Smaller Than an English County – Does Size Matter?

With 18 MPs, an Executive of 15 ministers (including juinors), an Assembly of 108 MLAs and 26 Councils comprised of over 500 councillors the accepted wisdom is that Northern Ireland is over governed by international standards.   It has often been stated, on this site and elsewhere, that we are no bigger than an English county, such as Yorkshire, and should be striped back to similar levels of elected representation.  Plans for reducing the councils to 11, councillors by 20% , MLAs to 96 and MPs to 16 are well advanced, educations boards are due to go, and many other roles have been centralised, as yet there are no plans for reducing the number of ministers, it seems the big two and their Alliance sidekicks who hold nearly 90% of the ministerial posts are not so keen on this level of reform to date, that will be a battle for another day. 

Unfortunately the brunt of democratic reductions are going to be at the local level, with a 60%  cut in council numbers, costing in the region of £140 million to implement during tight economic times,  resulting in a questionable saving of £400 million over 25 years, questionable not least because who can predict 25 years ahead?  At best it is going to save £10 million a year, 1% of the total savings needed, but with hidden costs almost sure to wipe that out, originally the rational was to increase the local councils powers making larger units essential, however it now appears the Executive want to strip further powers from them.  With the economic benefits of the mergers in doubt maybe it is about time we also questioned the philosophy of a council cull before it is too late, are we really over governed?  Maybe some comparisons are needed.

Northern Ireland has a population of around 1.8 million on just over 5,000 square miles of land, bounded by an international boarder and 650km of sea coast, roughly the population is one third urban, one third rural and one third larger towns and villages.  How does this compare by international standards?

If Northern Ireland were an independent country it would rank 147th  in the world  by population, and 161st on land area, just above Botswana and Montenegro respectively, that is out of 225 nation states & territories, however we are not a nation state, if we were one of the 50 United States of America we would top Idaho as 13th from the bottom on population, would be much larger than 6 of  Canada’s 10 provinces, the 5th largest of Australian states and 13th largest of 16 German Lander, in fact lets go further and look at India where we would still be bigger than their 4th smallest state or larger than 58 of Russia’s Oblasts & Republics. 

However to date the United Kingdom is not a federal union or mega country, coming closer to home France has a similar population with 26 Regions, of which Northern Ireland would be the 15th smallest, but remains a very centralised country.   Italy probably is closest to reflecting the UK’s make up with a similar population, area and complex diversity with various forms of devolution, coming in at the 10th smallest of the 20 regions Northern Ireland could possibly be compared to Sardinia which has a high degree of devolved government, it in turn is divided into 8 provinces, which in turn are divided into Comunes.  In fact almost all of the above countries have at least 2 levels of local government below the regional level, with our existing 26 local councils larger than the vast majority of most rural local authorities.

What about the English counties that we are so often unfavourably compared to? Well the story is not so simple there, firstly Yorkshire is not a county, it is currently 4 counties, of the 85 English Counties only 27 have County councils, only those with mega cities within their boundaries have populations larger than Northern Ireland, the closest county population wise is Hampshire, which incidentally has 13 local councils, but as Yorkshire has been named previously let’s look a bit closer at its makeup.  With a population of nearly 4 million it is just over twice the population & size of Northern Ireland, but now is 4 counties, North Yorkshire is roughly the same area as NI with just over a million residents, the county council covers 7 of the 11 districts, with the other 4 urban districts being Unitary Authorities in the urban areas.  As a comparison the District of Richmondshire has a population of 51,000 with 33 councillors, compare this to Omagh with a larger population and only 21 councillors. 

In reality it is almost impossible to give a comparison with England as it has some many different systems in operation, Metropolitan, County, District & Parish,  but if Belfast City Council was a Metropolitan Borough it would be 39th  largest in ranking, while Moyle our smallest would be almost bottom, however at the end of it all most would agree that England is an example of how not to do local government, resulting in continuous alterations over the years.  Scotland & Wales have a similar story with Westminster forcing through many unwanted mergers, we should not repeat their mistakes.

Some rationalisation is required but I would suggest the current proposals are a poor option and would lead to a democratic deficit, 15 would be a much more suitable number of councils and probably much cheaper to implement, it will create districts people can identify with and enable more town to retain a level of local importance.

  • Cynic2

    Why do we need two tiers at all? Much better to have one organisation doing the lot.

    Abolish all the councils and you also remove all the parish pump politics, dilute local sectarian rivalries and the scope for Councils to bicker over trivia. If Ballymoney council didn’t exist it couldn’t end up in a shambles over flag waving, coat trailing nonsense.

    Most of the time of MLAs seems to be taken up with appeals from electors about the shambles their local council is in. At a stroke MLAs might gain some real power to influence departments rather than putting sticking plasters over the incompetence of their colleagues further down the political food chain.

