After almost eighteen months of expectation, frustration and indeed criticism, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has finally got Government approval for his local government reform statement. Against the backdrop of argument on the rights and wrongs of local property charges, the possible introduction of water charges and a general efficiency drive in local government which has seen savings of over €850 million, the Minister is proposing a surprisingly radical reform programme.
The Action Programme sets out in clear and succinct manner, reforms which, if implemented, will fundamentally alter the local governance environment and will return local government to the core of public service delivery at the local level. While there will be concerns about many of the reforms proposed in the Action Programme, from within local government and across other parts of the public sector, it is also clear that the Programme will bring considerable opportunity to move from an increasingly disaggregated local governance context to one more fitting of a 21st century advanced society. There will be many who will seek to protect their current positions and role at both local and national level. The question now is whether there is the political leadership to deliver a reform programme in order to avoid it becoming another well meaning document with little effect.
The Programme is set out in 6 parts which include:
Part1: Vision for Local Government in Ireland
Part 2 Local Government Functions-Doing more for the Economy, Enterprise and the Local Community
Part 3: A Local Government System for the 21st Century
Part 4: Local Government Soundly Funded, Working Better, Serving the Community
Part 5: Good Governance, Strong Leadership, Democratic Accountability
Part 6: Taking Matters Forward
A Vision at last?
The Minister sets out an overall vision for local government. He seeks to deliver a system where local government will be the “main vehicle of governance and public service at local level: Leading economic, social and community development, delivering efficient and good value services, and representing citizens and local communities effectively and accountably”. The Action Programme sets out four specific targets which have to be achieved:
1) Development of a more self-reliant system of local government which will have less of a dependency-based relationship with central government.
2) Enhancing the capacity of local government in promoting economic development and social progress, including the well-being of communities, and supporting job creation efforts and economic recovery generally;
3) Improving the credibility of, and levels of confidence generally in, the local government system and thereby positioning it more favourably to undertake a wider role in the future;
4) Ensuring that the local government system evolves in a way that is consistent with and supportive of the overall public service reform agenda and the restoration of the public finances.
The Programme, importantly, is clearly informed by the on-going thinking of the Council of Europe as it develops its policy on local democracy. The Programme also acknowledges the importance of the work of the Local Government Efficiency Review and the completion of the reports on the mergers of Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. Finally, a critical input to the development of the reform programme is the work of the Local Government and Local Development Steering Group which only recently completed its work. For once, arguably, local government reform is now placed within a relatively well developed understanding of the pressures and challenges confronting local communities, something long called for by commentators.
Achieving his vision will be a challenge. The Action Programme acknowledges the need to re-focus local government, particularly towards economic, social and community development. For too long local authorities have struggled with the label of being only interested in infrastructure, something which has held back the mainstreaming of much social and economic innovation in the system, particularly in the past decade. In addition, and after over ninety years of independence, the penny seems to have finally dropped that local government provides a unique platform on which the general delivery of public services could be based.
In making this recognition the Minister has rolled back a long term trend of isolating local government from social and economic development. Doing so now presents the local authorities with a great challenge, that of shifting their focus and culture to become the leaders in public service delivery at the local level. This is critical if the local government system is to expand its range of functions beyond the present narrow remit. There will be many who will not want this to happen but at least, if the reforms are fully implemented, the local authorities now at last will have an opportunity to prove their role in the national context.
Specifically the action plan sees a local government system which will have a key role in local economic development. This will include the integration of the enterprise boards already announced by the Government. More fundamentally, the local government system is to be given statutory powers in regard to economic development where they will take the lead role locally. A specific strategic policy committee will be put in place in each authority to ensure that the necessary re-focusing of local government policy to underpin economic development is in place across the country. A key aspect of this will be the integration of spatial planning with economic development planning through a radical revision to the current planning policy framework, something which will be particularly welcomed by local authorities.
Local government is also, on foot of the recommendations of the Local Government and Local Development Steering group, to become central to the planning and oversight of local and community development. A socio-economic committee will be put in place for such planning and oversight of local and community development along with an inter-departmental committee to secure a whole of government approach. A central feature of this work will, in line with current thinking on EU rural development policy, be the preparation of a 5 year City/County Local and Community Plan which in turn will form a part of the reconfigured City/County Development Plan. Such planning will in turn facilitate the alignment of local and community development programme areas with City/County boundaries. This approach will provide a real opportunity to deliver an integrated planning framework from the immediacy of local community based planning in the smallest of communities through to the County level strategic planning that is a necessary feature of competitive, inclusive and sustainable societies.
The Programme envisages an on-going devolution of responsibilities to local government in areas such as the environment, water, foreshore licensing, local/community development, food safety, roads and traffic, housing and energy efficiency. In addition to the devolution of micro enterprise functions, it is expected that there will be additional devolution of functions from other Government Departments and State Agencies in transport, tourism, sport, management of State property and heritage sites, flood management and relief, and related infrastructure development. Further scope for devolution will be applied as the Programme is implemented.
