A Programme for Change

Summary Document published by the Dept. of the Environment

This Programme charts the course for local government into the new millennium. It sets out the approaches to be followed, and the measures to be taken, to enable local government to realise it full potential as an instrument of democratic local self-government and as a means of delivering quality public services.

The need for change

Local government has served this country well. Whether through providing an outlet for democratic self-expression in the years before the foundation of the State, through playing a key role in improving housing conditions in the post-independence years or through bringing water supplies to rural areas later on, local government has always been a major force for good in Irish life. Today, local authorities are responsible for many of the essential services on which we depend - housing, roads, water services, the planning system, environment improvement, fire safety, amenities. Local authorities have a record of achievement of which they can justifiably be proud.

There is, however, a need for change:

  • local authority functions are too narrow, inhibiting comprehensive and integrated responses to problems;
  • the system as it has operated has not allowed councillors to fully realise the policy role which was always envisaged for them;
  • local authorities have tended to be by-passed by new approaches to local development which have been pursued through the creation of a wide range of disparate organisations;
  • there have been too many central controls on local authorities, stifling local initiative and self-reliance; and
  • resources have been so scarce as to adversely affect performance of the traditional functions and prevent proper use of discretionary powers to act in new areas of endeavour for the benefit of the local community.

There have been improvements in recent years but now is the time for a strategic approach to local government renewal.

The Programme is the culmination of an extensive process of analysis and consultation about the place of local government in our economy and society, a process which was initiated by commitments in A Government of Renewal to improved public services and better local government.

Among the milestones in this process were:

  • the Government statement in July 1995 on local government reform;
  • the report in April 1996 of the Reorganisation Commission on Town Local Government Towards Cohesive Local Government - Town and County;
  • the report by consultants in June 1996 on local government financing;
  • the interim report of the Devolution Commission in June 1996 and the associated Government statement of August 1996.

The Programme sets out the Government’s decisions on local government renewal and details of action to achieve it.


The Programme is based on four core principles:

  • enhancing local democracy and widening participation;
  • serving the customer better;
  • developing efficiency in local government; and
  • providing proper resources to allow local government to fulfil the role assigned to it.

Also at the heart of the Programme is the conviction that the renewal of local government will not be real and lasting unless the councillors, managers and staff in local authorities commit themselves wholeheartedly to, and play a full part in, the process of change. There must be self-renewal. Local authorities will be expected to do this by embracing the Government’s Strategic Management Initiative and implementing it in their organisations.


Strengthening democracy

  • The Government will support constitutional recognition of local government.
  • Ireland will sign and ratify the European Charter of Local Self-Government.
  • Local Government will be represented on the National and Economic Social Council
  • There will be an enhanced role for the democratically-elected councillors
  • as local government integrates with local development and assumes a greater role in relation to other public services delivered locally;
  • they will have a more significant role in the strategic management of their councils. This will be achieved through the mechanism of Strategic Policy Committees, based on the main services of the council, to be established in county and city and the larger urban authorities;
  • the chairpersons of these committees, together with the chairperson of the council, will form a corporate policy group which will give increased focus to the policy role of councillors and greatly enhance democratic control of council affairs; and
  • they will be given greater support to enable them to fulfil these new roles.
  • The partnership approach to national economic and social planning will be mirrored in the representation on the Strategic Policy Committees of local interests (e.g. industry, voluntary organisations, farmers, environmentalists) relevant to the committees’ work.
  • County/city councils will be encouraged to decentralise decision-making and service delivery by building on the existing area committee system.

Widening the role of local government

  • The systems of local government and local development (LEADER, Partnerships, County Enterprise Boards) will be more closely linked through:

    - the appointment by each county and city authority of a director of community and enterprise development; and

    - the establishment of Community and Enterprise Groups which will include members (at least half) drawn from local development bodies.

  • Community and Enterprise Groups will promote co-ordination between local government and local development and develop plans for their integration from 1 January 2000. Partnership and participation will remain central features in this process to build on the success of local development initiatives.
  • Personnel of State agencies will be available to attend local will be available to attend local authority meetings to discuss the policies being pursued locally by their agencies.
  • There will be greater liaison between the Gardaí and local authorities through structured consultation arrangements.
  • The Devolution Commission will identify a range of additional functions suitable for assigning to local authorities.

