Reforms aimed at improving the accountability of local authorities are being proposed by Fianna Fáil TD Robert Troy in the first new law he has put forward since resigning as a junior minister.
Councils would have to offer “substantive” responses to queries from members of the public within 20 days and local authority chief executives would be directly answerable to the Dáil’s spending watchdog under the proposed legislation.
Mr Troy said that since his resignation as minister of State for enterprise he has continued to work for the people of Longford-Westmeath, adding: “Backbench TDs can make a difference, can make an input, and we have the capacity to bring forward legislation.
“That’s what I’m doing today.”
Mr Troy said that wide-ranging queries are made to local authorities by members of the public and councillors, from applications for housing to reports of illegal dumping and potholes in the road.
Under his proposed Local Authority Administration Bill 2023, councils would have to acknowledge queries within five days and offer a “substantive reply” within 20 days.
Mr Troy said it is “basically the old saying, what gets measured gets delivered”.
There are already rules around the timescale for planning applications, but for queries where there is no statutory timeline, “unfortunately what happens is decisions are left unmade,” he said, adding that this is “unsatisfactory”.
Under the legislation a failure by the council to respond within 20 days would be a grounds for complaint to the Ombudsman’s office, and Mr Troy says council chief executives will not want to see this happen continuously.
He said the “vast majority” of public officials are hard-working and dedicated but a disservice is being done to them if those who are not doing the work are not being called out.
The legislation would also bring local authorities under the remit of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), allowing it to call in their chief executives.
Mr Troy said that the chief executive of a local authority is “a very powerful person” who controls a big budget and that PAC would be able to examine under-spends, over-spends and whether or not funding has been used wisely and in a timely fashion.
On his chances of winning support within Government for the legislation, Mr Troy said: “I don’t see any reason why there should be resistance to implement this.”
[ Ex-minister Robert Troy declares six properties owned in latest Dáil register of interests ]
Mr Troy resigned as a junior minister last August after a controversy over his failure to fully declare his property interests on the Dáil Register of Members’ Interests.
He apologised for errors at the time and insisted he had not tried to conceal anything, saying: “My biggest offence is my lack of due diligence.”
In his declaration of interests for 2022, Mr Troy outlined how he owns or part-owns six properties including two that are divided into multiple rental units.
He said on Tuesday that there was “only one property that was fully omitted from my declarations” and this was done “inadvertently” as he thought he did not have to declare it, as it was “bought, renovated and sold within the calendar year”.
Mr Troy said: “I never intentionally tried to conceal that I was a landlord or the properties that I owned and that were rented out as a landlord.”
He defended the Government decision to allow the eviction ban to expire and, asked if he had issued any notices of termination to his tenants in recent months, he replied: “No.”
Mr Troy said “the biggest problem in the housing market is the lack of supply” and extending the eviction ban would have contributed to landlords leaving the market.
He said this would “actually have the opposite effect of what we want to achieve and that is increasing supply”.
He suggested that measures to mitigate the impact of the lifting of the ban on renters, such as the purchase of homes by local authorities or approved housing bodies with tenants in situ is an “opportunity... to actually increase and improve the security of applicants on social housing lists who are moving from private rented into properties owned by the State”.