The Local Government Bill…in Northern Ireland

October 17, 2013

Local Government reform is not just a feature of public service reform in Ireland. All across the OECD governments are having to confront the realities of austerity, increased globalisation, the rise of the competitive city-region and shifts in understanding the dynamics of public participation and collaboration. Such factors are influencing the process of reform at local, regional and national levels everywhere.

In some respects Ireland is coming late to an already well trod path of merger, amalgamation, super sizing and policy development based on placing citizen participation at the heart of governance at both local and national level.

Indicative of the general move to reform is that local government in Northern Ireland is seeing through the final pillar of local government re-configuration after almost a decade of discussion, delay, and finally political agreement of sorts on a renewed local public administration. The Northern Ireland Assembly is thus engrossed in its own Local Government Bill which was introduced into the Assembly in September 2013.

Under the reform proposals the existing 26 District Councils will be abolished to be replaced by an 11 council configuration as follows:

• Antrim and Newtownabbey District
• Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon District
• Belfast District
• Causeway Coast and Glens District
• Derry and Strabane District
• Fermanagh and Omagh District
• Lisburn and Castlereagh District
• Mid and East Antrim District
• Mid Ulster District
• Newry, Mourne and Down District
• North Down and Ards District

The Councils will have a wider range of responsibilities bringing them into a central role in local planning, notably community planning as is the case in Scotland, while also having the opportunity to create platforms for local service migration, much in the way that might be envisaged for local authorities in Ireland.

Amid the many changes envisaged for local government in Northern Ireland, there is some merit in looking, from the perspective of local government in Ireland, at proposals to underpin local powers of scrutiny.

The executive supervision (a form of corporate policy group as in Ireland) of the District Councils will be framed within an elected members context but alongside this executive committee will sit the overview and scrutiny committee made up of both elected members and external expertise.

The scrutiny committees will be supported by an independent Scrutiny Officer of the Council and will have power to examine the affairs of their Council.

This move towards scrutiny is in part mirrored in Ireland with Audit Committee structures being put on a statutory basis so perhaps there will be some scope for sharing experience and networking between the lessons that will be learned within both systems supporting accountability at local level on the Island.

Also of interest is the provision for community planning, something which Ireland sought to apply, with varying levels of success within the Development Board framework.

However, greater appreciation of the success of the process in Scotland seems to have encouraged the Government in Northern Ireland to apply a community planning model which will include greater opportunity for holding members of community planning districts to account.

Whether, of course this will actually be the case remains to be seen. In the Irish case, the establishment of Local Development Committees will have many similarities with the community planning process in both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

These new committees as replacements of the development boards do, however, seem to have greater power to influence expenditure and local policy in Ireland, relative to their near neighbours.

The Bill also provides a useful template in regard to ethics in local government, a concern clearly of the national political process in the Republic and thus, provides another interesting reform template on which to benchmark progress in opening local government to greater external appraisal and transparency.

Ultimately, the capacity of local government in Northern Ireland, will, as is the case in Scotland, be heavily influenced by the need to develop the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly over time.

This might be a constraint on the potential of local government to be a genuine leader of socio- economic progress at one level but the recent history of the local government system in Northern Ireland does provide some cause for optimism.

The Northern Irish system local government system, in the past two decades, when it is based upon cross-community agreement, has been a solid innovator in public service change, even when disagreement was the order of the day in Stormont and Whitehall.

This capacity to look to the needs of the local community and to set aside long-term disagreements over identity is a hallmark of the system. There might be much to be learned from this capacity to set aside long standing differences within councils to focus on the needs of their local communities. Ireland’s local and national systems, could do well to actively engage through greater networking and cooperation with the local government system in our nearest neighbour. There may be useful lessons for both parts of the Island in doing so.