for generations since before the foundation of the State. The General Council of County Councils, of which I am a member and which I have the honour of representing in the House through their nomination, will mark its centenary next year in parallel with the centenary of the foundation of the network of county and city councils under the Local Government Act, 1898. This centenary marks 100 years of democratic participation, education and the creation of a cultural service to public life which has served many people well in this House and in Dáil Éireann.

An area of concern for local authority members has been the growth of an array of partnership groups in the comparatively recent past. These groups work with little or no connection to the democratically elected statutory local bodies. While I accept that many of these groups are doing very good work and have shown an ability to be flexible in their response to the needs of their immediate areas, I am concerned that in the long term we are simply giving rise to a new network of organisations which will prove superfluous. The network or city and county councils which is already in place can carry out all of those functions.

The General Council of County Councils is the statutory representative body for Ireland's county and city councils. It has been participating in and monitoring the process of local government [419] reform over the past two or three years. It has participated in influencing such bodies as the All Party Committee on the Constitution and the Devolution Commission and, through the Department of the Environment and Local Government, the general council has left no stone unturned in influencing the process to ensure that the status and role of local authorities and their members is enhanced to the greatest possible degree.

In spite of such representation and the influence which they have had in the reform of local government, local authority members are to be excluded from one of the most important aspects of local government — the distribution of funding.

The General Council of County Councils has been constructive and realistic regarding local government reform and has worked successfully to suggest to elected members that this kind of partnership is the way forward. There was an understandable and deep seated concern among members about this development but it was assuaged to a degree by the Government's intention, spelt out in the Better Local Government Report, that there would be a full linkage between the local development groups and the local authorites through a specialised SPC to be known as the community and enterprise groups.

The CEGs would link the main players in a given county in the area of local development with the local authority, cut down on overlap, improve co-operation, and make the best use of resources to deliver co-ordinated improvements to the enterprise climate of counties. The General Council of County Councils must register mounting alarm that this concept is not being carried through with the speed that was promised. The guidelines issued by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government last November did not carry a single mention of CEG groups.

These are some of the important, though far from all issues which councillors and representative bodies have raised with me. Our main concerns are who will decide on how money will be distributed and why local authority members were excluded from the body or committee which will be make such decisions.

Mr. Burke: Information on Paddy Burke  Zoom on Paddy Burke  I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, and congratulate him on the frequency with which he appears in the House. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government seems very reluctant to come to the House to debate this issue. The result is that we had no choice but to table this motion for discussion in Private Members' time. I thank the Leader for his courteous concession in allowing a continuance of the debate during Private Members' time next week. This was the only way forward as it appears the Minister would not come before the House in any other circumstances. We have no quibble [420] with the Minister of State as he is a frequent attender in the House.

There has been much speculation regarding what will happen in the context of the reform and financing of local government; most people are in the dark. The motion proposed states that the Minister has failed to consult all interested groups and we condemn this failure. The Minister has not adequately consulted all such groups, least of all this House. The Seanad is an ideal place to debate this issue as the majority of Members are elected by local authorities. I have no doubt that many issues will be raised in the debate and that many fine contributions will be made which will be of benefit to the Minister in bringing to a conclusion his final draft for the reform and financing of local government.

Local authorities have been a tried and tested tool in the building of the State over the past 75 years. Next year the centenary of the establishment of local authorities will be celebrated. All we need to do is build on the very good system which exists and which has been proven. There is no doubt about the need for change in some parts of the system but on the whole it has been tried and tested.

Local authorities should have more power to raise finances locally. Receiving power necessitates the taking of decisions and I think councillors and local authorities will make the right decisions if they are given the power to do so, something they have proved in the past. Over the past 25 years the powers of local authorities have been whittled away. In the past number of years many powers, which have caused difficulty for successive Ministers for the Environment and Local Government, have been given back to local authorities. These include responsibility for taxis. Giving power to local authorities in relation to this issue has proved disastrous in places such as Mayo, for example, which has four local authorities — a county council and three urban councils — and no authority can make a decision on this matter on its own. Hackneys, for example, can apply for licences inside the urban boundary to the urban council or outside an urban boundary to the county council. Urban councils may decide to licence taxis while the county council can grant hackney licences outside the urban boundary. It is a complete disaster for local authorities. In Mayo, one local authority — the county council — should have been given power to make decisions for the entire county. We have seen a number of such powers being granted to local authorities over the years.

I agree with the Minister about the establishment of strategic policy committees and compliment him on bringing forward this initiative. These will be very useful in helping councillors and local authorities to be more deeply involved in the running of local government because there will be more transparency and openness. This is the way forward. The Minister has indicated that he will operate the committees on a two year [421] basis. If this is the case I suggest to the Minister of State, who has vast experience of local authorities over many years, that local authority elections should take place every six rather than every two years. This would mean there would be three strategic policy committee terms in each council period. Otherwise the committees will only last for one year as either the first or second year will cut across an election period. I ask the Minister to examine this issue.

Over the past number of years there has been no corruption in local authorities; the system is transparent. Over the same period there has been power sharing among all parties on local authorities. This is a great system and power sharing and strategic policy committees are the way forward. I ask the Minister to indicate the role urban councils, whose inclusion in the strategic policy committees was an afterthought, will play in the way forward.

Councillors have played a very important role in the local authority system. They have all acted in good faith; I have never seen an councillor who has acted otherwise. They should be properly remunerated by means of an annual payment which would be useful and should be generous as they perform an excellent function in county structures.

Mr. Walsh: Information on Jim Walsh  Zoom on Jim Walsh  I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following:

“Seanad Éireann welcomes the initiative by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to enhance and strengthen local democracy and local government, particularly:

— the provision of £125m additional funding as recently provided for in the Local Government Bill, 1998,

— the increased role of councillors through the Strategic Policy Committees,

— the practical commitment to the policy of equalisation being shown by the initiative of needs and resources studies in the local authorities,

— the further commitment to a major package of reform prior to local elections 1999,

— and notes his commitment to dialogue and discussion with all interested parties, including local authority members and local authority representative bodies, and his open invitation to members of the Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government to bring forward ideas.”