Improving the quality of service

  • There will be greater emphasis on providing quality services and on serving the needs of customers.
  • Performance indicators will be used to measure and compare local authority activities in the delivery of key services and a special working group will be established to identify the key standards and indicators.
  • High level project teams will be established to develop within six months, proposals for one stop shop centres covering a wide range of public services to be implemented, on a pilot basis. These ‘gateways to government’ will be public offices to which people can go to transact business with their urban council, their county council and other public services such as social welfare, health, tax. The project teams will take full account of, and build on, existing initiatives in this area.
  • Local authorities will undertake quality initiatives to improve particular services.
  • A quality awards scheme will be introduced to encourage local authority work in this area.
  • A comprehensive list of public rights to information from local authorities will be published.
  • The general public will be given a legal right to attend council meetings.

Paying for local government

  • A new system of funding will be introduced.
  • The full yield from motor taxation will become a dedicated local authority revenue source from 1 January, 1997. A proportion of this revenue will be used to finance an equalisation fund which will be established to ensure fair treatment of all local authorities and no reduction in resources for any local authority.
  • Central Government will still set the rates of motor tax but, for 1998 and onwards, county and city authorities will have the power to vary the national rates. The variation will not exceed six per cent and this will be limited in the first year (1998) to a maximum of three per cent. There will be no increase in motor tax in the interim.
  • The rate support grant to local authorities will be discontinued.
  • Charges for domestic water supply and sewerage facilities will be abolished with effect from 1 January 1997.
  • The new arrangements have two main advantages:

    - buoyancy, as local authorities will benefit on a continuous basis from growth in car ownership; and

    - discretion, as local authorities will be able, within reasonable limits, to raise additional revenue locally in accordance with local needs and priorities.

  • Targets will be set for local authorities to reduce and eliminate their financial deficits.
  • A major programme will be put in place to ensure maximum efficiency and effectiveness in local authorities:

    - more extensive value for money auditing;

    - greater use of performance indicators;

    - a new financial management system;

    - a comprehensive efficiency audit of county council operations in the roads area will be undertaken shortly; and

    - legislation for prompt payment by local authorities.

  • Proposals will be developed for a local contribution for a defined period towards discretionary developmental projects or programmes.

The human dimension

  • The 30,000 people employed by local government are its most valuable resource. They need to be allowed and enabled to reach their full potential in the service of the local community.
  • Consultation with staff interests on human resources proposals will be essential.
  • There will be further devolution of decisions on human resources issues from DOE to local authorities.
  • A new management tier will be created in local authorities with clear responsibility for individual programmes and a leading role in servicing the Strategic Policy Committees.
  • A Local Government Management Services Board will be established from 1 January 1997 to support human resources management in local authorities.
  • A special development programme will be established with the aim of increasing the number of women managers in local authorities.
  • The distinction between officers and non-officers - archaically referred to as ‘servants’ - will be abolished.
  • Further ‘flattening’ of clerical and administrative grades will be sought.
  • A unified staffing structure will be the aim for town and county authorities.
  • With the development of the new management structure, greater opportunities will exist for the involvement of engineering and other professional/technical staff in the management of local authorities.
  • Recruitment will be subject to a major review; greater opportunities will be provided for graduate entry to local government.
  • More investment will be required in training and development; local authorities will be expected to devote at least three per cent of payroll to staff training and development.
  • A code of practice will be developed in relation to the employment of people with disabilities. Local authorities are required to meet the three per cent employment target at least.

Getting the organisation right

  • The regional authorities will be assigned new responsibilities for promoting sustainable development.
  • Measures are proposed to improve the level of commitment of public bodies (including local authorities) to the regional authorities.
  • The Dublin and Mid-East regional authorities will have a role in drawing up land use planning guidelines for the greater Dublin area which will have to be respected by the local authorities in the area when considering development plans. This will be extended to other areas as necessary.
  • The county and city authorities will remain the principal units of local government; but action is proposed to take account of services requiring co-operative efforts on a larger scale; to encourage decentralisation to area level and to address service delivery where boundaries intersect.
  • The development of town authorities will be supported and their capacity enhanced to play the fullest role possible in local government affairs.
  • There will be greater co-operation between county councils and town authorities with the provision of services in towns on a harmonised basis and co-ordinated plans of action for town improvement.
  • Local government law will be consolidated and modernised.


Implementation of the Programme will be driven by DOE in consultation with local authorities and other public bodies. There will be regular progress reports on implementation which will be published.


The need for change in local government has been on the policy agenda for a long time - too long. Ireland needs a strong and vibrant system of local government which empowers people to decide matters which are best decided locally and provides quality public services.

This Programme contains the most comprehensive series of measures ever for change in Irish local government. By confronting the difficult issues and giving a detailed action programme to tackle them, it sets the agenda for delivering better local government. The aim will be to create a system which delivers its own services efficiently, has a real input to other public agencies delivering local services, engages meaningfully with the community, and plays a far more central role in the democratic system. This aim will be realised by the measures detailed in the Programme and by the commitment to self-renewal from local authorities themselves.

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