Is it time to give councils more power?

2 Mar 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 2 Mar 2018

Nick Garbutt asks if devolving more power to local councils might help provide some of the political stability Northern Ireland so desperately needs. 

Many in civic society will be close to despair as they contemplate the political impasse which has gripped Northern Ireland, freezing governance as surely as the Siberian winds have chilled the climate.

There is a collective feeling of helplessness. A sense there will be no spring, just an endless political winter. And of course, it is not within civic society’s gift to resolve political divisions that have blighted public life for generations.  

Yet there are some government structures that have survived the turmoil, where elected members still sit, and in many instances work together, across party lines, for the common good.

Local government has been traditionally derided in Northern Ireland, and if you go back far enough in time you can find plenty of reasons for that. Yet in recent years local councils are both reorganised and reinvigorated.

Some are now arguing that they might hold the key to providing greater political stability in the future. This is one of the issues currently being considered by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster which is currently running an inquiry entitled Devolution and Democracy in Northern Ireland – dealing with the deficit.

It is hard to imagine a more important and timely piece of work. The political impasse is causing many unpleasant unintended consequences for all citizens and these must be ameliorated for society to continue to function.

It has received many submissions from individuals, civic society, a variety of interest groups, industry bodies and academics: many of these are insightful and thought-provoking. There is even one from Hospitality Ulster, giving a publican perspective on society’s ills.

Media attention for the investigation was dominated by the decision of the committee to invite loyalist Jamie Bryson to give oral evidence, which in turn prompted a boycott by the Alliance Party.

This was unfortunate because, as a result of this row, some of the more useful contributions did not receive any coverage at all.

One of these is from the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) whose chief executive Derek McCallan sat alongside Mr Bryson at the same committee hearing.

Discussions about devolution almost invariably concern the relations and balance of power between Westminster and Stormont. Yet there has been another constitutional and largely unreported battle that has played out in Northern Ireland – between Stormont and local authorities.

It has led to a position where councils in Northern Ireland have far less to spend and powers to exercise than their equivalents in England, Wales and Scotland. This has exacerbated the vacuum caused by the collapse of Stormont

The issue that civic society should ponder is whether transferring more power to councils might help to offset instability at Stormont and, in the long run, strengthen the position of politicians from all parties who have a more collaborative mindset rooted in a collective concern for the communities they serve.

As a point of principle most would agree that the closer democratic decision-making is to people and communities the stronger a democracy is. So therefore local authorities should have the maximum powers available consistent with the efficient running of a state.

This is clearly not the case in Northern Ireland where the centrist instincts of civil servants appear to have trumped local concerns.

The budgetary figures bring this starkly to life: councils in Northern Ireland are directly responsible for around £0.9 billion of NI’s £20 billion public purse – that’s 4%. This compares to 25% + of public purse investment by councils in Scotland, England or Wales.

How much better might it be, especially in the absence of an executive, if a much higher percentage of public spending was decided with and for the benefit of local communities rather than being imposed, top-down by departments? This would not just improve democratic accountability, but also strengthen community cohesion and community involvement in politics.

There are a whole raft of areas which in England, Wales and Scotland are the responsibility of local authorities, where our councils have no powers whatsoever. Some of these are large ones: education, housing and social care, for example. Others are what might be considered very basic: emptying gullies, on street parking, local transport and local roads.

Under local authority re-organisation councils are, or were, scheduled to get more powers. However with no executive this has been stalled, or in some important cases already stymied.

The most striking example of this is regeneration. Councils were to have been given regeneration powers but the decision to grant them were reversed. This puts them at a considerable disadvantage to their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales, many of whom now have lucrative city deals from the Westminster government which are having transformative impacts on local economies.

In other areas powers have been drip-fed to local authorities but without the necessary resources. For example the enforcement of landlord registration is now a local authority responsibility but the registration fees are being kept by the Department for Communities.

NILGA has all-party support and, in that context, it is hard to argue with its assertions that local authorities are massively under-utilised resources, and that boosting their powers would not only fill the current vacuum to an extent, but would also, in the medium term, have the potential for improving democratic accountability and community confidence in the democratic process.

The question therefore remains, why are our local authorities, uniquely deemed either not to be competent or trustworthy enough to exercise powers routinely undertaken elsewhere?

During the committee hearing the chair Andrew Murrison MP said that Professor John Tonge of Liverpool University had suggested in his evidence that increasing powers to local authorities would increase bi-partisan politics, creating 11 mini Stormonts.

This would be a commonly held view. We should be alert to the danger. Councillors are not paragons and certainly not immune from putting party political and cultural affiliations to the fore. Yet our council chambers are not the sectarian cockpits they once were. Belfast City Council, for example, is long past the “Dome of Delight” days and it is worth noting that cross-party collaboration there survived the flag dispute.

No council has fallen to political impasse. All function. And if some people don’t like them, if you are looking for democratic institutions in Northern Ireland, they are, frankly, all that we currently have.

And if we are to make judgements on future governance based on aberrant behaviour of the past maybe Professor Tonge should take a brief respite from Northern Ireland and study the history of Liverpool City Council and the chaos it created for itself and its citizens during the Militant Tendency days?

Nobody is suggesting that that unfortunate episode should have any impact on Liverpool City Council’s powers today.

No, it is hard not to conclude that the real driving force behind constraining council powers is not so much a concern about creating mini Stormonts but more an ideological and bureaucratic motivation to centralise power, rooted in the civil service which has been fighting a successful turf war with localist insurgents.

Now, with central government paralysed, it is perhaps time that some of those victories were reversed.


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