I read with some surprise the motion of the Fine Gael Party because it “condemns the Government [422] for its failure to adequately consult”. I would suggest to Senator Burke, who said that he found himself a little in the dark as to what was happening in local government, that if he consults his colleagues, Senator Coogan, Senator Jackman or Senator Ridge, who are all colleagues of mine on LAMA, they will be in a position to fill him in on many of the plans and ideas of the Minister for the improvement and enhancement of local government. The level of consultation which has taken place is almost unprecedented.

Mr. Burke: Information on Paddy Burke  Zoom on Paddy Burke  Where is the Minister now?

Mr. Walsh: Information on Jim Walsh  Zoom on Jim Walsh  The Minister has in fact been here on a number of occasions and the Minister of State is probably one of the most frequent visitors to this House.

Mr. Burke: Information on Paddy Burke  Zoom on Paddy Burke  I acknowledged that.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Brian Mullooly  Zoom on Brian Mullooly  Senator Walsh without interruption. The Senator's time is limited to eight minutes so please allow him to proceed without interruption.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Mr. Molloy): Information on Robert Molloy  Zoom on Robert Molloy  On a point of information, the Minister is not here because he is in the US signing an important international environmental agreement on behalf of this country.

Mr. Walsh: Information on Jim Walsh  Zoom on Jim Walsh  That is a valid reason. It must be said in fairness to the Minister that I am a member of Wexford County Council for 18 years and I have never before seen a Minister come to a meeting of the country council to outline his thoughts and ideas for local government and invite questions, comments and contributions from the floor. My understanding is that the Minister has done that throughout practically all of the county councils at this stage. There are only a few exceptions which remain to be visited. That shows tremendous openness on his part.

Senator Coogan will also be familiar with the fact that the Minister attended an executive meeting of LAMA in Longford where again he outlined his ideas and participated in a question and answer session. Only in the past two weeks he spent two and a half hours at our conference one Saturday morning in Rosslare, where there were probably between 200 and 300 councillors in attendance who questioned him on his suggestions on what was likely to emerge from the consideration of the renewal of local government. There was the national planning conference and the national conference on SPCs which were widely attended. Therefore, the criticism of the Minister is totally unjustified. On the contrary, he must be complimented on the level of consultation and the way he has made himself available to the practitioners who are involved in local government and who are the people who should [423] be listened to in framing the changes which are to take place.

We have seen a major and significant change in the financing of local government this year with the Finance Act. Senator Coogan mentioned that he was concerned about the motor tax situation, but I remind him that it was the Government of which his party was a member which introduced the utilisation of motor tax for local government and who made provision for local authorities to increase it by up to 6 per cent. All the Minister has done is apply that 6 per cent to a fund to ensure the security of resources on an ongoing basis for local authorities around the country. He has gone further by ensuring that the fund will keep pace with inflation and that will be underpinned by legislation. It will be ringfenced; it cannot be removed and used for other Exchequer uses. It is a substantial fund in that there is an increase of £125 million in the funding available to local authorities. When it comes to 1999 the benefits and the positive step which has been taken in making this extra funding available, which amounts to some 27 per cent, will be evident to local government and to the people we serve at that level. It ill behoves a party which participated in Government for the removal of water charges, which was an independent source of funding for local authorities, to be critical now of any steps with regard to funding and to be shedding crocodile tears in regard to the position of local authorities.

Local government is huge business. It employs over 30,000 people and expends more than £2 billion annually. The renewal programme which has been announced by the Minister, which he discussed with all of us and with which we are all familiar, includes one stop shops, strategic policy committees which will restore the position of the councillor to centre stage with regard to policy making, and will also incorporate the partnership theme which has done so much to underpin the economic improvements of the past decade. The Minister has also introduced the system of corporate policy groups which will surely play a pivotal role in administering local government over the next decades as we enter a new century, the second century of local government in this country.

The area committees will ensure the implementation of those policies. There are ideas like the direct election of chairmen of local authorities, which is a radical suggestion from the Minister. It is under active consideration at present in order to restore the democratic deficit. Anybody who has participated in local government will be aware that there has been a shift to the managerial officer/board side of local authorities which is not the way local democracy should operate.

All of that, the inclusive approach and the importance and significance which the Minister and the Minister of State are giving to local government, contrasts with some of the changes [424] made previously, particularly by the former Labour Party Minister, Deputy Quinn, where the chairs of county enterprise boards and participation on partnership boards were not available to members of county councils. All of that, in my opinion, was highly derogatory of the excellent contribution which councillors make at local level. The Minister deserves our compliments.

Councillors have been the policy makers and directors of local government. In many instances, they spend 30 to 40 hours per week working on a voluntary basis in the interests of their constituents. It is welcome that the Minister is also talking about recognising that contribution in a tangible way by looking at the inadequate expenses which councillors are paid, and the provision of a gratuity for those members who retire after long service at local level. I hope there will be a payment to councillors in recognition of the long hours involved and their hard work.

Rather than being critical, it would be nice to see the Opposition in a positive mode because this is the most exciting period in my term in local government. This is the dawn of a new era for local democracy. We can be confident that, with the experience of the Minister of State and Minister Dempsey, the changes made will be appreciative of the importance and significance which the local government system will play in the new century as we finish 100 years of service to the people of Ireland.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Mr. Molloy): Information on Robert Molloy  Zoom on Robert Molloy  Local government reform has been a topical issue for some time. The level of interest expressed on this matter reflects the importance of this sector in the life of each and every citizen, from the person applying for a local authority house, lodging a local improvement scheme application, applying for a group water scheme grant, and availing of the local authority's waste disposal service or water supply, down to the person borrowing a library book or returning it when it is long overdue. Local government has a substantial reach and we all come into contact with it each day. It is, therefore, in all our interests that this sector performs as well as it possibly can.

