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Minister Phelan - Statements to the Dáil on Covid-19 as it relates to Local Government

Published on Wednesday, 27 May 2020
John Paul Phelan TD

Check Against Delivery

Introduction

  • Our local authorities have been in the frontline of Ireland’s response to the COVID-19 crisis and they have provided leadership and support to communities all across the country. They have proved once more how responsive and agile they are in the face of a crisis as they have found new ways of maintaining services and creative ways to do new things.
  • The provision of support and care to vulnerable sectors of society, whether those in emergency accommodation or those in our communities forced to remain at home in cocooned isolation, has been at the heart of the local authority response to COVID-19.
  • Just as the virus has forced us all to find new ways of working, coping and communicating so also has it demonstrated the reach and flexibility of our 31 local authorities.
  • The local authority system has played a pivotal role in protecting those most vulnerable communities in emergency accommodation and has worked very closely with NGOs, the HSE, An Garda Síochána and other key stakeholders to put really strong supports in place for those in emergency accommodation. It has also moved very quickly to secure additional accommodation with more than 1,000 new spaces secured in Dublin and more than 400 outside of Dublin and there is more capacity above and beyond that.
  • It has also planned and acted very strategically in maintaining key essential services, often delivered in different ways from different locations, throughout this crisis while planning carefully for the phased resumption and ramping up of more and more activities in line with the timetable set out in the Roadmap for Reopening Society & Business and consistent with the Return to Work Safely Protocol. Indeed the approach of the sector has been used as an exemplar for other areas of the public service.
  • The urgent requirement to keep the planning process open is recognised by all and, while the public participation process in planning had to be protected by extending statutory timelines for several weeks, the focus now is on a prudent reopening of planning offices to facilitate a steady return to this critical element of economic activity across the country. Since Monday, 25 May, planning offices have been open to the public once more, operating under appropriate public health guidelines. I trust that activity will ramp up and play a key role in the recovery process in the months ahead.

“Community Call” Initiative

  • From the very beginning of the COVID-19 emergency, it was recognised that people who were cocooning would need extra help, particularly if their usual networks of support were not able to reach them at this time.
  • For that reason, and to put in place a safety net for such people, National Government came together with Local Government and the Community and Voluntary Sector to launch the “Community Call” initiative.
  • The Community Call initiative recognised that local authorities are at the heart of every community in Ireland, with a unique democratic mandate and a capacity to bring together all the principal response agencies in the public sector, as well as the huge number of community and voluntary groups active locally.
  • On Friday night, 27 March, immediately following the announcement by An Taoiseach of strict measures to control the spread of COVID-19, Minister Murphy directed all local authority chief executives to establish a dedicated Forum to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable in their communities.    
  • Forums, dedicated helplines and support systems were put in place in all 31 local authority areas over the weekend of 28/29 March. I want to take this opportunity to commend local authorities for their leadership in responding so effectively and so quickly to this call.
  • I want also to thank all the other bodies involved, including the HSE, An Garda Siochána, Civil Defence, The GAA and other sporting organisations, the Community and Voluntary organisations and volunteers and everyone else who has come together with such commitment and generosity of spirit. 
  • The Community Call initiative has brought together key local bodies with national organisations, such as ALONE and An Post, and is helping to ensure that everyone who needs support is identified, the support required is carefully assessed and the appropriate support is provided, by a tried and trusted source. 
  • ALONE, the organisation supporting older people, is operating the National Support Line to provide emotional support and reassurance to vulnerable people and cross referencing callers to the appropriate local authority as required. Likewise local authorities can refer callers to Alone.
  • Special credit is also due to An Post, whose staff not only delivered critical COVID-19 information material to households, but are also checking in on vulnerable people and helping to ensure that they can stay connected. 
  • I want also to thank my colleague Minister Michael Ring, Minister for Rural and Community Development, who has worked in close partnership on this initiative.  
  • To support the work of the Forums further, the Government, through Minister Ring’s Department, launched a €2.5 million fund to support local authority “Community Call” Forums and the community and voluntary groups they are working with, such as Meals on Wheels, in delivering the local COVID-19 community response efforts.
  • Each Community Call Forum is providing practical supports like the collection and delivery of food, meals, fuel, medication, pensions and other essential items, in strict accordance with public health advice. 
  • Since the 31st March, the 31 Community Call Forums around the country have met 310 times and handled over 41,000 calls – some 750 calls per day on average - of which
    • 24% related to the delivery of food, etc
    • 20% to social isolation or engagement
    • 8% to the delivery of meals
    • 6% to medical matters
    • 42% to other matters, such as volunteering. 
  • Since its launch on 9th March, the ALONE National Helpline has received 21,000 calls and supported almost 14,500 older people.
  • The service provided by the Community Call Forums will continue to operate as long as it is needed.
  • Important links and working relationships have been built among service providers and users at local level through the Forums. A key consideration of a review of the Initiative, which will commence shortly, will be about sustaining those links into the future.
  • Importantly, given the breadth and reach of the bodies involved some vulnerable and isolated people in our communities have been identified as part of the work of the Forums. They have now been brought under the wing of their local communities and support organisations, which should allow them to continue to live independently in their homes for longer.  
  • Community Call Fora area also playing an important role in the “In This Together” initiative which aims to help everyone in Ireland to Stay Connected, Stay Active, and look after their Mental Wellbeing throughout the Covid-19 Emergency.
  • An important element of this will be the work of the network of local authority libraries, which have already seen an expansion in their digital and online services and an exponential growth in those services accessed by people staying at home.

