The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government launched his reform proposals to generally underwhelming degrees of debate on the 12th October 2012 and a year later the Oireachtas is considering these reforms with the Local Government Bill 2013. (See here)
Outside the Department and the Oireachtas, the debate receives very little attention and input from the rest of us. The Regional Studies Association – Irish Branch is part of a large international learned society concerned with analysis of regions and sub national issues. Through its international membership it provides an authoritative voice of, and network for, academics, students, practitioners, policymakers and interested lay people in the field of regional studies. We aim to stimulate a more public debate. The editors of the Irish Politics Forum blog have offered to host this debate. Over the next two weeks RSA Committee Members and other interested parties will offer opinion pieces, with the view of driving debate on a range of topics related to the Local Government Bill 2013. Today we are kicking-off with the post below, setting the scene for the debate and identifying potential issues.
LOCAL AND REGIONAL GOVERNMENT REFORM: BACKGROUND
The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government launched his reform proposals on the 12th October 2012 and the first stage of the Bill was presented on the 10th of October 2014. The Oireachtas is currently considering the reforms.
The reform programme sets out the rationale for undertaking comprehensive reform of local and regional government. It is based upon factors that include:
- Recognition that local democracy is an essential feature of a robust system of representative democracy which can bring greater accountability and responsiveness to local needs, at both local and regional level
- That current systems at local and regional levels lack any substantial role for elected members and this can be frustrating and lacking in relevance. Local and regional systems must have substantial functions and responsibilities to be a success
- The fact that local government is country-wide provides the opportunity for public services generally to be delivered at local level but must do so with an eye to regional delivery
- A flexible and responsive organisation at local level can provide a necessary level of capacity to meet urgent challenges but has to be placed within a regional context
- Given the local nature of many public services, having a local body with a reasonable degree of devolved decision-making can free up barriers to delivery of such services, while providing the necessary public accountability, financial responsibility and capacity to meet national policies and standards. Nonetheless, the very fact that they are local is a challenge to National-based bodies so there must be a system in place to manage the interface between local and national. This, the policy and Bill suggest, is best addressed at regional level.
- Service quality at local level, given the relationship with the local citizen, will more likely enhance standards and accountability by facilitating local awareness, priorities and challenges but, in the interests of universality, has to be set within a regional context
- Having in place local institutional arrangements can allow a central government to delimit duplication in service delivery, along with allowing central government focus on issues of national concern, but this will only work if actually delivered through a re-ordered regional framework which will act as a bridge between national policy expectations and local needs and concerns
- Regional government provides the capacity for greater local collaboration, and
- A strong and modernised regional system can be a central pillar in the wider public service and political system, allowing for a wider reform of the public service.
The main features, it could be argued, of the, specifically local, 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
- 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
- In the meantime a plebiscite will, if agreed among the Dublin Authorities, be organised for the 2014 Local Elections at which point the decision on whether to advance a new form of mayoralty will be put before the people of Dublin
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 Europe-based initiatives rather than any firm commitment to date of a regional policy at national level.
The Reform Statement proposes the establishment of 3 regional assembly areas to replace the current 10 organisations. Membership will be drawn from the county/city authorities. 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 Assemblies to ensure effective delivery of the regional strategy at local level.
The Bill has to be compulsory reading for anyone interested in public management reform generally. It is something which will directly impact every individual and organisation in the State and, if fully implemented as currently drafted, will have ramifications for much of the public management of the State.
THE CRITICAL NEED TO DEBATE
In overall terms the local and regional government reform programme acknowledges several “key fundamentals” which will provide the basis over time, to consider whether the programme achieves its objectives. However alongside these fundamentals, comes a series of critical challenges and questions:
- Will the role of local and regional government be broadened and will the re-configured local and regional bodies have a new focus, new functions and an enhanced role in economic development and local and community development?
- Will the newly strengthened structures at both regional and local levels meet the requirements of a public demanding better governance and performance?
- Will both levels have sustainable and secure funding, with increased local responsibility to account to the local community for the spending of local resources?
- Will it be possible to measure transparently, at regional level as is proposed, the operational efficiency and performance of local authorities?
- Will the new regional structures improve oversight and leadership, ethics, better policy formation and decision-making, the coordination of local public services, citizen and community engagement, civic and community leadership by local public representatives?
The Bill currently before the Dáil, arguably represents a considerable achievement given the breathe of the potential impact it will have on the existing local and regional government framework. It is also significant in its likely impact on the wider public service in Ireland. There are few areas in public administration which will not be impacted by the proposed regulatory process, if it is implemented as intended. As such it is an unusual piece of legislation in the Irish case as it applies to the three layers of government in the Country, the wider public service and the communities of Ireland, formal and informal.
Regional configuration as envisaged in the Minsters Proposals last October have now been agreed by the Cabinet and much of the thinking in the proposals have actually found their place in the Bill but we do await the detail which hopefully will come in the Committee Stages of the Dáil Debates. One major issue however, might be the decision not to accept the recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal in regard to the direct election of regional councillors. Membership of the new Assemblies will remain within the general body of County and City Councillors. In that regard people might challenge themselves to thinking about whether the Bill provides a clear understanding of the central role which regional government can bring to both local and national policy if the elected members are chosen by the County and City Councils.
Potentially significant, if fully implemented, the move towards a more regional focus for public policy generally, could be significant, but only if the Parent Departments and National Offices of those within the regional policy environment fully subscribe to the reforms and that ask is no small challenge.
In addition, badly needed integration of national policy objectives with local and regional needs, underpinned by clear policy intent at regional level to improve local discretion and overview, will be an essential feature of a reformed local public service. How is this to happen in Ireland where the history in the delivery of public service reform is not overly inspiring? Ensuring that innovative forms of governance, participation and the putting in place of new service delivery platforms vehicles will necessarily mean that a local and regional structure cannot continue to work within an unchanged national policy framework. Yes, even national departments will need to change if what the Minister is proposing can be delivered. Will this thinking find its way into a revised public service reform plan which is due at the end of the year?
Finally, with a new substantial role in local economic and community development and an expectation that local government will provide local leadership within a regional policy framework, where or what role is there for those central to the existing delivery of badly needed services and actions for local and community development? At the moment there is limited regional perspective applied to such forms of development and yet they are critical to underpinning a vibrant regional social economy.
A radical re-configuration of local and regional government suggests dramatically changed levels of participation, engagement and coordination between local government and local development and then up through the diagonal and vertical policy layers of public management. So will this carry through to regional level? Will local development continue to be delivered in the absence of regional policy specific to local development as has been the case for the past two decades or are we going to see a genuine effort to integrate such development within a regional policy platform?
To conclude, an over-riding concern is confronting, not the Minister, who is seeking badly needed reform, but rather with those interested in both local and regional government. There is a dearth of debate on how we organise ourselves. At least the Minister recognises this and is one of few to do so. For that he deserves considerable credit. What about the rest of us? Surely if we fail to adequately endorse and challenge the thinking of the Bill we can have no excuse.