After the Local Government Elections – Our Programme for Government must have greater local focus and investment, through Councils

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By Derek McCallan, Chief Executive, Northern Ireland Local Government Association

Following the local government elections at the start of May, the 11 Council Chambers across Northern Ireland are now filled with some experienced and quite a few new faces. The 462 Councillors that were elected are now in situ and settling into the world of local democracy, planning the future of our cities, towns and villages, renewed and refreshed for both the opportunities and challenges that await them for the next 4 years. This is a new mandate and a new time for local government in Northern Ireland.

This is the first full term since the reform of local government in 2015 and offers new opportunities and serious resource management decisions for Councillors and Councils to step up to the plate, provide solutions and work on behalf of everyone, with much stronger partnerships required with the rest of government politically and financially.  

Councils have been working hard to ensure that Northern Ireland is an attractive place to do business and to live, and have increasingly been at the forefront of enterprise here. They are well placed to show that despite the deep freeze at Stormont, Northern Ireland is open for business and Councils will continue to work to attract investment, including seeing both the Belfast and Derry-Londonderry City Deals through to fruition.

No matter what the situation is with the Assembly and Executive, local government continues to deliver for people and local communities. This has been the case for nearly three years of stalemate, and it will certainly be no different in this mandate. However, our local councils have limited powers and very limited resources – investing less than £1 billion per annum of N. Ireland’s £21 billion public purse. A whole system review of public sector finances is needed here and in the absence of Ministers the public – industry, social economists, the voluntary sector – are working with NILGA to deliver new ideas which are exciting, locally led, and will not be subject to institutional bureaucracy. 

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Combined with the fresh thinking and enthusiasm of the new mandate, Councils with a growing partnership of co-investors can be the vehicles for change in Northern Ireland and have a crucial role to play in creating places that attract entrepreneurs. They also contribute to developing and sustaining thousands of new jobs across Northern Ireland and keep our much needed public services running. However, to enable Councils to carry out such functions, it is imperative that Councils deliver during this mandate with stronger financial support from the government departments seeking delivery by and through councils. Local government is not an add on, not anymore, so it should be treated as a pivotal partner, particularly through community planning investment and receiving the requisite funds for the many roles it delivers for our government partners.

Councils are being asked to deliver on more, but with no additional resources to reflect the increased asks. This year alone, event traffic management, which has been transferred to Councils, is costing around £900,000 per year, but the budgets are not being offered to help and deliver.  

This is why a review of local government in Northern Ireland – including how it is financed and performance measured - is required. It is important that we challenge the status quo and appreciate that Councils are being asked to deliver on increasing demands without the financial support to back it up. Councils in Scotland and Wales are responsible for 27% of public spending, compared to local government here only being responsible for 4%. It is incomprehensible that we continue to lag behind the other devolved regions even in terms of an institutional shift to getting greater devolution to communities, through councils, on matters like climate change, regeneration and local transport. Community planning is a great model and brilliant data has been brought together in each council, but – and it is a big but – don’t expect Community Planning to work fully until every relevant part of government takes a significant part of its annual and longer term budgets and invests in each of the 11 community plans. That’s not radical, it happens everywhere else. Not doing this is continuing silos and continuing our region’s competitive disadvantage.

There are some critics who will say that Councils are not fit for such things but the track record of delivery for local people in local places cannot be ignored. I travel across NI with public servants, politicians and other visitors from Manchester, Dublin, Cornwall and continental Europe and they marvel at the community hub, park, preventative health and leisure facilities existing and planned, together with the innovative yet prudent approach to financing them. However, the facilities must be affordable as well as high quality and must be managed competently by councils and the community itself. Taking this example, Councils are capable and are certainly up for the challenge, but this must be met with the skills development & resources to enable them to do the job. With the beginning of the new term, the time has never been so apt to see a greater devolution of powers and matching resources for local government here.

NILGA has a group of strategic business, community and environmental partners jointly committed to making Northern Ireland a truly sustainable and successful place, with the councils at the hub of change. With other partners joining us weekly, it’s a challenging time but an exciting period ahead.