25th Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe
Strasbourg, 29-31 October 2013
Speech by Irish Minister of State Fergus O’Dowd –
Debate on Report on Local Democracy in Ireland - Chamber of Local Authorities
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President and Chamber Members,
I am delighted to be here with you this morning for the presentation of the Congress report on local democracy in Ireland.
I would like to thank the Congress for the acknowledgement in its report of the effort and commitment of the Irish Government to reform our local government system which is a priority measure in our Programme for Government. While the report contains some understandable criticisms of the Irish local government system, I am glad to be in a position to advise the Congress of the significant progress we have made over the past 2 years to address many of these issues.
The system of local government in Ireland on which the Congress Monitoring Committee is reporting must be viewed in the context of its evolution over the years. A number of factors have combined to weaken it, including the fact that –
• Local government structures have remained largely unchanged for more than 100 years and are now out of line with modern demographic and social realities;
• The role of local government is relatively narrow; some traditional functions have transferred to specialist agencies – this is unavoidable because of requirements of scale, resources or expertise; the problem is they were not replaced, up to now, by appropriate alternative community-focussed functions;
• During the past 20 years or so, new functions in the area of local and community development were located in bodies outside of local government, adding to the marginalisation of local government;
• The fiscal powers of local authorities were weakened, particularly by removal of local residential property tax in the late 1970s;
• Past standards in local government were not always as high as they should be;
• Due partly to these factors, public engagement with, and confidence in, local government is not high, and this in turn has militated against widening its role.
We are now implementing a major programme of reform to address the underlying causes of weaknesses in Ireland’s local government system of local government. This was announced in the Government’s Action Programme for Effective Local Government. Unfortunately the Action Programme was published after the initial visit by the Congress delegation to Ireland. We are grateful to Congress for taking the trouble to arrange a follow up visit last May which gave Minister Hogan an opportunity to provide a full account of the reform programme and the committee to take full account of it in finalising its report.
Today’s debate is very opportune as the Irish Government has just published the Local Government Bill 2013, which will give statutory effect to the reform programme. This major legislation provides for comprehensive reform of the structures, functions, funding, operational and governance arrangements of the Irish local government system. I think Congress will welcome the publication of this legislation because I know that when the delegation first visited Ireland they heard some sceptical comments about the prospects of the reform programme actually being implemented. The publication of the Bill puts this beyond doubt and provides assurance of the Government’s commitment to the speedy implementation of the reform programme.
Indeed practical implementation measures are already under way on a number of fronts and this will accelerate greatly during the coming year and the Bill itself, which has already begun its passage through parliament, is expected to be enacted by the end of 2013. Of course it will take longer to redress the effects of a century of neglect. And, as with every facet of public administration, we must tailor our system of local government in the context of Ireland’s economic position and ensure that local government plays as full a role as possible in building on the momentum of recovery that is now evident.
Overview of Reform Process
The Action Programme for Effective Local Government underlines the position of local government as the main vehicle of governance and public service throughout the State. It sets out a clear vision for local government to lead economic, social and community development, to deliver efficient and good value services, and to represent citizens and local communities effectively and accountably. Furthermore, it contains a commitment that, in future, public service functions at local level will be provided through the local authorities and agencies will not be established outside of the local government system save where, in some exceptional circumstances, there might be a compelling reason for so doing. To this end, we are proposing new requirements in the context of Government decisions whereby local government will have to be considered as the default mechanism for the delivery of all new local services prior to the establishment of any new structures. Thus a concern in the Congress report about the share of public affairs managed by local government will be addressed.
Local Government Functions
The commitment to broaden the functions of local government will be given tangible effect through a programme of decentralisation of functions, or “devolution” as it is more commonly referred to in Ireland, to distinguish from mere re-location of public servants. The Bill contains a provision for wider devolution of functions to local government from State bodies as well as Government Departments.
In the short term some very significant additional functions are being assigned to local government, notably the alignment of local and community development with local government and an enhanced role for local government in enterprise support and economic development. These are major enhancements to local authority functions, reversing the tide of marginalising local government, especially in the area of local development, which occurred over the past few decades.
In addition a number of specific functions are identified for devolution from central government agencies to local government in areas such as tourism, rural transport, ports, and management of State property with the potential for further devolution of functions from other State Bodies being explored.
The shortcomings in our current system of local government have built up over time, and they cannot be turned around instantly. For example, massive devolution cannot be expected to happen overnight and it would be unrealistic to give the impression that it could. Experience internationally shows that major administrative changes must be well planned and carefully implemented and that devolution must be built up progressively. We have also experienced in Ireland the ill effects of previous poorly planned and rashly implemented changes in important areas of public administration. In contrast, the Action Programme and the new legislation set out a realistic, measured and progressive pathway for more far-reaching development of local government in Ireland. But I have no doubt that the momentum we are now creating will be irreversible and will be built on. With more streamlined structures, stronger funding base, and more effective governance arrangements that are being put in place, we will see more far reaching expansion of the role of local government in the future.