The public is a powerful and exacting consumer, demanding new and improved levels of service from all sectors, not least local government. This country is changing rapidly and local government must be able to change with it if it is to survive into the next century. However, for far too long local government in Ireland has been restricted in its ability to adapt to changing circumstances due to a number of inherent difficulties, including inadequate funding. This Government is committed to remedying these problems and ensuring that local government assumes its rightful place, centre stage, in the future administration of this country.

The case for reform and development of the [425] local government sector is not new; some of us have been advocating it for years. The publication of the Green Paper on local government reform when I was in the Department in the early 1970s is a key example, as is the Barrington report in the early 1990s when my party was in coalition. The question of local government funding is a critical element of any reforms in this area.

In An Action Programme for the Millennium we clearly outlined our commitment to restoring real power and decision-making to local authorities and local people through a range of measures. However, I emphasise that these commitments are not being pursued in a vacuum or an ivory tower. Since his appointment as Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey has used every available opportunity to inform the Oireachtas and the local authorities of the problems facing local authorities and the reform measures required. From the outset last July, he clearly and unambiguously set out the Government's policy on local government renewal to the annual conference of the General Council of County Councils. He outlined to councillors, the people at the heart of local government, what the Government hoped to achieve in partnership with them, their authorities and representative associations. I am aware that Members from all sides of this House were there and heard him on that occasion.

In addition, the Minister has met each of the three local authority associations on a number of occasions and submissions on the renewal of local government have been received from all the associations. Furthermore, all local authorities were invited to the launch of the new funding system in Athlone last January. The Minister has also travelled to the majority of county councils and borough corporations and on these occasions has engaged in lengthy and informative discussions with elected members.

Councillors are continuously being requested for their views. For example, less than two weeks ago the Minister was present at a conference attended by approximately 500 local public representatives. In an open forum he asked councillors to let him know their views on how they felt the local government system should be renewed. On an ongoing basis the representative associations continue to meet and liaise with the Department on a range of local government matters of mutual interest. The Minister has also given an open invitation to members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Local Government to let him have their views on how our local government system can best be renewed.

We are engaged in a substantial, far-reaching and radical programme of local government renewal. Action is taking place on a number of fronts in areas such as human resources, customer care, efficiency, effectiveness and so on. We are building on initiatives introduced by the previous [426] Government and bringing forward our own proposals where we feel these are worthwhile and needed. We did not say we were not prepared to run with ideas just because someone else thought of them first. We took the view that local government renewal is far too important to us all to become a mere political football. That is why we wasted no time in developing the strategic policy committees which were proposed by our predecessors. The SPCs will enable councillors to develop council policy in a more meaningful way than heretofore. It will enable councillors to stand back and see the big picture, the major issues, and they will have the administrative backup to do the job.

We have also consulted widely in relation to SPCs. Councillors and a range of interests were represented on a working group which laid the groundwork for guidelines on the establishment and operation of the SPCs. We issued comprehensive guidance based on the working group's work. In addition, the Minister held a useful and informative seminar on the SPCs for the cathaoirligh and leas-chathaoirligh of city and county councils. The seminar was highly participative and resulted in further guidance being issued to local authorities on the operation of these committees. The SPCs are now being set up at local level and consultation will continue. Later this year a group involving the relevant interests will be established to review and monitor experience of the operation of the SPC system.

The Minister will soon be bringing forward other elements of the programme of renewal for consideration and approval by the Government. The views of councillors, their associations, authorities and other interested parties will be taken into account. At the end of the day the Government will have to make its decisions in the light of all the factors and, ultimately, with regard to what it considers can best bring about the renewal which all of us who value local government want.

The programme will be underpinned by legislation which will consolidate and modernise local government law. This legislation will be substantial and will, once and for all, end the piecemeal approach of previous decades. The Bill I am speaking of will be designed not only to draw existing relevant local government legislation together but also to provide for the reform initiatives and to put in place the legislative framework for the local government system of the new millennium.

One of the major challenges in relation to local government renewal is the provision of a proper funding system. It is universally accepted that reform of this area is long overdue. For far too long local government has been denied the resources it needed to do its job properly. This problem has manifested itself in the current scenario where local authorities are struggling to maintain their existing level of services, to say nothing about expanding or improving the range of services provided. Another critical drawback [427] with the current funding system is the excessive control which the centre holds on how local authorities spend their money. This is the result of the way in which the system has evolved over time. A further difficulty is the lack of sufficient focus on value for money. The current funding system is just not good enough. If we are serious about local government and local democracy, then we must ensure that local authorities have enough money to get on with the job we expect of them. Otherwise, all other reform proposals will remain merely aspirational.

The previous Government's proposal in relation to local government funding was not right. While it provided some additional funding, it was not the answer. In particular, its proposal that the general purposes expenditure of local authorities would be funded by means of motor tax proceeds was especially flawed as it is wrong in principle to expect any one sector of the community to fund local government. This was no more than a short term stopgap exercise. What is now needed is a long-term solution to the problems facing local government.

To address the weaknesses in the current financing arrangements, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government has introduced a Bill to the Dáil which will provide the legislative basis for a new funding system. The key elements of this new system are the establishment of a statutory local government fund with effect from 1999 and financing non-national road improvements from national motor tax receipts. This statutory local government fund will comprise Exchequer funding and the proceeds of motor taxation. This system will inject funds of almost £600 million directly into the local authorities. This is a significant achievement, amounting to an increase of £125 million over the amount available when this Government took office last year.

We are all proud of this initiative. I am particularly proud of it because I have advocated for years the necessity to put local government funding on a statutory basis. Its absence has caused the erosion of the effectiveness and efficiency of the local government system and has resulted in its inability to maintain the level of services and to introduce necessary new services and initiatives. It was hamstrung due to lack of funding. This is a necessary and radical change.

