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Incoming MPs must prioritise more powers and finances for local government

Northern Ireland’s Parliamentary Candidates have been urged to commit to prioritising greater powers and resources for local councils here ahead of next week’s General Election.

The Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) has called on all returned MPs to prioritise the devolution of more resources, powers and finances to local councils here amidst the continued absence of an Executive or Assembly at Stormont.

Since the Executive collapsed in January 2017, local councils have been Northern Ireland’s only form of politically functioning government and now face significant financial and capacity pressures. NILGA has repeatedly and consistently called for the devolution of greater powers and resources, coupled with a revitalised Legislative Assembly, as a way of helping to strengthen local democracy in Northern Ireland and build more rational, locally determined, public service provisions tailored to local communities’ needs. Evidence has been drawn from existing practices right across the rest of the UK and Ireland. 

NILGA Chief Executive Derek McCallan said: “Ahead of next week’s General Election, NILGA is calling on our incoming 18 MPs to support the devolution of more powers and resources to local government here. We recognise the resilience and ingenuity being applied by much of the NI Civil Service, government agencies, in hospitals, schools and elsewhere where it matters most. But Northern Ireland simply can’t afford to keep lurching from crisis to crisis. Our public services are stretched nearly to breaking point and, increasingly, it is our citizens who are suffering. Political leadership nationally and regionally as well as locally needs to combine and remodel how we are governed, how we are financed and who should deliver public services. 

“Local government has taken on more powers and services with limited resources. It is as a sector willing to take the initiative and help. Currently, our councils invest less than £1 billion per annum of the country’s £21 billion public purse, a figure of around 4%. There’s no reason why we can’t have a role similar to that of unitary local authorities in Wales, which are responsible for 27% of public spending. More importantly, right now, redeploying resources and remodelling our public service landscape to one that is needs driven, locally driven and centrally supported & co-designed with local government, would be a good start post 12 December 2019. 

“Beyond service affordability and delivery themselves, the threat of climate change and the full decarbonisation of local public services cannot be tackled without significant financial and administrative support, and, despite the good work of bodies in government and the community, like the Northern Ireland Strategic Migration Partnership, changes to immigration policies will affect public service provision, in terms of how we source and provide employment for migrants, for the wider workforce and to meet our emerging skills needs now and well into the future.

“Councils of course want to get on with delivering for our local communities, but we need to be adequately resourced and financed. This call is a pragmatic, effective and workable solution to the continued vacuum and crises we are enduring, despite officials and front-line workers doing their best. National, regional and local government should lift what works well elsewhere and tailor it to a local solution here. Indeed, if as they say all politics are local, then – as we elect national leaders – we need to look at all public services within a local lens too. This is not rocket science. It is about institutions and political leaders doing the right things for the citizens we commonly serve.”  

The NILGA annual flagship conference will take place on 20 February 2020 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Belfast. ‘The Future of Local Government’ will help identify the investment, actions and policies councils and their partners play in shaping the future of our communities, environment and economy.