The time is now right to extend the responsibilities of local councils in Northern Ireland through greater devolution from Stormont.
That’s the finding of new report commissioned by the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, which has called for local councils here to be given more resources and responsibilities.
The ‘Devolution within Northern Ireland’ report, authored by the independent New Policy Institute, states that “the opportunity now exists to unlock the potential of local government as the hub of public services and one which has a key part to play to solving the current paralysis.”
Councils here - as in England, the Republic of Ireland, Wales and Scotland - could have direct responsibility for services and, like elsewhere, undertake scrutiny of matters which remain the direct responsibility of the NI Executive or its agencies, the report states.
The report highlights:
• Councils were responsible for less than 4% (£738m) of public spending in NI in 2015/16, compared with 27% in Scotland and Wales. • The NI Executive’s 88% share of total public spending was more than double that of the Scottish and Welsh Governments.
• Neighbourhood services are the New Policy Institute’s main candidates for devolution to councils which cover 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 be responsible for just seven per cent of total NI public spending.
• Councils could also exercise scrutiny over areas of spending, for example aspects of social care and public health, which remain the responsibility of the Executive or its agencies. Scotland’s Local Governance Review is a model which could be adopted to examine this approach in NI.
Derek McCallan, Chief Executive of NILGA commented: “It must be recognised that to keep Northern Ireland moving forward, greater devolution of responsibilities with proper financial resourcing must be put on the table, not just as the antidote to current paralysis but to strengthen democratic input by local people in the longer term in how we spend £21 billion per annum here.
“It’s the norm in all other places.”
“It’s not a drive for independence or a power grab, by local government, that’s a shallow view. Rather, it is based on evidence and recognition that councils can carry more resources and responsibilities (given the success of the new local government system) away from the Executive and the central government to keep local services being delivered with an appropriate level of democratic scrutiny, which serves communities better.”
He added: “This independent report provides us with evidence that this works in Scotland and Wales and is not an alien concept - places where a quarter of their £50 billion annual budgets are delivered in a far more cost effective & localised way.
“We have taken action in the absence of political (Ministerial) decision taking, re-convened an elected member forum, drawn from central and local government members, so that we can map out how this can happen; we’re very 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.”