In light of these reforms the role of the county and city development boards will be phased out.
One of the on-going debates about local government is that of whether it is appropriate to continue to use a largely 19th century model for a 21st century society. The Programme acknowledges the role which county government plays as an inherent part of Irish identity but in one of the most radical proposals in regard to public service reform generally the focus of local government is towards the municipal level.
This is a marked shift away from policy since independence. The Programme in effect is proposing a shift towards a more European model of a district municipality which will centre on the critical role of the town. In doing so the opportunity to radically shake up membership in local government will arise with municipal district members also taking on the role of county councillor. This will see a significant reduction in overall local representation. As a result the Irish local authority system will move towards an even more outlying position in European terms albeit that the municipal focus of membership will be more complementary to European models. Effectively there will be a single administrative/operational system in 31 authorities rather than the 34 authorities as is currently the case. More significantly the municipal districts will allow for greater intra-county service reconfiguration thus opening the potential for further service efficiencies. More significantly and in the context of local government taking on the role of the primary public service platform the opportunity to move towards a shared public service vehicle is now a realistic option. In doing so Ireland can at last begin to catch up on shared services reforms now a norm in other parts of the OECD.
In the case of Dublin there is, appropriately, recognition that reform needs to be treated quite separately from the rest of the local government system. Simplistic solutions will not work in Dublin and it is better to look at international competitive city-regions as models for a future reconfiguration of Dublin. The Minister is proposing to maintain existing arrangements in the Dublin area until after the 2014 election at which point a colloquium of all members in the three Dublin County Councils and the City Council will examine the future governance of Dublin.
The number of regional authorities and assemblies will reduce from ten to three with three new regional assemblies, Connacht-Ulster, Southern Region (incl Munster and counties Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford), and Eastern-Midland (incl the counties of Leinster other than those in the Southern Region). These assemblies will be responsible for regional strategies, certain EU functions and, importantly, the direct oversight of the constituent local authorities.
The Irish local authorities have already undertaken a significant level of internal re-structuring effectively amalgamating town councils into the county councils. In addition, general efficiencies have resulted in a broad reduction of €850 million in day to day spending and the reduction of over 23% of staff. Thus the local government system has made the biggest sectoral contribution to the reduction of administrative costs in the Irish public service. A dedicated Programme Management Office is in place leading a shared services process while a sectoral shared services plan is nearing completion. Notwithstanding this progress it is evident given the general state of the national exchequer that further savings will be called for. As highlighted previously such savings will not come from the simple amalgamation of local authorities. What is required is a whole of government view where the local authority can become the platform through which other public services can be delivered. This thinking is clearly set out in the Programme marking a shift towards understanding the norms of reform in counties with more advanced systems of public management. The key will be to break down the silos which still pertain in Ireland, something which is implicitly acknowledged in the Action Programme.
A further important initiative, again bringing Irish local government into line with other OECD members, is the introduction of nationally based performance indicators which will demonstrate a local authority’s overall performance in specific services. This is something which some individual local authorities have sought to apply. The general setting of service standards and the completion of contracts for service delivery across the system, something which could have general application across all of the public service, is a welcome move.
On the issue of funding the commitment to introduce a local property tax with built in flexibility for variation at local level is noted. In particular the capacity to target taxes to meet specific local expectations within the municipal structures is suggested providing the opportunity for more flexible funding at local level.
With the capacity to raise own funding comes the added responsibility of being accountable to the local community. The Programme addresses the need for greater effectiveness of the elected members in setting policy and applying oversight to key features of local democracy throughout the OECD. A range of measures are set out. The renewal of corporate governance will be underpinned by a National Oversight and Audit Commission which will include independent appraisal. Regional Oversight will be provided through the new regional assemblies while local audit committees will be given a statutory footing. In line with the Programme for Government a re-balancing of the councillor-manager relationship will take place.
This will include a revised role for the County/City Manager, to be named Chief Executive Officer, again something in line with the norms of other local government systems. The two representative bodies, the AMAI and the ACC will merge while a revised local government ethics code will now be incorporated into the national legislative framework which applies across the full public sector. The work of the Mahon Tribunal is acknowledged, with the decision to remove application of Section 140 of the Local Government Act, 2001 to planning decisions. In addition, and acknowledging the reduction of local members, initiatives to enhance public participation and engagement will be undertaken.
Much of the Programme will have a short implementation phase given the commitment to implement the reforms before the local government elections in 2014. This means that the legislation required to underpin the post 2014 councils, particularly the new municipal districts is now becoming urgent. A key aspect of the structures will have to be addressed before the end of the year with a Statutory Boundary Commission while an independent implementation oversight group will also have to be put in place. There will be concern that this can be achieved given that there is likely to be some resistance to the proposals in the Reform Programme. This will require considerable political leadership at local, but most particularly, at national level. In a relatively short time it will become evident that the frustrations of the past 18 months, if not decade, can be put aside to be replaced by a sense of optimism that change really is in the offing.