A new model for Ireland?

October 16, 2012

One of the long-standing views of local government is that it is neither local nor government but rather a form of administration answerable directly to the national government. The policy statement seems to acknowledge this perspective and to address this it is proposing radical re-structuring, particularly through the re-organisation of municipal government.

In doing so the Statement provides a direction for municipal development in Ireland for the first time since the foundation of the State and reverses the drift applied to town government over several decades.

In essence, the Statement provides for the establishment of a municipal structure which will, for the first time since the abolition of the rural district councils, provide full country coverage of a local government system below the county structures. In line with other OECD members the system will be based upon a town and rural environs model. As municipal districts their elected representatives will be given great responsibilities to apply local direction for local public services.

In addition, the elected members from the municipal districts will come together to form the County level councils. In doing so the municipal members will exercise responsibilities at both municipal and county level. This approach will allow the Minister to begin to delimit policy responsibilities, for the first time, to the municipalities with the county wide policy arena now being determined through the joint efforts of the members of the municipal districts.

In doing so the potential to wholly reverse the imbalance between the urban and rural will arise changing fundamentally the existing policy context for local government. It will also allow for an overall reduction in members from 1,627 to a maximum of 950.

While county wide administration will apply, to underpin the need for greater efficiency, there will be scope for the municipal districts to drive forward with focused urban actions underpinned by flexibility in determining funding priorities. These will be based on the needs of the new municipal districts. In essence, and again for the first time, local municipal concerns, agreed across the municipal districts will be enabled.

The main features of the reforms therefore include:

• A complete reconfiguration of town and county structures to reflect a municipal form of government more in line with European models
• The central role of municipal towns and boroughs and other significant urban centres currently lacking a municipal status will be recognised in the reconfiguration process
• Members will be elected to the municipal districts and will combine at county level to address county wide policy issues and responsibilities.
• The municipal district will be formally acknowledged as the first level of governance and democratic representation in the country
• Double representation in its current form will cease and all members will now represent their municipal district while having a county policy role where applicable
• Municipal districts will generally be based upon a single electoral area which will be delineated on the basis of a statutory boundary review to be undertaken immediately
• Existing boroughs will be given particular recognition within any proposed configuration with them being designated as Borough districts
• Matters requiring determination on a county wide basis will be determined at county level. All other matters will rest at district municipal level
• Decisions applicable to the municipal district will not be submitted, allowing for consistency, to the County level for approval
• There will be no residual territory subject only to county administration
• There will be distinct powers for municipal members along with statutorily devolved functions
• A minimum municipal membership of 6 will apply with a maximum of 9
• Cities, county towns and boroughs will retain “mayoral status” along with towns over a certain population e.g. 20,000
• Other districts will have a chairman/Cathaoirleach
• Operational resources will be configured on a county wide basis as is increasingly the case to maximise the opportunity for efficiencies
• There will be a single corporate entity which will provide for both the district level and the county level
• Members will act in separate formation in the application of the separate reserved functions applying to the municipal district and the County
• Account will be taken by the statutory boundary review of the need to acknowledge that towns will no longer have separate representation and therefore some weighing of representation to ensure urban representation in districts where towns are located is warranted
• The districts will normally be configured around existing town council areas while also noting the need to ensure representation in towns which currently do not have current municipal status
• Importantly in the case of towns alongside boundaries provision will be made to ensure that one authority will have responsibility for service provision throughout the entire area of the town, notwithstanding county boundaries
• Dublin is treated as a separate case from the rest of the country. In effect reforms are put on hold until after the 2014 elections at which point a colloquium of all members of the three County Councils and the City Council will take place to examine the future structures of the region, levels of political representation etc. In the mean time the Lord Mayor of Dublin will continue with existing power to facilitate joint meetings for the region

Functions of the Municipal District

In an unexpected policy approach the Statement proposes an enhanced level of responsibility for municipal members. The allocation of functions is to be determined on the basis of spatial or strategic grounds. Unless a function requires a county-wide decision it should be a candidate for decision at municipal level. This will have the effect of broadening policy responsibility at municipal level relative to the current policy framework. The Statement, in taking this unexpected approach, applies a general principle that functions, that are focused on local communities rather than on a wider territorial application or for which local accountability is a priority, should be determined at local municipal district level. In that regard:

• A default set of functions to be delivered at municipal level will be spelled out in legislation
• The members will be enabled at county level to determine further devolution of functions to the municipal district level, in effect reversing the existing trend of migrating services up to the County
• Local regulatory functions will also be the responsibility of the municipal districts
• the determination of policy generally in regard to the municipal district will be the responsibility of the municipal members

In broad terms functions at municipal district will include:

-Decisions on financial matters such as the levying of charges

-Establishment of a community fund
-General bye-law making

-Civic functions, honours, twinning etc.

-Powers to require the provision of information from the Chief Executive

-Establishment of a Municipal Policy Committee

-Procedures of meetings

-Making a Housing Services Plan

-Addressing anti-social behaviour

-Functions relating to the sale of apartments

-Making local area plans

-Functions relating to protected structures

-Making special amenity orders

-Making tree preservation orders

-Approving annual road programmes

-Control and regulation of parking

-Limiting speed limits on local roads

-Operation of school warden schemes

-Traffic calming

-Determination of taximeter areas and fares

-Making litter management Plans

-Making bye-laws on the use, operation and protection of local authority controlled land

-Regulation of nuisances and the control of specified activities

-Bye-laws for litter

-Casual trading bye-laws

-Provision of assistance to promote the interests of the local community

-Use of temporary dwellings

-Bye-laws for local authority owned monuments

-Representing the views of the local community

-Changing of place-names

-Dog control

-Formulation of local and community development plans

-Dealing with other community-related functions and activities

Existing responsibilities of towns will therefore be expanded, particularly in regard to local and community development in line with the recommendations of the Steering Group on the alignment of local/community development. This marks a major shift in policy to the advantage of the municipal districts which in tandem with the adoption of the County Economic and Spatial Plan will return the municipal representative to the heart of local community development and planning. This is, in turn, underpinned by proposals to enhance the oversight role of the municipal member.