Local Government Finance

  • My Department has worked very closely with the Local Government Sector to deal with the very significant financial and funding challenges that COVID-19 has presented to the sector and to provide supports to the ratepaying enterprises and businesses that are such a fundamental underpinning of the local government financial model.

Commercial Rates

  • Rates income, budgeted as €1.54bn in 2019 and €1.66bn in 2020, provides approximately 30% of the revenue income across all local authorities and up to and over 50% in the case of some authorities.
  • Recognising the critical nature of Rates to local authorities and local communities I ensured the Local Government Rates and Other Matters Act 2019 was enacted last year.  The Act modernises and improves the rates system for both ratepayers and local authorities. Providing more certainty to both.   
  • Important elements were already commenced and commencement of the remaining elements of the Act is being progressed, with the intention that additional provisions will be operational for the 2021 local authority budget cycle in Q4 2020.
  • Obviously, however, the impact of COVID-19 on businesses and ratepayers has been very significant and Government has responded by announcing, on 2 May 2020, a waiving of rates for all businesses forced to close due to public health requirements from 27 March for a three-month period.
  • This will come at a cost of €260 million, to be met by the Exchequer and my Department is currently finalising further guidance for local authorities on this initiative.
  • The position will be reviewed as part of a wider review of supports to enterprise and employment, and associated local authority funding implications, over time as the positions in relation to public health restrictions evolves.

Restart Fund for Micro and Small Business (led by DBEI)

  • At the same time the Government announced the creation of a Restart Fund of €250m for micro and small enterprises and further details regarding this Restart Fund were announced on 15 May.
  • The key aspects of the Fund are as follows:
  1. It is available to businesses with a turnover of less than €5m and employing 50 people or less, which had to close or suffered at least a 25% reduction in turnover in the period to 30 June 2020.
  2. It is a contribution towards the cost of re-opening or keeping a business operational and re-connecting with employees and customers.
  3. The grants will be equivalent to the rates bill of the business in 2019, with a minimum payment of €2,000 and a maximum payment of €10,000.
  • Businesses may be eligible for both the Restart Fund and the Rates Wavier Scheme; they are not exclusive of one another. Local Authorities will be to the fore in the administration of both business-supporting initiatives.

Support to Local Authority cash flow

  • In order to support the local government sector generally, my Department continues to keep local authority income, expenditure and cash flow generally under review and will continue to work with all local authorities, both collectively and individually.
  • Every effort has been made to support local authorities at this time and we ensured that our Department prioritised payments to local authorities as part of our business continuity plan.

Local Property Tax payments

  • The Revenue Commissioners, who are responsible for the collection of the tax, announced recently that, given the continuing situation regarding COVID-19, the deduction date for property owners who opted to pay their LPT for 2020 by Annual Debit Instruction (ADI) has been further extended to 21 July 2020. This is an extension of four months from the original March date.
  • LPT provides local government with a stable funding source in order to provide services to the local communities. LPT accounts for  approximately €480m annually, approximately 9% of the local government sector’s “current” income.
  • At the outset of the COVID-19 crisis in order to minimise cash flow challenges for Local Authorities, my Department arranged for the immediate payment of LPT to all local authorities.  As a short term measure, my Department made €136m available to local authorities as cash flow support at the end of March, in order to ensure that vital services that local authorities deliver could be maintained. 
  • This support comprised the early payment of the LPT allocation ordinarily paid from the Local Government Fund in May and July. At this early stage, two thirds of own-use LPT for 2020 and the totality of the self-funding element of LPT has been paid to local authorities. This totals just over €380m.

LA Payroll and Payroll Support

  • Expenditure on payroll accounts for 40% of the €5.6bn combined Revenue Budget for our Local Authorities in 2020. Payroll expenditure covers salaries, wages and pension costs.  I am conscious of the impact on the Local Government Sector due to the increased costs arising from the implementation of national pay agreements. To that end an allocation of €109.6m to assist local authorities was secured for 2020.

