Over 200 people attended a major local government conference on Thursday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Belfast, the first council led conference since the restoration of Stormont.
Jointly delivered by the Northern Ireland Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (SOLACE NI), the 2020 Local Government Conference focused on work to ensure sustainable communities and strong local councils in NI, defining the policies and evidence required to achieve this, together with a push for greater local decision taking in government, and the co-design of the emerging Programme for Government.
Speakers included Junior Ministers Gordon Lyons MLA and Declan Kearney MLA, Belfast City Council’s Suzanne Wylie, Pivotal’s Ann Watt, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s Anne Donaghy, senior civil servants, representatives from the business and voluntary communities, and the conference’s keynote speaker, award-winning journalist Lesley Riddoch.
Supported by APSE, Version 1, and NI Water, this was the first Local Government Conference since the restoration of the NI Executive. For three years, local councils were the only democratically elected form of government in Northern Ireland, resulting in massive financial, administrative and capacity challenges.
Speaking at the conference, NILGA Chief Executive Derek McCallan said: “Today’s conference was a fantastic opportunity to bring together ministers, civil servants, business partners and community leaders, indeed anyone with an interest in the future of local democracy and sustainable local councils. It is clear from the discussions, policy pointers and presentations that there is a real appetite for transforming our system of governance and giving our councils – together with a more participative community – more powers to co-design how we spend the £23 billion annual public purse.
“Councils in Northern Ireland are a unique and, in many ways, an untapped resource, restrained by the limited devolution of new powers in 2015. Today’s conference explored innovative ways that local councils can better deliver for their communities, including through responsible planning and place-shaping, community-led public service design, tackling the climate emergency, and exploiting new and emerging technologies for the benefit of everyone in our communities.
“With the Executive now back at Stormont, we want to see a comprehensive and far-reaching set of actions delivered which will put greater powers in the hands of local communities. Local government here has ambition and is developing capacity to be the service hubs of our community, but to be so requires institutions to move power, resources and delivery more locally, just as in every other part of the UK, and in Ireland. It’s time to challenge councils & equip them with resources, based partly on the political governance they maintained for three years without our Legislative Assembly, but mainly because this would lead to more effective and efficient public services.”
SOLACE NI Chair David Jackson said: “SOLACE was proud to deliver today’s conference in partnership with NILGA. This was a hugely ambitious conference focusing on solutions – everything from infrastructure and planning to shaping Northern Ireland’s high streets and getting our councils to zero-carbon. The future of government in Northern Ireland will be shaped and defined by strong, community-oriented local councils. Today was a great opportunity to define how we transform our system of local governance and sustain our communities.”