A sum of £270 million will be provided in the Department's Vote in 1999 for the general purpose requirements of local authorities. It will be ring-fenced in legislation and used solely for local government purposes. This sum, which will be index-linked for future years — that is a critical part of this new system — will take account of the additional expenditure needs of local authorities identified by KPMG in its report, The Financing of Local Government in Ireland. It will also take account of the new functions and responsibilities placed on local authorities over the years without [428] the necessary resources. The legislation will contain special provisions to ensure that the baseline provision in any year can be altered to reflect any changes in the powers, functions and duties of local authorities. This is designed to ensure that no additional demands can be placed on local authorities without the matching funding. That is not the first time the Minister has said this. He said it in Athlone. I am surprised to hear Senator Coogan questioning this when the matter has already been explained in the public arena.

Income from the proceeds of motor tax will be used primarily to fund the non-national roads programme. This will establish a link between payment and benefit and demonstrate to the motorist that motor tax is being ploughed back into the roads network. Motoring groups will no longer be able to complain that motor tax is being swallowed up by central government.

As part of the new funding package motor tax rates will be increased by 3 per cent in 1998 and by a further 3 per cent in 1999. This proposal is designed to strike a balance between the need to address environmental issues and to recognise the necessity for many people to own cars. The proposed increases are therefore modest. For a 1200 cc engine car, this translates into an extra £10 in total — a minimal amount in the context of the overall cost of driving a car. To those who say that the motorist is an easy target, it should be noted that motor tax rates have not increased since 1992. In addition, the extra costs associated with motoring, such as air pollution and traffic management, have increased steadily every year. Furthermore, in an approach designed to reward the more environmentally friendly users of roads, tax rates for buses are being reduced significantly with rates for smaller buses being reduced proportionally more than for larger buses, which tend to emit more pollutants. Tax rates on taxis will also be reduced.

Lest anyone think that these measures are restricting local discretion and imposing too much central control, I would like to take this opportunity to refute this allegation and put on the record of this House that these new funding arrangements will do exactly the opposite. More money means more discretion. Lack of funding over the past few decades has meant that local authorities have had no real discretion in deciding on their spending priorities. All they could really do was try to maintain their essential services. By anyone's standards, this could not be regarded as local discretion or local democracy. However, by injecting significant additional resources into the local government system, the authorities will now be empowered to extend the quality and range of services they provide. Empowerment is the key.

All this extra funding, however, does not come without a price attached. Newfound wealth must be spent wisely. If local authorities want to be awarded greater discretion in how they spend their money, they must make, and be seen to make, the best possible use of the resources available [429] to them. In other words, as local authorities demonstrate that they are achieving greater value for money in service delivery, central control on local authorities will be loosened.

While local authorities have made considerable efforts to improve their efficiency in recent years more is now needed. Additional resources and improved efficiency must go hand in hand. The local government system we all want is one which gives value for money, is efficient and customer oriented. Local authorities will be required to demonstrate that they are capable of producing quality service at a competitive cost. To underpin this objective, work is under way in developing new financial and accounting systems for local authorities so that we can measure consistently the costs of providing different services. This will be completed as soon as possible; only then can we be confident that we are getting full value for money.

In addition, we are also developing some initial performance indicators so that the efficiency of local authorities can be measured and compared with other local authorities. We are also, working in partnership with local authorities, exploring new ways of working, eliminating outdated bureaucratic practices and making strides in utilising the best of modern technology.

An important element of the new funding structure is the need to identify the needs and resources of individual local authorities so that available funds will be distributed equitably. There has long been dissatisfaction in local government about the way in which the old rate support grant system was not fine tuned to respond to changing needs and circumstances. Given the magnitude of the new funding system proposed, the need for a more logical and focused distribution of funds becomes all the more urgent.

As a result, Galway County Council is currently undertaking a pilot study on its needs and resources — and those of the other local authorities in Galway — with a view to developing a model that can be applied to any local authority. It is the intention that this model will identify the various criteria which contribute to higher or lower costs across the various services and to build into the model the capacity of a local authority to raise funds locally. Once the outline of the model has been developed other local authorities will then become involved to broaden the scope and build in flexibility. I emphasise that this is a complex project to undertake and it will be some months before a clear picture emerges. However, it is a worthwhile exercise and will set out the parameters for the future. We need to measure the needs and resources of the various local authorities so that funding can be distributed in a fair manner.

All these measures will greatly assist local authorities in improving the way in which they do business. The commercial sector in particular will benefit through, for example, the availability of [430] better infrastructure and the ability of local government to be more responsive on key business issues. Furthermore, a proper funding system which provides local authorities with a level of resources commensurate with their requirements will enable the Government to put an end to the practice of placing an undue burden on the commercial sector through large increases in rates.

It is the Government's intention that rates will be capped from 1999. Details of this proposal will be available later in the year in plenty of time before the authorities adopt their 1999 estimates. However, we will take care to ensure that the rates burden on the commercial sector will be neither excessive nor disproportionate to other sectors of society. As a result there will be greater certainty in the whole area of local government funding. The commercial sector will know what it is expected to contribute to local government so that individual businesses can map out their financial commitments and plan accordingly. A lower rate in the pound and greater stability from year to year will also serve to increase competitiveness.

To conclude, this is a very exciting time for local government as we set out on an ambitious path designed to ensure that local government reaches its full potential as we approach the new millennium. Local government deserves ambitious plans which will be followed through. I am confident the success of these measures will place local government in its rightful place — centre stage — in Irish society. I assure this House that this Government will continue to listen to all those who are interested in developing local government, as it has done since before taking office last year.

I thoroughly commend this motion, as amended, to the House.

Mr. Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  I welcome the Minister of State. I am pleased the Government has taken on board some of the initiatives for change in a number of areas in local government formulated by my colleague, the Minister for the Environment in the previous Administration, Deputy Howlin.

It is appropriate that in this year, 1998, the centenary of the foundation of local government in Ireland, we should be preparing to examine the inadequacies in the local government system. These inadequacies exist, not because of the people who work in, or are members of, local government but for historical and financial reasons. I hope there will be a significant change before the end of the year.

