With the council elections imminent and the return of devolution as far off as ever there has been a renewed focus on the role of local government and the potential to widen its remit in the absence of Stormont. Newton Emerson in the Sunday Times highlighted the work of the umbrella group for councils, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), who have set up a forum with representatives from the five main parties to push for more powers to be devolved from Stormont to councils.
It is good to see the change of heart from former Executive parties as they join the call for additional powers for councils. When I undertook initial consultation with Ministers as part of my Private Member’s Bill for the Transfer of further functions to local government the then Minister for Communities Paul Givan responded on behalf of the Executive to refuse to support the Bill.
When the new ‘super councils’ were launched in 2014 they were sold as a major change to local government in Northern Ireland. The reality is that while the scale has increased with the fall in council numbers from 26 to 11 there has been a limited step change in powers and impact on the wider delivery of public services. The oft quoted figure of 6% of public expenditure being delivered by councils here compared to 25% in England illustrates the minimal role that local government plays.
There is a strong argument for increasing powers to local councils to improve responsiveness to local needs, to reduce duplication of effort across various government departments and, without a functioning Assembly, to bring democratic accountability to service delivery.
My PMB proposed moving 18 powers from Executive Departments to councils which I believed would have been transformative but not too large a switch of powers to overawe the 11 new ‘super councils’. The proposals included services that most members of the public probably believe are already delivered by councils and would be local government powers anywhere else on these islands. Powers to be devolved included a raft of environmental services like grass cutting and weed spraying along with street lighting, management of derelict buildings, local roads maintenance, regeneration powers, youth services and libraries. The powers would be transferred in a similar way to planning and off-street car parking in 2014. Which leads to the one ongoing problem – finance.
During consultation on the Bill most councillors were hungry for the additional powers but had worries about being handed new responsibilities without the associated funding. Experience has shown that the previously devolved powers have not been sustainably funded meaning that councils have inherited facilities that require significant investment at ratepayers expense.
To avoid this the PMB proposed an hypothecated budget transfer from the regional rate increased annually by the regional rate rise. Councils would need to agree the baseline budget and service levels with the responsible Civil Service Department as this is the critical starting point for any transfer process. In addition, the PMB also proposed to re-name the regional rate to the Assembly Tax to stop any confusion from the ratepayer about who is responsible for future tax rises. The creeping growth of the regional rate as a proportion of the total bill means it is now the largest portion of a rates process that most ratepayers believe is a council tax.
The reform of local government has too often been a false dawn with new powers over sold and potential cost savings undelivered. The DUP and Sinn Fein opposed releasing power and responsibility from the Executive. Their newly found support for enhancing the role of local government must be welcomed but may well illustrate the expectation that both parties have for any return to Stormont. The Secretary of State says that the devolution of powers to councils is a matter for Stormont. That bizarre Catch 22 statement highlights the need for her to take on full direct rule powers to make the decisions the entire public sector and business community is crying out for. The upcoming council elections would then give Karen Bradley an opportunity to give power back to local communities and ensure that the missed opportunity of 2014 is not repeated. Local councils may then be worthy of the title ‘super’.