OWNERS of commercial buildings will be forced to pay half their annual rates bill, even if the building is unoccupied, under a major reform of local government announced today.
Changes announced by Environment Minister Phil Hogan also include provision to hold a plebiscite in Dublin next year where voters will be asked to decide if they want a directly-elected mayor for the capital.
The Local Government Bill 2013 also involves merging six city and county councils in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford into three local authorities, the dissolution of 80 town councils and allows councillors to veto the appointment of a chief executive, formerly called a county manager.
The 194-page bill also removes the power from local councillors to force the chief executive to grant planning permission for particular projects, which is in line with a recommendation from the Mahon Tribunal.
The changes are opposed by town councillors, who have called on Environment Minister Phil Hogan to direct his reform package to the Constitutional Convention.
Mr Hogan said his proposals were the most “radical reform” of local government in over a century, but admitted that councils had to regain the public’s trust.
“This is the first time in over 100 years that we have attempted such a radical reform but it is necessary to bring our local government system up to date and to provide the kind of service our citizens deserve” he said.
The bill comes following publication of the ‘Action Programme for Effective Local Government - Putting People First’ last October,
It provides for major changes to local authority functions, structures, funding and governance, to “ensure that local councils deliver better services to their citizens,” Mr Hogan said.
“For too long local government has been by-passed by quangos. I want councils to do more for citizens and local communities, but I accept that first local government must regain public trust.
“This will take time but the reforms will facilitate by helping to renew the relationship between the citizen and their local council.”
The bill also allows councils to vary the rate of local property tax by up to 15pc. In all, the number of local authorities will reduce from 114 to 31 and the number of elected councillors will fall from 1,627 to 949.
New regional assemblies, and removal of the dual mandate – where councillors can sit on both town and county councils – will also be removed.
A standardised commercial rate will also be introduced across each county over a period of 10 years. Also, the level of vacancy refund of rates will be standardised at a rate of 50pc nationally in line with current practices in Dublin, Cork and Limerick cities.
The measures were an “essential part” of the Government’s reform agenda, and Mr Hogan said he hoped to have the bill enacted by the end of this year and well before next summer’s local elections.