The Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) has called for the immediate return of the NI Executive to resolve the financial pressures faced by local councils, NI Water and the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS) after meeting with chiefs from both organisations.
NI Water’s Sara Venning and Interim Chief Fire & Rescue Officer Michael Graham from the NIFRS met with NILGA’s Central-Local Government Political Forum today to discuss budget pressures, key local service provision and governance in Northern Ireland.
The forum, made up of MLAs and Councillors from the five main parties and 11 councils across Northern Ireland, brings together all levels of government in NI, as well as relevant stakeholders, to seek solutions to matters of common concern across the local government network.
In the Assembly’s absence, the Forum provides opportunity for co-operation, maintaining a key link between central and local government members in Northern Ireland, with councils facing unprecedented pressures on their budgets and resources. Its existence, however, serves to sharply highlight the increasingly unsustainable position in which the continued absence of an Assembly has left local government and other key public services.
The 11 local councils are now the only democratically elected and fully functioning part of government currently fulfilling all their duties, and unfinished business is piling up, including elements of the Local Government Act over four years since it was made law.
The Forum, which met at NILGA’s offices, heard presentations from both organisations on their mounting financial and resource pressures.
Chief Executive of NILGA, Derek McCallan said:
“Today’s meeting with two of Northern Ireland’s most important public services has come at a crucial time. Ms Venning and Mr Graham outlined to us the financial pressures their organisations are facing.
“Local government shares their concerns and many of these same pressures, so NILGA wants to see a working and sustainable Assembly and Executive up and running to resolve these pressures as soon as possible. Until that happens, however, local councils must be given the powers, resources and finances to get things done.
“Public services like NI Water can play a vital role in enabling Northern Ireland’s economic growth. In key sectors like tourism and agrifood, NI Water provides high-quality water and effective treatment of the wastewater generated. But, as Ms Venning clearly outlined to us today, the stark reality is Northern Ireland’s water infrastructure is a relic from decades ago. Wastewater facilities in 99 towns across all 11 council areas are at or near capacity which will have a knock-on effect on housing, business expansions and ‘city deal’ projects and flooding and drainage networks need updated. NI Water estimated earlier this week that it needs over £2.5billion to bring NI’s water networks into the 21st century. To address major infrastructure deficits, key public services like NI Water need immediate and significant levels of government support and funding.”
Councillor Frances Burton, NILGA President also commented:
“As we saw with the responses to the Primark fire in Belfast city centre and the mountain wildfires in August 2018, the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service is a vital public service we cannot do without. Unfortunately, the NIFRS is facing intense budgetary pressures and this was a good opportunity for elected representatives to hear how they are managing these in a safe and effective way. However, like all our public services, NIFRS needs a functioning NI Executive. Local councils will do all they can to assist the NIFRS and will work collaboratively with the service to map out a future direction for Northern Ireland but they need greater powers and resources to do so.
“We want to see key public services like water provision and fire and rescue services fully funded and given all the support they need to best carry out their roles. The strain on these vital public services, as well as local government, is as severe as ever. The situation is not sustainable and fails the ordinary people of Northern Ireland. Local government will work with key public services like NI Water and the NIFRS to ensure we can provide high-quality public services. But we need to be given the tools to do our job properly.
“Any new Programme for Government must prioritise devolving greater powers to local government to ease the significant pressures currently felt across the public sector. Local councils have been the only fully functioning form of government in Northern Ireland for nearly three years. It is time they are equipped with the powers, resources and finances to make Northern Ireland more accountable, sustainable and well-governed.”