Business

It's ludicrous that councils aren't given more power

For the 11 councils in Northern Ireland, it's not just about emptying bins
Derek McCallan

NORTHERN Ireland continues to have massive external interest because of Brexit and the absence of an Assembly. Internally, local government here is a resilient, democratic anchor. If better resourced, it could be the hub of sustainable communities and the economy.

Later this week the NILGA annual conference and awards take place to review, showcase and develop councils in Northern Ireland.

It comes at a time when a recent report from the New Policy Institute showed that one way of dealing with the current political paralysis is the unfulfilled potential of local government.

To keep Northern Ireland moving forward, greater devolution of responsibilities with proper financial resourcing must be put on the table, to strengthen democracy and in terms of how we spend £21 billion per year here, more local, needs based, investment decisions.

The New Policy Institute states that the main areas for full devolution to councils here could include local highways and transport, cultural and related services, environment, regulation, planning and regeneration, plus business and skills development.

At present, councils are responsible for under half of them. If they took them all, they would still only be responsible for just seven per cent of total public spending.

At present councils are responsible for only 4 per cent (£738m) of public spending in NI (2015/16), compared with 27 per cent in Scotland and Wales.

This is simply a crazy situation in which the NI Executive is responsible for most spend here. The Executive's 88 per cent share of total public spending is more than double that of Scottish and Welsh Governments.

The 11 councils in Northern Ireland are dynamic hubs of public service delivery and economic development. Councils are now much more than “bins, births and burials”. Collectively, they spend around £1 billion a year in our economy with ambitions to do a great deal more.

More needs to be done to give councils an unfettered environment - politically, legally, fiscally.

It's ludicrous that we still do not have the power of regeneration as, without it, ambitious infrastructure plans for exciting local, place shaping schemes are slower, held up. Investors don't hang about for bureaucracy. Councils have a vital role in developing places that attract entrepreneurs who create jobs and taxes. Actually, we just want to have the same powers as neighbouring regions so we don't suffer from continued competitive disadvantage.

Where do we go from here? NILGA, in the absence of political (ministerial) decision taking, has re-convened an elected member policy and budgetary forum, drawn from central and local government members, so that we can map out solving issues like getting a long-term budget for emergency planning.

We're talking floods here, something which doesn't need fiscal uncertainty. We're planning how key budgets like health and education can support the community planning role of councils. Joining things up saves money and motivates people. We mustn't let an institutional rot set in.

We're keen to develop further our work with parties, councils and NILGA's many partners in business, the voluntary and community sector, education, health and more.

Making Northern Ireland more normal and a dynamic place to do business shouldn't be construed as a drive for independence or a power grab, by local government. That's a shallow view.

NILGA's work is based on evidence both economic and social that councils can carry more resources and responsibilities so that local services can be delivered with an appropriate level of democratic scrutiny, and community input, which serves the economy, environment and our society better.

:: Derek McCallan is chief executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA).

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