Local Government Reform Bill (2013)

It merits saying that Deputy Hogan will go down as a radical and reforming Minister. Outside of this Bill, he will be remembered for, and future historians will recognise the extraordinary importance of, the gender quotas for elections that he introduced. They will radically transform politics over time. This Bill is borne out of last year’s Putting People First document. It is an excellent Bill in many respects. As my time is short, I will cite specific aspects of it. Before I do that, I echo the remarks of my constituency colleague, Deputy Conlon, on complimenting the generations of people who have served on local government at all levels. Three generations of some families have committed themselves to it. We had a lovely function honouring former chairpersons of our local authority in Cavan recently, initiated by Councillor Paddy O’Reilly. It was an excellent function where we recognised families who had given their entire existence to local government for generations. That was very worthwhile.
Part 6 provides for the establishment of local community development committees. That will be important as they will replace the county development boards but will be able to improve strategic planning and community development programmes and will work with the new enterprise boards to co-ordinate economic development. That is very important.
The new bodies will include the new chief executives, members of the local authorities, people from the sporting and cultural worlds, public and private interests, etc. That is a worthwhile development and it offers great potential.
Part 7 complements the proposal and enhances the policy-making role of the councils in the economic area. This is important and vital as well because people know the local needs and the sectors that need an emphasis. Much can be done in tourism and many cultural initiatives can be advanced at local level. I am proud of some of the work we have been able to do in our area recently and that can be developed further.
It is worthy of mention in the context of the power of local government that the Bill gives 20 additional new reserved functions to councillors. This cannot be in any way ignored and it cannot be suggested that it is not a significant aspect. There is an amendment to section 66 of the principal Act whereby the local authority can take measures to promote the interests of the local community across cultural, environmental and economic areas and that is a crucial aspect as well.
No organisation or administration can operate without transparency and accountability. In this context, the new sections 126A to 126L to the principal Act establishing a new national oversight and audit commission are important. The new section 126C will ensure that the use of State funds will be scrutinised. The new commission will scrutinise financial performance and value for money and it will issue reports on an annual basis. This will allow the public to see the performance of councils and in itself that will be an incentive to get the right results. The fact that these will be published and that the audits take place will in itself prevent waste. The body will be completely independent and autonomous and that is critical for the future development of local democracy and local power. Under the new section 126G to the principal Act, the commission will prepare and circulate reports on the activities of the local authorities and that is critical. I echo the Minister’s comments. He stated: “It is only through this comprehensive form of measurement that we will be able to demonstrate that we have real reforms that citizens can see and benefit from.”
Section 53 deals with the drawing up of budgets at municipal and county level. It places a requirement on the new chief executive to provide the elected members with a draft form of a local authority budget, giving them the opportunity to amend and include provisions they believe to be important. That is an important development. The budgetary process is where the action is and where councillors need more input, and the legislation attempts to realise this aspect. It will also offer an opportunity to establish a community fund and adopt a scheme for annual contributions by occupiers of dwellings towards particular community initiatives. If a particular local authority wishes to carry out an initiative in an area, it can look to local contributions to assist in this regard.
This goes back to the hackneyed expression from the American War of Independence about there being no taxation without representation. I will come to the property tax presently but we cannot really have effective local government unless there is a direct link with taxation and the local councillors. It is important that they make decisions in this area. If they do not, then they are not effective or powerful and not really accountable. There can be no real democratic input unless there is an effort in this area and that is to be welcomed.
Section 53 deals with the property tax and its collection at local level. After 2015, local authorities can make an adjustment of 15% upward or downward on the amount of property tax levied. The money will be paid and it will ultimately replace the local government fund. There must be an equalisation fund for obvious reasons because of demographics and the size of certain counties. We cannot simply keep all property tax collected in Cork there and discriminate against Leitrim, which does not have the potential to collect the same volume. There must be an equalisation dimension.
In the context of equalisation, collecting the tax and spreading it around, I would go even further than the maximum amount of 15%, if we could achieve it over time, and at some stage I would like to see councillors striking the rate as they did in the past. They should decide the amount of property tax and decide how it is spent. Then they should be obliged to go back to the electorate, outline that they raised the tax, collected a given amount and, as a result, did certain things in the community. This would ensure the collection of the tax, the output from it and accountability would be all tied up. That part of the Bill should be expanded further. All in all, the Bill will enhance the power of councillors, which is critical, and enhance the connectivity between councillors and those who elect them, which is important as well.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website