The Local Government Bill, 1998, which is currently before the Oireachtas, is welcome and the area of local government being addressed by that legislation — funding — is crucial. Without a specific designated funding base local government has no power. The initiative was taken when the former Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, sought to ring fence motor tax revenue [431] as designated local government funding. The Department of Finance agreed to this annual funding and even to the flexibility accorded to local authorities to increase it as required.

That initiative was the key to the changes we are about to see. I am glad the Minister for the Environment and Local Government has, by and large, accepted the principle that local authority funding be secured through taxation, albeit with the inclusion of funding from the Exchequer. The key to successful and strong local government is that, to the greatest possible extent, it has access to separate and independent funding that is not dependent on the Exchequer, whose funding can vary with changes of Government or with changes in policy.

The second major failing in local government has been the ascendancy of the managerial system: the city or county manager makes the decisions, he or she has the clout to do so and is, in effect, an executive in a body that is otherwise elected by the people. That is not correct. The Minister makes decisions, not his or her civil servants who advise him or her and implement those decisions. The Minister, therefore, is responsible for those decisions.

In local government, however, the majority of key decisions are made by the manager. These decisions relate to finance, the budget and how it will be spent and critical matters such as planning. This area must be addressed because, by and large, the powers of councillors are being emasculated. They are elected to call the shots on critical issues but do not have the power to so do. If local government is to have any meaning that problem must be addressed and it can be addressed in many ways.

As a result of local authorities not having the power to implement local policies, many parallel organisations were developed and funded separately. The ADM and partnership schemes are an example. They are funded by the Department of the Taoiseach and bypass the local authorities. European money was poured into what were, in effect, parallel organisations which were not elected by or answerable to the people. However, their brief was to operate within local communities, parallel to the local authorities. In many instances they were hostile to local authority members and did not welcome councillors' participation in their activities. That is true of many of the 38 partnerships operating throughout the country.

Most of them are successful and active and do a great deal of good work. They provide employment and deal with a range of community activities and amenities. However, those areas should be within the ambit of the local authority and its elected public represenatives who are answerable to the people and who must go before them periodically for election. There are other similar organisations such as FÁS, the national training and employment agency, the Leader programmes [432] and county enterprise boards. These operate to a lesser or greater extent parallel to local authorities in areas within the local authority's responsibility.

Today I attended a meeting of the General Council of County Councils and it is most concerned that the Minister has an interdepartmental monitoring committee on which it is not represented. Indeed, to my knowledge, LAMA is not represented on the committee either. If significant changes are to take place, the representative bodies of councillors should be represented on that committee.

I would like to say more about the SPCs and area committees but there is not sufficient time. The concept of directly elected mayors is good but it was suggested subsequent to the other changes being proposed with regard to SPCs and area committees which would have semi-executive chairpersons who would receive partial remuneration, determine policy and have that policy implemented.

However, what is envisaged by the Labour Government in Britain is a referendum in the London area on whether there should be a directly elected mayor who would have executive functions, stand for election on his or her manifesto and bring a team into office to implement that policy over the term of office. The team would then leave office if the mayor was unsuccessful at the next election. This is based on the American model. There is a considerable conflict between that model and what is being proposed by the Minister. The idea is good but it will have to be better researched.

I am glad this issue is being debated and I hope it will be debated again before the end of the year.

Mr. Gibbons: Information on Jim Gibbons  Zoom on Jim Gibbons  I welcome the Minister of State to the debate on this particularly important subject. I support the amendment. It is time to put on record the fine work being done to bring about necessary changes in local government.

Everybody is aware of the difficulties experienced by local government over the years. The major problem has always been funding. Local authorities have been starved of it for many years. In that context, I particularly welcome the provisions for extra funding in the Local Government Bill, 1998. The fact that the extra funding of £125 million is focused on non-capital expenditure means it can be used in the areas which have generated most criticism for local authorities. It can be used for county roads where it is badly needed. While there have been attempts to keep national primary roads in reasonable repair, the state of secondary and county roads has been extremely poor, particularly in certain counties.

The old system of funding did not work. The fact that funding will now be on a statutory basis is one of the most positive moves we have seen for some time. It is worth bearing in mind that the Leader of the Labour Party was responsible [433] for removing the statutory right to local authority funding, in terms of rates on houses, in 1983. I welcome the fact that the Government is changing that and returning matters to a statutory footing, which means that local authorities can proceed with necessary work.

Councillors throughout the country have be criticised in all quarters for not doing a, b or c and that is unfair. The majority of these people want to bring about a decent system of local government. They also want to have an input into providing a better environment. They were not able to do this in the past because of the shortage of funding. However, a significant increase in that funding will give them the opportunity to do so now. I welcome the fact that the increase will be kept in line with inflation.

The old rate support grant was a particular bone of contention in Carlow, the town in which I live. In the past it suffered badly in comparison with towns of similar size. For example, the rate support grant received by Clonmel was four to five times that given to Carlow. The reasons for this are historic and there is no point entering into a debate on them now. I welcome the fact that the equalisation fund will provide the authorities in smaller towns and counties — particularly those where road tax is not charged at the same level as in other counties — with the opportunity to bring about the changes required in their local areas.

Another important development is the establishment of the strategic policy committees. In the past too many decisions were made by officials at county council level and it is time we returned to a situation where such decisions take everyone's viewpoint into consideration. The fact that professional people will have an input into the committees is a positive and worthy development, which was put in place by the previous Government, and it will make significant changes and improvements to the overall structure of local government. Everyone will now have a say on the direction local government in their area should take. That is as it should be because that is how local government was originally designed to work.

Councillors will be able to specialise in areas in which they have a particular interest and they will also be able to draw on expertise in areas in which their knowledge is weak. The fact that final decisions will be made not by the committees but by the councils provides a necessary safeguard. Local government involves the ability to make decisions and having access to funding to implement such decisions. The requisite funding and control mechanisms are being put in place to allow these decisions to be made, this is a welcome development.