Council Meetings

  • We recognise that council meetings are an integral and critical part of local democracy through which elected councils carry out statutory functions, provide oversight and policy direction to local authorities, and represent local communities.
  • The public health imperatives during this COVID-19 crisis has presented real challenges for the operation of elected members’ business.
  • It was in this context that, on 20 April 2020, the Department wrote to local authorities in relation to the issue of the holding of Council meetings in the current COVID-19 public health emergency.
  • While arrangements for Council meetings are a matter for elected members, in making such arrangements, Councils needed to take full account of the public health measures introduced by the Government to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus to protect everybody that attends meetings.
  • A number of options for consideration in holding Council meetings and conducting Council business were set out, including:
  • Reduced member or quorum only sittings of Councils.
  • Designating more suitable venues for the holding of meetings. 
  • Assigning appropriate statutory decisions to municipal district level, where it may be more feasible to conduct meetings in a manner which respects social distancing requirements.
  • As there is legal uncertainty associated with resolutions determined or votes taken at Council meetings convened in a “virtual” space or on an online platform, the letters “strongly recommended that formal decisions, which are required under statute to be made by a Council at a meeting properly constituted under the Act, are not taken by Councils meeting incorporeally on online platforms”.
  • My Department is monitoring the evolving situation and I understand that local authorities are preparing to proceed with annual meetings in June using alternative larger venues, including theatres and conference facilities.

Local Authorities’ Return to Work

  • The County and City Management Association (CCMA), with the support of the Local Government Management Agency (LGMA), has led on a coherent and coordinated approach by all 31 Local Authorities during both the imposition of restrictions and the current phase of an incremental resumption of activities.
  • Absolutely essential activities and functions were maintained from 27 March onwards, covering such areas as
    • the provision of homeless supports, outreach services and emergency accommodation for families and individuals experiencing homelessness
    • meeting the housing needs of the traveller community
    • Emergency Response services including fire emergencies, traffic collisions and other emergency rescues
    • Roads maintenance
  • As a significant cohort of Local Authority staff was redirected to key COVID-19 areas of activity, the sector developed detailed planning for the commencement of additional activity, which started on 18 May.
  • Working very closely with my Department, a coherent plan has been developed for all services delivered by Local Government and this is underpinned by a High Level Local Authority COVID-19 Work Safely Health and Safety Guidance.
  • This clearly sets out a plan for a phased return of all Local Authority services over the coming weeks and it is supported by a series of Standard Operating Guidances covering a wide range of issues from meeting members of the public, to site inspections, use of tools and equipment, playgrounds, parks and harbours.

Other Local Authority strategic issues

  • Even during this most significant of national challenges in several generations, longer term strategic development work has continued at pace.
  • A particular priority is the Directly Elected Mayor with Executive Functions for Limerick City and County Council. It is just over a year since the people of Limerick voted in a plebiscite in favour of a directly elected Mayor for their City and County Council area.
  • This House will be aware that the Local Government Act 2019 requires the Minister to submit a report with legislative proposals to the Oireachtas within two years of the plebiscite, that is, by 24 May 2021 at the latest.  It is however planned to progress this work as soon as possible.
  • To meet the expectations of the people of Limerick in this very significant reform, it is important that the introduction of a directly elected mayor makes local government in Limerick better. Every part of the City and County of Limerick must benefit.
  • I appointed a Limerick-based Implementation Advisory Group last year to advise on this task.
  • The Group is working to build on the Government’s policy proposal and shape the role of directly elected mayor so that it adds even further value for Limerick. I am very pleased that the Group has set about this task with great energy, enthusiasm and ambition for the City and County.
  • The work involved includes an examination of international case studies and will take lessons from instances where the introduction of a directly elected mayor may not have been quite so successful.
  • In my view, this important, transformative exercise in Limerick can be viewed in the wider context of local government reform and can therefore also be considered a pilot for the extension of such policy approaches to other local authority areas.

Conclusion

  • In this time of challenge for our country we remember all those who have died and who left behind grieving families. We have seen the best of our people in this time, a modern-day meitheal spirit as our communities have rallied around each other and supported those most in need of help.
  • The local government sector has been an absolutely key player in the ongoing struggle against the virus and it has demonstrated once more its adaptability, commitment and compassion when it has been most needed.
  • Local government is uniquely placed at the heart of our communities with a democratic mandate and the capacity to bring together all agencies of the State and the broader community voluntary and private sectors.
  • While we have made good progress in dealing with this crisis, the road ahead will be difficult. However, I firmly believe that local communities and local government working together will be an essential part of our successful recovery.