May could be the most meaningful local election in forty years

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Meet NILGA’s Derek McCallan, a rare political optimist in Northern Ireland who argues that the coming election in May offers extraordinary opportunities for change in local communities. He tells me that councillors are the most public spirited people you can get and that May could turn out to be the most meaningful local election in forty years.

"Elected members and officials and participants in local government are probably amongst the most public spirited people you can get in Northern Ireland" —Derek McCallan (picture, Guild Hall, Derry by Gregg Clarke)

“Elected members and officials and participants in local government are probably amongst the most public spirited people you can get in Northern Ireland” —Derek McCallan (picture, Guild Hall, Derry by Gregg Clarke)

After a week of gloomy debate about the efficacy of voting and the state of party politics in Northern Ireland last week, it’s helpful to hear a voice from behind the scenes, someone who works with elected representatives in local government from across the political spectrum.

Derek McCallan heads up the Northern Ireland Local Government Association. NILGA is a lobby group for councils and councillors from all political backgrounds meaning McCallan works side by side with members from Sinn Féin, the DUP, and everyone in between.

It’s his job to remain optimistic about government in Northern Ireland. But McCallan is genuinely enthusiastic about local democracy. He’s travelled the world visiting municipal administrations collecting wisdom about how to create structures that empower local people to shape and define their areas.

There are dramatic changes coming to local government in Northern Ireland. These changes will amount to “the greatest shakeup in more than 40 years” according to NILGA. 26 councils are becoming 11 and will be given new powers to plan, invest in and develop local communities.

Recently in the Belfast Telegraph, McCallan argued that the elections in May would be “the most meaningful local election in more than four decades.” I asked him to explain to me why.

“It’s the most meaningful because people will be aware that they’ll be voting for councillors and councils who will be performing different functions and services which demonstrably effect local communities.”

“Secondly it’s the most meaningful because local government’s boundaries and structures are all changing. So you’ll have, what’s being referred to on some occasions, as super councils, where those eleven will have greater powers, and greater functions.”

“If you want effective local administration and effective local representation this is the first time in awhile that people have had to rethink their views on the requirements of local government.”

“There hasn’t been this offering, there hasn’t been this kind of material change since 1972. So it is a political milestone. But it’s also an opportunity for regular folk to look forward to the role of the new councils to mandate those people who are going to effectively put local people first.”

Greater power might be coming to local councils, but what I wanted to know from McCallan is what’s at stake for average people. “There’s a huge opportunity for local government in Northern Ireland to actually invert this pyramid of central, regional—and government administrations being turned into local authorities where the authority is with local people.”

As an example, McCallan tells me how his own organisation, in collaboration with DETI and InvestNI, have applied for Northern Ireland to be the European Entrepreneurial Region in 2015. This is an award which celebrates the most forward thinking visions in Europe. It’s an important chance for each of the distinct 11 councils to highlight local enterprise. “But not just at a regional level. I’m talking about in Dungannon, in Ballymoney, in Newry.” It would allow local people to get involved in Foreign Direct Investment. And if Northern Ireland is successful in June, McCallan said, it would be an award for “real people, real folk.”

I asked McCallan what he has learned by working side by side with councillors all across Northern Ireland from all the main parties. “Local government, in terms of elected members and officials and participants in local government are probably amongst the most public spirited people you can get in Northern Ireland. And the reason for that is twofold. They’re not really in it for profit or money—they’re public servants, after all. And secondly they’re extremely close to every street and every field in every local community. So they know what they do makes a difference.”

McCallan told me the the time commitment and work load of a councillor is immense. “It’s more a question of when they’re not at work,” he said. “A combination of public spiritedness and technology means you’re never off duty. I know many councillors who could confirm 60 plus hours a week.”

Changes will not come all at once, and while they will be dramatic on a structural level, it will take time for people to feel their evidence. The local community in council areas will be handed the opportunity to get further involved in decision taking—whether planning, roads, water, or a festival.

“I’m quite reticent about saying people are going to see a big change over night. This is going to be an opportunity to influence over time, more democratic—accountability and better services in local areas. That’s going to be an incremental change.”

“But I do think that people will see that councils can offer them ways to influence pretty much all of the things that are talked about in the media. How do I sustain local people, younger people, how are they retained in my area? I don’t want to go to America, I don’t want to go to London.” 

There will be a greater sphere of influence and greater accessibility to the various tiers of government, which many people find either confusing or impenetrable. So to me, it’s councils, apart from the new services, and the existing services, a lot of things will remain the same, but I think councils will now be a gateway to better local influence of decisions that government is making.”

  • Charles_Gould

    Carrickfergus-Ballymena-Larne

    The whole is less than the sum of the parts. It just doesn’t work.

    Sorry. These three just don’t go together.

  • http://fitzjameshorselooksattheworld.wordpress.com/ fitzjameshorse1745

    To clarify….the headline is a direct quote from Mr McCallan AND your view David?

  • http://fitzjameshorselooksattheworld.wordpress.com/ fitzjameshorse1745

    Oops Barton …not David. Apologies.

  • Charles_Gould

    For all of Mr McCallan’s excitement about these council elections, I just don’t see people getting all that excited by the new powers. They are still not the powers that some councillors in other places have (elsewhere in these islands) and in those places people aren’t interested in council elections any more than they are in NI.

  • Gopher

    “Carrickfergus-Ballymena-Larne

    The whole is less than the sum of the parts. It just doesn’t work.

    Sorry. These three just don’t go together.”

    Its preposterous Charles, Portglenoe is an hours drive to Larne or Carrick

  • GEF

    Indeed, 11 new councils 6 will be a Unionist majority and 4 will be a nationalist majority with BCC no majority but alliance holding the balance of power. Nice one Cyril.

  • Gopher

    Pretty uncreative gerrymandering, Belfast is comical

  • Politico68

    After the last Local Elections the percentage breakdown of seats were as follows. DUP 30. UUP 17. SF 24. SDLP 15. NIAP 7.5.

    We know in the South Sinn Fein are going to at least double their representation, it will be interesting to see how they fair in the North.

  • http://bartoncreeth.com Barton Creeth

    Honestly, John/Fitz, I really have very little perspective on the timeline of politics here in Northern Ireland—so the title is just a summary of McCallan’s point and a way to attract attention to an idea: 2014 presents an opportunity.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Setting aside party politics these elections will see some major local changes, not all or even mainly for the good. The Semi independant states of Moyle and Fermanagh will disappear, councils noted for their rather partisan decisions ( dare I say Craigavon, Castlereagh, Magherafelt, & Newry ? ) will merge but will the slightly more concilitory traditions in Down, Banbridge, Dungannon, Bangor prevail? Many old face and almost all the big names will disappear (double jobbing ban recently finishing many of those off with family and employees picking up the seats! )

  • http://www.thedissenter.co.uk thedissenter

    Again, hubris.

    The extra powers are so limited that they amount to little change. Hence, in the search for new Chief Execs, many rose from second management tier because the challenge is not that great.

    Lets just take planning, and perhaps add that to economic development. So the new greater Lisburn will be able to grant consent to the John Lewis distribution centre? No.

    We are getting a reduction in the numbers of Councils, but still to many to generate significant savings through cost/scale benefits.

    If the Councils were truly to gain that many powers then it would require a significant reduction in Stormont depts. That may happen 2016, but only to embed DUP/SF control and not to in any way pursue good government.

    Expect people to vote negatively rather than positively, personally rather than expecting any great change. Looking at the choice available on Parties, six of one half a dozen of the other. First vote on the ballot paper will be for the person (individual) who will most upset all the troughers on the Hill.