The Minister of State outlined in great detail the consultation into which he entered with the various interested bodies. In the past eight or nine months he has openly consulted and sought the views of everyone with an interest in this area. [434] That is as it should be and such consultations should also be carried out at local government level so that the type of changes required can be brought about. If we continue to do this and take these proposals on board in a positive way, progress will be made.

Mr. Cregan:  I welcome the Minister of State and I acknowledge his involvement in local government over a long period. However, the reality is that the Minister for the Environment and Local Government has had discussions with the relevant authorities but has not debated this issue in the House with Members, the majority of whom are elected by county and city councillors.

Senator Walsh raised a number of issues about which I do not want to be negative because I have been involved in local government for more than 20 years. Problems with local government began in 1977. Some Senators may say they began in 1973 while others believe the abolition of rates in 1975 was the starting point. However, in my opinion, the elimination of car tax and rates in general in 1977 gave rise to problems with local government and rate grants were reduced accordingly. Local government did not receive the recognition it deserved and the blame for this lies mostly with Fianna Fáil. We must admit that whether we like it or not. Having said that, however, these events took place a long time ago.

I am interested in the Minister of State's contribution and I welcome the positive and constructive ideas it contained. However, I wish to table a number of specific questions about, for example, the strategic policy committees. I was privileged to serve as Lord Mayor of Cork in 1991-2. I am involved in local government and I could speak about it and housing and other policies for the remainder of the evening. However, I merely want to make one point in respect of local committees.

I recall trying to obtain permission build a by-pass near Blackpool, County Cork. The work began with the construction of a road from the Mallow Road to the Sunbeam. No difficulties were encountered while building the road from the Sunbeam to the Christy Ring Bridge. However, because of the actions of the local committee in Blackpool, the by-pass has not yet reached that town.

We must be very careful about strategic policy committees and the people appointed to them. What discussions have been entered into with people who are not councillors in respect of these committees? With whom has the Minister for the Environment and Local Government been in contact? Did he contact the chambers of commerce, local community centres and others? We have been given the impression that everyone must share in the power. Is the Minister of State saying that people will be paid to sit on policy committees which may never make a decision? That could easily happen. A perfect example of this occurred in Blackpool in 1991 when I was [435] Lord Mayor of Cork. I was convinced that I could sort the matter out in six weeks but it has taken seven years for agreement to be reached because the local committee was not satisfied with the design of the road and the bridge leading into Blackpool. The Minister of State should see the state of Blackpool at present. It is totally dilapidated because of the actions of a certain group. The policy committees could easily take the same route.

There are many individuals serving on small committees who believe themselves to be budding Taoisigh. If they stood for election they would probably not obtain ten votes. We must be realistic. Elected representatives must be able to make decisions quickly and not be obliged to wait for months for policy committees to develop ideas. Let me provide an example. In 1974 the local authority in Cork city put in place a development plan — the Minister of State referred to recent developments in Galway but the Cork plan was the first of its kind — which was eventually implemented in 1979. The city was allowed to develop because of that long-term plan but the local authority received no credit from central government and was obliged to wait for funding.

When the strategic policy committees are established who will decide the destination of funding? Will there be a block grant to a council or will it be an allocation on the basis of perceived performance or because the Minister comes from a certain area? It is the case that in the past certain areas received more funds than others because Ministers hailed from there. One can land a jumbo jet in certain parts of County Mayo and one town has a fire station bigger than any in London. I do not make such points lightly but they are facts.

Where will the money go? Will it be allocated by certain people? Who will it be? Will public representatives or local representatives be on the committee? Will the funding be on the basis of a block grant or allocations? The responsibility should be given to local councillors and if they do not do it right they can be denied funds the next time around. The Minister of State's address was welcome and constructive, but he did not indicate how the disbursal of funds will be arranged. That is not fair. I want the whole truth so that we may have a real debate. Who will be involved?

There is a landfill site in Cork city which will cost £5 million to run this year. We take all the refuse from the county but get nothing for it. We provide a fire service in the city which is used by the county and we get £330,000 from the county council. The regional authorities have little authority. I accept Senator Walsh's point that a public representative cannot chair an enterprise board. However, Fianna Fáil set up the enterprise boards and made the arrangements. The decline of local government started in 1977.

[436] I welcome the Minister of State's proposals but I would like a little more openness about where the total £600 million will be spent. Is he prepared to give all councils a block grant? I could give many examples of how money was spent stupidly on housing in Cork and in other cities and of allocations to voluntary organisations. That should stop. There should be proper funding supervised properly. The Minister of State said that we must keep a close eye on spending, but who will do so? A lot of money is to be spent and it should be spent properly.

However, the people should not be wronged. Recognition for the dedication and commitment given by many councillors is long overdue. I do say that because I am elected by them. They deserve great credit because they have achieved much with very little resources. However, they have not received the recognition they deserve. They are marvellous people. The Minister of State indicated that he would like some people to retire and he may be prepared to give them an inducement not to stand for re-election. Perhaps they may be a little elderly and slow on their feet, but there is a lot to be said for realism and “cop on”. He should not be in a rush to get rid of people because their experience and expertise may prove useful. They deserve more than they get.

Mr. Moylan: Information on Pat Moylan  Zoom on Pat Moylan  I welcome the Minister of State's address for the importance of the points he raised. Senator Cregan referred to the events of 1977. At that time there was a political auction and the people chose the Fianna Fáil option, not the Fine Gael one which might have left us in a far worse position.

The creation of strategic policy committees is a move in the right direction. We look forward to giving the local authorities real power. The SPCs will make recommendations to the local authorities and we must be prepared to listen to organisations who have interests in local development. I am sure they will work with public representatives. At present they co-operate on enterprise boards and Leader groups.

There are many development organisations, such as ADM, enterprise boards and Leader groups, and they should be brought together under the remit of the SPCs. There is too much overlap in many counties and the greater part of the finance allocated to some of the groups is taken up with administration. That does not help job creation or economic development.

