Local authority plan 'to save €420m'


Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan has announced plans to reduce the number of city and county councils, change the role of local representatives in the planning process and reform local authority funding.

Under the plan, the existing 114 councils across the State will be rationalised into 31 bodies, with a total of 80 town councils to be merged into new “municipal districts”, in an attempt to create a more efficient local government system.

The number of council seats is to fall by 42 per cent, from the current figure of 1,627 to 950.

Local authorities will also have to make appropriate arrangements, including the timing of meetings, to ensure that the way they conduct their business encourages greater participation by women in politics.

The power of councillors to overturn the decisions of planning officials will also be abolished. Section 140 of the Local Government Act will be put to an end so that councillors will no longer be allowed to direct officials in respect of planning functions.

The step has been taken in the light of evidence given to the Mahon tribunal regarding corruption among councillors in the planning process.

The plan says there will be a rebalancing of representation nationally and greater “equality of representation between local electoral areas within counties”.

Mr Hogan said the reform programme would yield savings on its full implementation of up to €420 million, some €150 million of which are hoped to be recorded in the next 18 months.

“I am committed to building a stronger and more cohesive system of local government to serve the community at local level, and to make a stronger contribution to meeting national challenges,” he said.

Many of the reforms are to be introduced in time for the 2014 local elections, at which time a referendum is likely to be held on the creation of a directly elected Dublin mayor.

The plan states that services administered by local authorities will in future be funded through a new local property tax, in “a move designed to strengthen local responsibility for decision-making by authorities”.

A new Independent National Oversight and Audit Commission is to be created to scrutinise local government performance and efficiency.

The plan also sets out an enhanced role for local authorities in relation to economic development and enterprise support, with economic development plans to form part of city and council development plans and one-stop-shops for business support to be provided through new Local Enterprise Offices.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that if the Government was to drive the “necessary reform” across the public service, the process “must begin with the political system itself”.

He said the reforms “will ensure that taxpayers’ money is translated into the services people expect and deserve in their local areas”.

Mr Kenny said the Government had pledged reform on its election 18 months ago and that the political system had long proved resistant to such change.

“I have stated many times that local government needs radical change and reform in order to bring it into the 21st century,” he said. “This is a system of Government that has not fundamentally changed since the 19th century. As a result it has grown disjointed, fragmented and inefficient as the modern State grew. As a consequence the people have grown more distant and detached from a system of governance that is supposed to support them locally.”

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said there were three fundamental and linked problems with the current system of local government.

He said the electoral franchise was “undemocratic” and “gravely outdated” with disparities in representation between counties; the county council system did not respond well to issues at district and region level; and that local government did too little governing in relation to matters such as job creation and community development.

Putting People First - Main Points:

* Number of local authorities to be reduced rom 114 to 31 with all 80 existing town councils abolished

* Number of council seats to be reduced from 1,627 to 950

* Councillors to serve county councils and municipal districts - which include towns and their hinterlands - rather than the existing and separate county and town council system

* Waterford City and County Councils to be merged, along with councils in Limerick and Tipperary in time for 2014 local elections

* Property tax will be used to fund local services

* National Oversight and Audit Commission for Local Government will be established to evaluate the performance and efficiency of councils

* The power of councillors to overturn the decisions of planning officials is to be abolished

* Local Enterprise Offices to be replace county enterprise boards and be integrated into local authority business support units to create a “one-stop-shop”

* Local economic development strategies to be adopted as part of city and county development plans

* fixyourstreet.ie website to offer citizens the opportunity to raise issues in their area such as illegal dumping, graffiti, road defects or drainage problems

* Referendum to be held in 2014 on the creation of a directly elected Dublin mayor

* 500 local authority staff to be let go through a voluntary redundancy programme

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