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Minister Phelan's Speech to the Excellence in Local Government Awards 2018

Published on Thursday, 22 Nov 2018
John Paul Phelan TD

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Lord Mayor, Mayors, Councillors, Chambers Ireland President, Siobhan Kinsella, Chief Executives, Chamber Presidents and representatives, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Let me say, first of all, how pleased I am to be here this evening for the presentation of the Chambers Ireland Excellence in Local Government Awards 2018. My Department and I are very proud to support and be associated with these Awards, which highlight the enormous contribution local authorities make to our society and to our daily lives through the wide range of important services they provide. It is extremely important that these Awards acknowledge the occasionally overlooked, often unheralded, but nonetheless vital role local authorities – and those who work in them – play every day in meeting the diverse and dynamic needs of communities across the country. It is wonderful to see that these Awards have gone from strength to strength over their 15 years in existence, illustrated by the 154 applications this year – a record number – from 23 local authorities. It demonstrates the high esteem with which the Awards are held by local authorities themselves, as a way of sharing best practice but also in recognising the creativity, innovation and commitment of their staff. The projects shortlisted across the 16 award categories clearly demonstrate the exciting and innovative work being undertaken by local authorities affecting important change for the betterment of our communities. So I would like to thank Chambers Ireland for its role over the years in shaping this annual Awards ceremony into the showcase event that it has become.

I think it important to acknowledge that local government itself is in a constant state of evolution and change. In that regard, 2018 has seen a number of important developments in the roll out of local government reform measures that will further strengthen and improve our local government system. The Programme for a Partnership Government (PPG) sets out a number of requirements in relation to local government reform. In particular, the PPG envisages the submission of a report to Government and the Oireachtas on potential measures to boost local government leadership and accountability, and to ensure that local government funding, structures and responsibilities strengthen local democracy. My Department has so far submitted three policy papers to the Oireachtas in this regard, dealing with (i) Municipal Governance, (ii) Local Authority Boundaries and (iii) Local Authority Leadership, Governance and Administration.

The Municipal Governance paper sets out a range of proposals to strengthen the municipal district system and to address identified shortcomings, rather than re-establishing town councils. The paper sets out a strong rationale for this approach, not least the fact that local authority members themselves are not calling for restoration of town councils. The financial capacity of elected members at municipal district level is of particular importance. It is proposed to strengthen this role, particularly in budgetary and local development matters. In this context, I am very pleased to see an award category which recognises an “Outstanding Initiative through the Municipal Districts”.  

The paper on Local Authority Boundaries includes proposals for enhanced statutory provisions to address the issue of urban development crossing county boundaries. In such instances, this paper proposes new statutory joint structures, rather than either alteration of county boundaries or reliance on existing provisions for voluntary co-operation. These joint structures will focus particularly on the forward planning of the areas in question, without duplicating the role of other agencies. Joint structures would have responsibility for the development and planning of the entire area of a town or city that crosses a county boundary (for example in Athlone, Carlow and Waterford), including responsibility for certain key strategic matters beyond the existing standard functions of local authorities, especially in relation to spatial and economic planning and development. These structures would also have responsibility for transportation strategy, forward planning and land use designation, and retail strategy (and any other such matters as both local authorities may agree). It is also proposed that provision for statutory joint structures would be accompanied by a clear legislative guarantee for the permanent integrity of local county identity and traditional allegiance through legislative provision to copper-fasten the status of the cities and counties as territorial units.

The Local Government Bill which was published in July and last week completed second stage in the Dáil proposes to alter the boundary between Cork City and Cork County Councils and to provide for the boundary alteration arrangements and consequential matters. The Bill also amends the Local Government Act 2001 by inserting a section to provide for a single chief executive with dual responsibility for Galway City Council and Galway County Council.  This will facilitate administrative integration of the two local authorities in advance of the merger recommended by the Expert Advisory Group. Similar dual management arrangements were put in place in Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford ahead of the mergers of Councils in those areas and worked very well.  This approach, which was recommended by the Galway Expert Advisory Group, will see two separate elected councils being retained for the 2019 local elections and at the same time facilitate the decision in principle that has been taken to merge the two authority areas by 2021.

The Programme for a Partnership Government also includes a commitment to consider directly elected mayors in cities, which is the main subject matter of the policy paper Local Authority Leadership, Governance and Administration. At its meeting on 27 September 2018, the Government agreed in principle to the holding of plebiscites on directly elected mayors with executive functions for Cork City Council, Limerick City and County Council, Waterford City and County Council, and Galway City Council and Galway County Council at the same time as the Local Government Elections next May. This agreement is subject to the necessary legislative provisions being included in the Local Government Bill and the future submission of more detailed proposals on the plebiscites and the questions to be put to the electorate, as well as the specific powers to be given to mayors.

While the current system has served us well, those of us familiar with the electoral register and the process that maintains it can readily recognise that some improvements could be made. The modernisation project, which will take some 2-3 years to complete will include consideration of wider policy and legislative changes as well as initiatives such as online registration.  The aim of the project is to make the electoral registration system more responsive to the needs of the public and to streamline related administration while maximising the security and integrity of our democratic process. Given the importance of the registration process to our democracy, the project will involve significant consultation phases.  The first of these, a technical consultation with Franchise teams in Local Authorities took place over the summer and I’m pleased to say that there was substantive engagement by local authorities in that work. A second phase of public consultation, that will include engagement with a range of stakeholders, including elected representatives at all levels, will begin in December.  We’d like local authorities to assist in drawing attention to the consultation to maximise public engagement. The aim of the consultation is to maximise engagement and awareness of the changes being proposed.

 Specifically the consultation will seek the views of the public on a range of issues for example:

  • A streamlined simplified process
  • Rolling, or continuous registration
  • Optional online registration
  • Individual registration only
  • A single register database
  • Improvements to identity verification
  • Data sharing options for the future

I am confident that these reform measures will deliver a local government system that we can be proud of and that will facilitate the delivery of essential services to local communities. I want to acknowledge again the work of Chambers Ireland in facilitating these awards to give recognition and promote the sharing of best practice among local authorities.  My thanks are also due to the very generous sponsors of the event. Finally, and above all, I congratulate everyone involved in the participating local authorities who have worked so hard, with commitment and dedication, to deliver the nominated projects for the benefit of their communities.

Thank you and enjoy the rest of the evening.