Reference was made to the enterprise boards. Irrespective of who introduced them, it is wrong that they cannot be chaired by an elected public representative. That provision should be changed. I attended a committee meeting of an enterprise board recently when the chair and vice chair, among others, were absent and the four elected members who were present, three of whom were previous local authority chairpersons, were unable to chair the committee. [437] As outlined by the Minister of State, funds will be made available from the Department. Car tax will increase by about 6 per cent in two years but I do not think motorists will mind paying 6 per cent more over two years given the road improvements that will be made and the funding being put to good use. The Minister of State's point about value for money is very important. It is an issue that must be tackled, although that may not be the most popular thing for a local authority member to say. I compliment the Department on taking on the issue. With training and advice many local authority employees will change. They will improve and I have no doubt that they are well capable of giving better service and value for money.

Over the years local authorities have had to take on many services involving spending outlays, including litter problems, the control of dogs, veterinary inspections and the control of horses. Charges for those services were handed down from Government to local authorities without any further funding being provided. We were supposed to make do with our previous allocation. As the Minister has outlined, we will now receive extra funding for any further services we have to provide and that is welcome.

Some local authority members are concerned about how we will work with strategic policy committees. In the past local authority members have worked well with professional people on health boards and vocational education committees. An excellent service has been provided by such bodies. I have no doubt that elected public representatives will work well in future with the SPCs.

After 100 years of service by local authorities, we are going in the right direction. We will see major improvements and contributions by many of the voluntary bodies that will be involved in the strategic policy committees. I hope they will be particularly relevant to the counties and the needs of bodies that represent different areas working in harmony with elected members.

I commented earlier that I was annoyed and concerned about the position concerning enterprise boards and I hope the Minister will take on board my views. If necessary, some changes may have to be made to the legislation to enable public representatives to chair enterprise boards. It is not that public representatives want to chair such boards but I see no good reason for not allowing them do so.

The provision of subventions for retiring county councillors was referred to. Councillors who have served for many years should receive a small financial recompense should they decide not to run for re-election. Some people may well wish to continue but, through some misfortune, may be unseated. It would be hard luck on those people if they lose out on some payment.

I support the amendment and I compliment the Minister of State on his statement to the House which contained many salient points.

[438]Mr. Coghlan: Information on Paul Coghlan  Zoom on Paul Coghlan  The Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, has been very generous in the time he has devoted to debates in this House. As a former Minister for Local Government, he is well aware of how the system has chugged along to date, with all its inadequacies. Now that he is at the coal face he will be in a position to right many of the wrongs.

The Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, was a brave man to put himself in the firing line in Rosslare. I was there, as were many Members of the House. The debate is an appropriate one because most of us are councillors and we attend functions of LAMA and the General Council of County Councils. At the LAMA event, the Minister remained for two hours of questioning and it was interesting to see the way in which many issues were teased out there. Whatever the differences between both sides of the House, it is healthy because we are all striving for the best and only good can come from it. While I did not like all the answers the Minister gave to his questioners in Rosslare, I know he meant well. He spoke with conviction about matters and gave his own point of view rather forcefully.

We are talking about best practice, best structures and operating in the most efficient manner possible. It is about projecting a new image for local government, which at present is staid and almost stale. That image is not truly deserved but there is a need for change which both the Minister and his Department wish to bring about. Hopefully, where there are differences there will be room for manoeuvre and amendments. We must put right the democratic deficit which exists in local government structures and we must ensure the primacy of politics. Both sides of the House are keen to achieve that.

We must get the financing right. What the Minister is proposing is exciting. Next year all motor taxation will be put together in one £270 million fund which will be ring fenced and index linked. With motor tax increasing, the fund will grow — whatever the wisdom of increasing that tax by 3 per cent. I appreciate the Minister's point that motor tax has not been touched for quite some time.

We await with great interest the details of how it will be broken down but the control of money has been, and is, too centralised. Local authorities cannot do the work they should be doing because of the way the Department operates. It is not the Minister's fault but the system has been like that for too long. I am glad we are addressing change. Hopefully, what emerges from this will project a much better image of the system. More importantly, it will be better for the consumer, the customer and the ratepayer.

I agree with the idea of one-stop-shops. Depending on size, population and the number of towns, counties will have to decide how many such shops are right for them. They must provide value for money as well as being efficient and customer [439] oriented. Nothing but the best will do and I hope that will be the case.

The accounting systems within local government are totally antiquated. The Minister said that new financial and accounting systems are being worked on and will be brought forward. That is an important matter if we are to be efficient and cost effective.

I welcome the SPCs because they cover the main functions of the local authority. It is a much more structured and inclusive approach to policy formulation. This structured approach will confine the area committees to dealing with representational and maintenance issues and the SPCs to dealing with policy formulation. I welcome the fact that councillors will be involved from the beginning in policy issues and that the director of services and other staff will have the proper back-up to do the job properly. This has been lacking in the past.

Regarding sectoral interests, I do not share the fears expressed by some of my colleagues. They will not make up more than one-third of SPCs. We must be open to fresh ideas and the differences in approach which they will bring. The interchange of views with electoral representatives will be a good thing because they are often impatient in not understanding the system and vice versa. I welcome the involvement of representatives from the farming and business groups. I believe we are all capable of working well together. I also welcome the capping of rates because the business community and the ratepayer, who has been the main funder of local government, has had too much uncertainty in the past. That greater certainty will be good for business and ratepayers and result in a greater respect and understanding of the local government system, particularly the local authorities.

One of the biggest challenges will be to the county manager system and to managers and officials generally. Managers have inherited a system whereby they are almost expected to be feudal overlords. I welcome the fact that councillors will be in a position to initiate policy with the manager and have a good working relationship. There was a recent case where a two acre car park needed to be developed and a deputy manager got certain ideas and caused a prospectus to be issued. However, there was no consultation with councillors, a section 83 notice with 19 conditions had to come before us and there was a unanimous decision against the development. Perhaps the situation could have been avoided if there had been consultation.

