Bypass Stormont and empower Councils to help those most in need…

Despite Liz Truss’s announcement that the UK government will introduce a new bill to change the post-Brexit trade deal for Northern Ireland, there is absolutely no certainty about how long the current disruption and chaos at Stormont will last.

As our devolved government lurches from one crisis to the next there is a necessity to reform the Assembly but there is also a need to keep the wheels on the track and deliver for those most in need.

On Monday evening I attended the launch of a new Anti-poverty strategy at a Community and Voluntary Sector Panel event in Craigavon. Their new action plan comprised five main themes and associated initiatives. However, the one issue that stood out to me, above all others, was the need to empower those who are most in need and to hear their voices.

Fuel poverty, the cost of food and essentials, transport prices and the modernisation and insulation of our housing stock are all pressing issues. However, at this time of great need, it is depressing that Stormont has returned to its cycle of collapse and crisis.

However, one potential solution to this is to empower those areas of government which are currently still working, are more stable, and are willing to take on more responsibility – and that includes our eleven Local Authorities.

Our Councils performed effectively during the recent pandemic; distributing emergency funding to our local retail and hospitality businesses, supporting community and charity groups in times of need when the restrictions were impacting their operations and fundraising, and maintaining frontline services.

And more recently, providing emergency assistance to those affected by the conflict in Ukraine, including the setting up of central hubs to provide drop off points for essential items like baby food, tinned foods, sleeping bags, toiletries and bedclothes. Also, the creation of Ukraine assistance centres which provide help and advice to those who are fleeing the conflict.

These unsung heroes of the response – including community volunteers, council officers and even some of our elected representatives – showed that when individuals, grassroots activists and communities are empowered they can achieve much more than the usual top-down approach often preferred by Stormont.

Barack Obama famously said,

“The best education I received was working with people in the community on a grassroots basis. Because what it taught me was that ordinary people, when they are working together, can do extraordinary things.”

So, at this watershed moment, how can we put these wise words into practice and empower our communities and deliver more for those most requiring help?

One way to achieve this would be to transfer more powers, and their associated budgets, from Stormont to our eleven Local Authorities.

This will not be easy, given the current political deadlock, but we should not rule out the need for the UK Government to step in and bring forward suitable legislation.

This may not be universally popular, but what choice do we have when faced with these serious challenges and, also, an economy to drive forward which can create opportunities for everyone? Especially for the younger generations.

After all, the next generation are the ones who will decide whether to stay in Northern Ireland or move away and who will be most impacted by the choices we make now.

Furthermore, councils are not subject to Stormont’s calamitous community designation system which requires MLA’s to designate as ‘nationalist’, ‘unionist’ or ‘other’ and therefore tend to be more stable.

And even if councillors from any one party decided to boycott council meetings (and I really hope they don’t) council business could still progress as usual.

Unfortunately, our councils currently have fewer powers compared to their counterparts in other regions, like Scotland and England. And the new Councils, which were formed in 2015, were designed to be larger and more powerful.

Services such as local economic development and community funding, full regeneration powers and a range of other services could be transferred from Stormont to councils if either local politicians or the UKgov had the political will to legislate for it. This would certainly be a game-changer for local communities and local democracy.

Central government is also faced with significant problems in resolving the horrendous hospital waiting lists and upgrading our housing stock. Here again, councils could play a role in supporting the social care and housing sectors to free up the NHS and other departments to target their resources more effectively.

In conclusion, as the current crisis at Stormont continues, we should empower our local communities and focus on those most in need. And not just those in our own communities but those affected by the war in Ukraine and other troubled areas across the world.