    But it will never happen. The fact that it would be more efficient, save money and deliver better services is irrelevant. There are too many political mouths to feed and it would greatly reduce the scope for lo0cal ‘favours’ and other forms of corruption. So it will never happen and our leaders squabble over just how much of an extra bill they will make us pay to feed their party machines.

  • Barnshee

    “15 would be a much more suitable number of councils and probably much cheaper to implement, it will create districts people can identify with and enable more town to retain a level of local importance.”

    8 would be even more suitable ( 6 counties + Belfast and (London)Derry.)

    Far, Far too many non jobs Directors of SFA Town centre managers etc on salaries that way beyond their worth.
    All of this to Collect the bins, bury the dead, maintain the parks and marry the odd couple. WTF do they do all day

  • I believe the comparator used by some is the aggregation of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. Roughly the same land mass, population, urban rural mix and road infrastructure. I think one of the conclusions was that we in comparison are significantly over resourced in terms of health and education.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Barnshee, are you going to build the wall up the middle of Newry townhall?

  • Drumlins Rock

    Articles, Devon & Cornwall on their own are closer, with 1.7 million & a larger area together. Till recently they were covered by 16 councils, but Cornwall merged it’s 6 recently, which acording to Wikipedia was not popular with 89% of the population!

  • Sean Og

    Drumlins Rock – the 1898 Local Government (Ireland) Act move all of Newry into Down and all of Lisburn into Antrim.

  • Devon and Cornwall only? I’m pretty sure it was Somerset as well. I can understand populations changing significantly but not land mass unless boundary changes have occurred or widespread soil erosion. Mind you it could solve the partition question, soil erosion in the North and soil deposition in the South, what’s a few millennia between friends.

  • Cynic2

    I say again – why not zero. It would force everyone to identify with their local village / town and the wider NI.And save a fortune – so why not?

  • Pedant alert – Botswana is the world’s 47th largest country; the United Kingdom as a whole ranks 80th.

    The Bahamas, on the other hand, does sit next to Montenegro in the land area chart…

  • Mark McGregor

    I have a small apple and a large orange. I can peel both but only one divides into large segments without a knife. Both contain pips but of differing sizes. Other people have fruits of different sizes and characteristics. Some are small, some large.

    The world doesn’t idealise English regional fruit but lets judge all fruits by the Yorkshire gooseberry.

  • Cynic2


    You can squeeze both to get juice

  • Relative out of hospital wanted to go to Coleraine to single level house to recuperate, to avoid challenge of stairs for first couple of weeks out, but needed daily visit from nurse to dress wound. Hospital in Belfast trust could not organise with any certainty this service 50 miles outside Belfast because it was outside the Trust area where the relative has home, on admission paperwork. Why do we have all those Trusts instead of one strategic board and a single level delivery model where you know where the decisions are made. We’re too small and the duplication and barriers to patient centred service are unjustified.

  • clangy

    I suggest 10 councils. The six counties and two cities (previously county boroughs) that existed prior to 1973; plus our two ‘new’ cities that coincidentally sit on county boundaries. That would give the strong identity that is lacking in the current proposal.

    The delivery of most services should be devolved to these councils – planning, local roads, urban regeneration, rural development etc.

    Stormont should be reduced to 80 MLAs and the Executive should comprise no more than six Departments with only policy functions and a few strategic services. It should behave like a government, not an overblown parish council!

  • Mark McGregor


    You should address your queries and complaints over this to those responsible – Michael McGimpsey for mismanaging the initial review but more importantly Edwin Poots as the Minister currently responsible and John Compton, Chair of the HSCB.

    They are having yet another expensive review as we speak:

    Though, good luck on expecting anything other than expenditure and paper promises as the main outcome.

  • MMcG – Won’t waste the breath. Expectations are very low and even then mostly disappointed. Add the Unions to that mix, who don’t want change and seem not to know what they want. (This past week heard nurses complain they didn’t know what the ‘strike’ was about.) Generally, there is too little backbone, complete lack of management awareness, and too many self-interests to make progress. And that applies to practically every Department. Consultation anyone?

  • Drumlins Rock

    Clangy, prior to 1973 their were local councils too, maybe there is the need for them for petty things, like weed control, hmm hmm. Powers and budgets aren’t necessarily the best use of councils, let stormont make the big plans and coucils tweak them a bit for local needs. The counties should be respected but they obviously arent equal, Fermanagh is too small, Antrim way too big, but taking the cities out might work. Belfast, Derry, Newry & Lisburn, obviously, how about adding Craigavon, Newtownabbey/Carrickfergus and the Gold Coast to that. Leaving Fermanagh, Londonderry, & Armagh Counties, and upper and lower Antrim, Down & Tyrone, then cluster them into 4 groups for much of the services.