Phil Hogan, Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, has announced the implementation of a range of reforms to the local government system in Ireland, coming into place today, 1st June.
He said: "June 1st 2014 marks the most far-reaching change in structures, functions, operational arrangements and governance in the Irish local government system since the current system came into being 115 years ago in 1899. The changes that are being made are radical, but they are necessary to bring our local government system up to date and to provide the kind of service our citizens and communities deserve."
The Action Programme for Effective Local Government, published in October 2012, and the Local Government Reform Act 2014 set out a realistic, measured, pathway towards an even wider role for local government in the future. The streamlined structures, more sustainable funding base, and more efficient operational arrangements that are being implemented make this a realistic objective, which will be further underpinned by more effective governance arrangements and a more responsible leadership and oversight role for the elected councils.
“Of the many reforms that will come into effect on 1 June, the major structural reforms will be the most radical and visible”, Hogan said. “The number of local authorities will reduce from 114 to 31, involving the merger of Limerick city and county councils, Waterford city and county councils and North and South Tipperary county councils, as well as the dissolution of the 80 town councils and other subsidiary bodies. The 2014 local elections see 949 councillors elected across the country to the new structures, down from 1,627 outgoing councillors”, he added. “These changes will eliminate duplication by ensuring more streamlined structures and the resources that were previously absorbed by these structures and processes will now be freed-up to improve front-line services and to enhance the quality of life in local communities”, Hogan said.
The replacement of the 80 town councils by municipal districts, in particular, will end a weak and unbalanced version of local democracy in which 46% of all councillors represented only 14% of the population and dealt with only 7% of local government activity. Anomalies such as residents inside town boundaries having two votes while the environs population, much larger in some cases, was not served by the town council, will cease. “We now have a much more equitable system of representation within counties, with councillors representing and accountable to their communities at both the municipal district level and, county-wide, at council level”, Hogan pointed out.
The reformed local government system will benefit from a significant broadening of its functions. Most notably, local government has been given a wider and clearer role in economic development. One element of this role already in place is the operation of Local Enterprise Offices as “one-stop-shops” for the micro-enterprise and small business sector. In addition, local authorities will have a pro-active role in promoting economic development, focusing particularly on the strengths and opportunities in their areas and working closely with the development agencies, business and other relevant players.
In addition, local government is being given the scope to fulfil its potential on behalf of communities. The practice in recent decades of locating local and community development functions outside of local government is being redressed the work underway to better align the local government and local development sectors. This will be achieved through the establishment of Local Community Development Committees in each local authority area, to enhance strategic planning and coordination of local and community development programming and activity. “This new arrangement will build on the strengths and resources of both the community and local development sector and the local authorities to maximise the benefits for communities across the country”, Hogan emphasised.
New governance arrangements, also coming into effect from the first meetings of local authorities next Friday (6 June 2014), will give elected councils greater policy development powers and stronger oversight of the implementation of policy by the executive, which will be subject to more rigorous performance and reporting requirements. The position of the elected council relative to the executive is being rebalanced, including a new power for the council to approve the appointment of the chief executive, reinforcing the role of the members as the “Board of Directors” for their authority. In addition, substantial “reserved” functions are being assigned to the elected members rather than the executive, including those in the key areas of revenue raising, economic development and the role of the municipal districts.
The new municipal districts themselves will have an important role to play within the communities they serve and municipal district members’ devolved powers will include matters such as local area plans, bye-laws, and programmes of works in areas such as roads and housing. These are matters that were, prior to 1 June, largely decided by the executive of the local authority, resulting in a significant enhancement of councillors’ powers under the reform programme.
The Minister also highlighted the role of the new councils elected on 23 May in ensuring that the reforms will bear fruit and deliver better service and quality for local communities. “The statutory powers of elected members have been expanded under the new legislation and are set out clearly in the 2014 Reform Act. However, the success of the reform programme will depend critically on the calibre of the new councils and on their capacity to utilise these powers as effectively as possible. A key element of the reform programme is therefore to ensure that councillors have the necessary training to ensure that they can fulfil their wider role. In this regard, a tailored training programme for councillors will be available for the newly elected councils” the Minister said. Induction training is being organised by the new Association of Irish Local Government (AILG) regionally for all elected members during June, and a further programme of training will be developed for implementation over the five year term of councillors.
The minister will shortly announce a revised package of changes to payments to cathaorligh, mayors and expenses for attendance at conferences.
He emphasised that the local government reforms are an essential step forward in the Government’s wider reform programme and said “while 1 June 2014 is an important milestone in the delivery of key reforms in local government, it is still an early step on our journey. The shortcomings in our current system of local government have built up over a long period and it would be unrealistic to think that this situation can be turned around instantly. Previous failed reform proposals made that very mistake.
"I will be introducing more reforms over the course of this year including the establishment of a National Oversight and Audit Commission for Local Government which will provide independent scrutiny of local government performance and in providing value for money for service delivery”, Hogan concluded.