Local government faces reform
The Government is "extremely likely" to cut the number of councillors and local authorities under plans for local government reform to be announced in the autumn, Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan has said.
Speaking at the MacGill summer school in Glenties, Co Donegal, Mr Hogan said he was mandated by a "reforming Government to drag the system of local government into the 21st century" so that it delivered more to the community and put people first.
He said the programme to be announced in the autumn would be called Putting People First.
"It will introduce significant changes to regional, county, city and town governance," he said.
Every aspect of local government would see change. Mr Hogan said that, where possible, public services should be delivered through locally based bodies rather than centralised agencies.
Local Government structures generally in Ireland had not been updated since the 19th century, the Minister said.
"I’m updating those structures to increase efficiency and give more value for money for the people they serve," he said. "It’s extremely likely that I will be cutting the number of councillors and the number of authorities."
He said he would certainly strengthen the role of the local authority audit committees to provide better oversight. "Clearly, also, local government must look to new income streams."
Mr Hogan faced jeers from protesters against the household charge when he arrived to speak at the summer school.
Arriving at about 4.15pm from Armagh, Mr Hogan avoided about 60 chanting protesters carrying placards at the front entrance to the Highlands Hotel. Protesters attempted to chase after him as he was driven through a side entrance, with some breaking past several gardaí at the gate.
Defending his decision to avoid the protest, Mr Hogan said he had not believed he was going to be greeted by such a big group and that he did not want anyone to be crushed. He said it was appropriate that people could have a protest but that local government services had to be paid for, otherwise such services would be put under pressure in Donegal.
The Minister urged the 52 per cent of people in the county who had not paid the charge to date to pay it. Mr Hogan said if they did not, the local council and its management would have "no option" but to reduce essential services by the end of the year.
He said he was charged with the "difficult responsibility" of implementing the EU-IMF reform programme because of the "irresponsible policies of my predecessors".
With regard to new income streams for local government, Mr Hogan said the proposed property tax to which those protesters outside the event objected was one such stream. He said it would be collected for local service and that "user charges" would become more a feature rather than taxation on work.
While he did not say what form the planned property tax might take, Mr Hogan said the Revenue Commissioners would be charged with collecting it. People would have the option of paying it through Revenue, or in "one lump" if they wished, he said.
The tax would be destined for local authorities for the provision of local services.
Insisting proposed reforms of local government had not been "kicked to touch" by the Cabinet yesterday, Mr Hogan said reforms he expects to announce in the autumn would result in fewer councillors and fewer local authorities.
Addressing an earlier session on reform of the electoral system, former Fianna Fáil minister Noel Dempsey advocated an immediate change from the current PR-STV system to a list-based system.
Mr Dempsey said he believed the Minister had "the courage and vision to deliver a greatly reformed local government system that could free up national politicians to do a real job for the country".
He said he strongly supported the current approach to reforming local government, especially the administrative amalgamation of local authorities "with consequent savings and increased efficiencies".