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.