Local government has an extensive spread in the community. The councillor is intimately involved in all aspects and I welcome him moving to centre stage. However, I believe councillors are over-worked and do not have any assistance by way of research or back-up. I accept they will have assistance under the new system about which there has been unjustified media criticism [440] when councillors have tried to learn about different systems, particularly the landfill question. I am sure the Minister will give proper consideration to the remuneration package for councillors whereby those who choose to retire after a long and dedicated service will receive a decent tax free annuity.

Mr. Chambers: Information on Frank Chambers  Zoom on Frank Chambers  I welcome the Minister to the House and support the amendment to the motion. I recognise the Minister's background and his interest in local authorities. In the past the local government system was seen as a breeding ground for future TDs and Senators and was never given proper attention. In 1983 the Labour Party abolished statutory financial obligations in lieu of the rates support grant. This diminished the finances of local authorities and did not enhance the future role of local authorities. In 1952 the national road funds were used for social welfare payments and so on. This did not enhance the funding of local authorities. I welcome the fact that the previous Minister and the present Minister and Government have shown a genuine interest in improving the whole concept of local government and the role of local government representatives. Decisions taken by future Ministers for Local Government will need to be extremely responsible because of the long-term financing of local government and the need to work in tandem with the development now proposed. The role of local government can be underpinned by the recent decision to provide it with its own finances within the county while at the same time supporting it from central government. This will provide a great opportunity to expand and improve services within each local authority.

Both the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, and the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, have played a consultative role in the area of local government development. There has been a tremendous consultative base, with visits to each county, national seminars, county council groups being involved in discussions and openness by the Government and present Ministers in dealing with this matter. Today we debated the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Bill and all of this will have a bearing on how councillors take on this new role. It is fair to say that there may have been dissatisfaction with county councils and local authorities in the past but it was relative to the extent that central government respected them. In the past local authorities were not given the respect they deserved by central government; they were allocated a certain sum of money which often fell short of their requirements, but they had to be satisfied with that. I believe that attitude has changed.

The importance of county planning was discussed today at the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government. The concept of local representatives is underpinned by the SPCs, which provides a challenge. Elected [441] representatives were annoyed at the legislation which underpinned the partnership boards because it undermined their prominence. Elected representatives have no right to dominate the functions of these groups. However, the principle of committees which did not allow the participation of elected representatives was contrary to the development of local democracy. It is not good for local groups to work separately from elected representatives and it is not conducive to good planning. The changes proposed are constructive — they should work well and they will be positive for partnership.

I welcome what the Minister said about value for money and control. While I support the work of county council staff and management, I believe greater value for money can be achieved. There should be bigger yardsticks for the way money is spent on roads. In the partnership context this will lead to strong customer satisfaction, which is the key to the success of local authorities. If those living in villages and towns know their needs are considered in the development of the county, they will participate, knowing they are getting the service they require.

The Government is right to cap rates. However, it has to allow county councils and local authorities to have the freedom to raise the necessary funds. I welcome the statutory funding for 1999 which underpins the local authority structure.

I welcome the amendment to the motion and the Minister's statement. The more flexibility, trust and authority county councillors and elected representatives are given, the more it will lead to greater statutory powers for county councillors and a more active role for them in the development and function of their councils.

Ms O'Meara: Information on Kathleen O'Meara  Zoom on Kathleen O'Meara  I welcome the Minister's remarks. I support the reform of local government and the desire to make it more successful and more responsive to the public. Local government has always been the poor relation in our democracy and all parties must share the blame for that. The history books will show how certain decisions affected local democracy, from the abolition of rates in 1977 to water charges in 1997. I hope the reforms of car tax and those designed to ring fence finance for local government will work. I look forward to renewal and regeneration of local government across the country.

As Senator Chambers said, there is a need for a more client centred and responsive approach in local government. Standards of responsiveness vary across the country, depending on the level of management at local authority level. There are problems with responsiveness, as well as lack of finance. The development of alternative structures, such as partnerships, is a reflection of a desire among people to be heard and to see the needs of their areas reflected. To a large extent, local government has been unable to respond to [442] this. As a result, we have seen the development of other layers of democracy.

I hope the development of the SPCs will be successful. I hope to see a greater level of consultation in north Tipperary and more time given to dialogue between local community groups and the local authority. There needs to be more information and a greater level of dialogue to develop the SPCs. The utilisation of the dynamic energy of local community and voluntary groups could transform local government. The Minister will probably agree that this will only happen if there is a genuine exchange of views. Councillors must listen to community groups and vice versa.

When I was on the Seanad election trail in Dublin, a member of South Dublin County Council remarked on the amount of money given to the Tallaght partnership. The councillor was concerned that this was becoming larger than the amount of Exchequer funding given to South Dublin County Council. The funding for South Dublin County Council was openly accounted for — although I am not suggesting the money given to the Tallaght partnership was not. The councillor said that from an objective point of view, the members of the partnership were not elected but were managing an enormous fund on behalf of the community. There is a certain level of tension between partnerships and struggling councils.

I hope the spirit of the SPCs will energise local authorities and ensure the community plays a role in the transformation of local government. A great deal needs to be done. Some local authorities are good at taking the initiative in the development of their county. The local authority in north Tipperary could do more in that regard. We have huge issues to deal with and the county council, as one of the major players, must take a leadership rather than a purely bureaucratic role. It must provide a service to the community, listen to councillors and market the county by spotting opportunities for development.

County councils must listen to the public, who are their clients. As public representatives, we know the frustration felt by people about roads, water and basic services. They feel they are not listened to, even though this is simple to achieve. I hope the Freedom of Information Act and other initiatives designed to create greater accountability will work in that regard.

Debate adjourned.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Cregan):  When is it proposed to sit again?

Mr. Walsh: Information on Jim Walsh  Zoom on Jim Walsh  At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.


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