Finally, the municipal member is seen as central to the education of local communities as regards civic issues, engagement and the provision of local leadership. Furthermore the members will be empowered to make specific provision of programmes or plans within the County policy framework that will apply specifically to the relevant municipal or urban context. This is again a reversal of current procedures which have been trending away from the towns.

Resourcing the Municipal Districts
It is envisaged that the resourcing of municipal decisions, staff and other costs will be a part of the overall operational resources of the County wide organisation, thus allowing for efficiencies including the collection of fees, rates etc. Members at municipal district level will have discretion to decide on the use of some resources at district level in the form of a block grant from the county to the district, to be agreed among the members at County plenary level. In addition there may be provision for the use of supplementary resourcing such as through a community levy or supplementation of rates for specific municipal purposes.

The Rating Authority will, however, be the County Council and the power to determine the ARV will rest at county council level.

The City Authorities

Announcements have already been made in regard to the merging of Limerick City and County into a unified authority but separate mayoral designation for an expanded urban area will apply retaining one of the oldest public service positions in the State. Provision for municipal district level organisation will apply. A similar approach is envisaged for a unified Waterford. As noted above, Dublin is to be treated differently given the scale and range of issues pertaining. The remaining City authorities in Galway and Cork are unaffected other than to acknowledge that both can seek boundary extensions in line with existing legislation.

The Regional dimension
The Statement recognises the continuing need for a regional policy in the Country. It does so whilst highlighting the need for rationalisation of the 2 regional assemblies and 8 regional authorities which are largely the result of European based initiatives rather than any firm commitment to date of a regional policy at national level.

The Statement proposes the establishment of 3 regional assembly areas to replace the current 10 organisations. Membership will be drawn from the county/city authorities (2 per authority), reducing membership to a total of 62 (down from 290). The Southern Region will cover Munster and the South East Counties of Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford. The Eastern and Midlands Region will cover the rest of Leinster and the remainder of the Country will fall within the Connaught-Ulster region.

These new assemblies will have considerably enhanced oversight powers for local government and will also have a key responsibility in developing regional economic strategies which will have to be adhered to by both local and national development agencies. This will be underpinned by incorporation of the regional strategies into a new national regional policy which will, importantly, affirm the National Spatial Strategy. The Assemblies will continue with their role in relation to the existing regional operational programmes supported by the European Union and EU funding subject to any decisions addressing the 2014-2020 programming period.

Existing regional development guidelines will run to their natural datelines to be replaced by reconfigured guidelines which place economic development at their core. This will include, appropriately, greater focus on the NSS Gateways. Other existing regional strategies, particularly those with boundaries not necessarily coterminous with the existing regional boundaries will be expected to migrate towards the new boundaries. While the development of waste management plans remains a function of the local authorities the number will reduce from 10 to no more than 3 taking account of the proposed new regional assembly configuration.

A key role for the new assemblies will be that of local government oversight. Supporting a proposed National Oversight and Audit Commission for Local Government, the Assemblies will act to ensure greater transparency and performance on the part of local authorities. A regional oversight committee, not unlike that of the Public Accounts Committee, with external support will support the members on the Assembly to ensure effective delivery of the regional strategy at local level.

The proposals for the new national water utility will also make provision for a regional input through the assemblies to ensure linkage between the local authorities and the new utility.

Strengthening the governance of the local level
There is a huge focus on the need to address the governance at local level in the Reform Statement. It does acknowledge the real progress of the past three years in moving towards a more efficient and effective local government system. It highlights that much of this has been undertaken without huge disruption to local services, something which it contrasts, indirectly, with other parts of the public service.

Nonetheless, in a further series of reform proposals, the Statement points a way forward on the creation of performance standards and evaluation which will bring Irish local government more into a European set of norms. Contrary to common perception there is a major gap in the setting of standards and policy expectations in Ireland relative to virtually every other local government system in the OECD.

The proposals in the Statement will place the system into a more “normal” evaluation and standards template. Also in line with OECD norms, the reforms propose the freeing up of local authorities to adopt Service level Agreements with government departments in regard to the local delivery of national policy, agree something which is a common feature of local government elsewhere.
Progress on the creation of shared services platforms is noted along with the creation of the Programme Management Office, established by the local authorities to support the implementation of the Local Government Efficiency Review.

The role of the SPC system is also to be reviewed while in the case of Dublin, as noted earlier, a special colloquium of the elected members post the 2014 elections for the Dublin authorities will examine the future governance of the City region. Hopefully in this regard some effort will be made to examine the reform outcomes from reforms in several other major cities of similar scale to the Dublin Region (see previous newsletters). A plebiscite of the Dublin voters will be organised to consider any approaches which might arise from the colloquium.

The Statement retains an open mind on the need for a directly elected Mayoral position highlighting the advantages and challenges from putting in place such a position. In the meantime the existing Lord Mayor of Dublin will be given a metropolitan coordination role in areas where common interests rest for each of the four Dublin authorities.