The importance of financial independence to local government is highlighted in the Congress report and in this context, the power that has been conferred on elected councils in Ireland to determine the level of the new Local Property Tax, from 2015, is a fundamentally important departure. This is, I believe, essential to renewing the relationship between local government and the citizens they serve. Its introduction offers a real opportunity for meaningful local government – as citizens will be directly investing in their communities, councillors will be much more accountable for the spending and tax decisions they will make.
Every member of Congress is keenly aware that without fiscal power local government is relegated to a status of local administration. However, our elected members will, from 2015, have discretion to increase or decrease the rate of property tax by up to 15%. This is a very real power, for elected councils to exercise according to local circumstances – whether to increase the rate to provide for worthy projects in their area, or to decide on a lower tax regime as they see fit. Above all, they will be accountable for these decisions, which is the essence of local democracy. In many ways, I consider this to be the most important reform that we have introduced in local government and one that addresses what has been a critical defect in our system of local government since the late 1970s.
Subsidiarity and Structural Reform
Another key principle that is addressed in the report is subsidiarity, which is a key principle of the Charter. The measures we are taking to devolve functions from central to local level will strengthen this principle in Irish local government. This will also be complemented by aspects of the structural reforms and major reorganisation of the structure of local government at county, sub-county and regional levels under the legislation which is currently being discussed by our Parliament. Contrary to some comments that have been put about, the new system of municipal governance that is provided for in the reform legislation will result in a net strengthening of subsidiarity.
With the new arrangements, Municipal Districts will cover the entire territory of each county, uniting towns with their hinterlands – bringing a fourth tier of governance to all parts of the country rather than just legacy town councils in some areas under the current system. Elected members will also have a wide range of powers fully devolved to district level, with nearly 70 “reserved functions” being devolved to the elected members at this level. These functions, along with functions of the elected councils at county level will, for the first time, be clearly and comprehensively defined in a single Act. Most significantly, as elected members will now have statutory powers at municipal district, as well as county, level, they will in a real way be working directly for the interests of their communities – town and county.
The subsidiarity principle is at the heart of this initiative as most reserved functions that are local in nature will be performed by the municipal district members while more strategic and county-wide decisions will be made at county level. To take just one example – municipal district members will now have power to decide detailed schedules of works for their district in matters such as roads, housing, amenities and community support, matters that have up to now been the preserve of the executive.
This major reform is designed to reduce layers of administrative duplication while simultaneously bringing local government closer to the people. It will also address current unbalanced representation and remove other long-standing anomalies through the replacement of 80 town councils with outdated boundaries, limited functions and limited resources by municipal districts that represent all communities not just in a selection of towns around the country and which will have access to the combined resources of the whole county. There will also be much greater cohesion at elected member level since the members elected for the districts and performing devolved functions at that level, will combine in plenary formation to decide strategic and wider policy matters. Thus, duplication, overlap and competition will be removed from the local government system.
We are also streamlining regional structures, and updating and strengthening their functions, especially in the area of spatial and economic strategy as well as management of the EU structural programmes. The new consolidated regional assemblies will play an important role in bringing regional coherence and coordination between national policy and local implementation, providing an important bridge between central and local government.
New and Better Governance
One of the Irish Government’s objectives in this reform programme is to strengthen the leadership and oversight role of the elected councils. To that end, we are reforming the governance arrangements within the system – both in relation to the elected councils and the executive.
At national level, we have committed to establishing a National Oversight and Audit Commission – not as an instrument of control but to ensure that local authority performance is monitored and assessed in a meaningful and objective way. It will provide an independent scrutiny of local government performance in fulfilling national, regional and local mandates, bringing accountability and coherence to the forefront or our consideration of local government performance. The Commission will provide enhanced oversight of local government, to ensure that citizens and communities themselves can compare the performance of their council with others. The Commission will not interfere in local government itself but will have an overarching view of performance nationally, with a power to make recommendations to councils where they might be needed.
At local level we are also providing for elected councils to have a greater oversight role in the delivery and implementation of policy by the executive – and rebalancing power from the executives in favour of the elected councils. Under our new legislation, it will be the elected members rather than the executive that will drive the policy agenda, that will oversee the implementation of policy, and perhaps most importantly will have fiscal responsibility for their councils to a degree that they have not enjoyed for more than 35 years.
As I said at the outset, the debate here this morning on this report on local democracy in Ireland is welcome. We need a strong local government system that represents its citizens and communities effectively; that provides the services that people need; and that does so in a financially responsible way. The reforms now being implemented are essential to achieving this. The new legislation fundamentally changes the relationship between citizens and their local authority and establishes the framework for local government service provision that is necessary for 21st century communities and that will provide true local democracy.
Our constitution specifically recognises the role of local government in providing a forum for the democratic representation of local communities, in providing services to local communities, and in promoting the interests of local communities. And I am thankful to be part of a Government that has upheld the value our constitution places on local government. Through our reform programme we are bringing our system up to date, to respond in a meaningful and accountable way to the needs of our communities.
I see the Congress report as providing additional underpinning to the reform agenda that we are implementing and I look forward to the continuing support of the Congress in this regard and to the Council of Europe generally, which we look to as an important force in promoting the interests of strong local democracy and effective local government.