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New NILGA President urges understanding of local government

The new President of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) has said the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the urgent need to prioritise & strengthen government’s understanding of local councils, their potential, their resources and their vital role in society here, amidst the financial cliff edge local government faces.

Speaking at his inauguration at NILGA’s Annual General Meeting, which took place virtually today (18 June), Councillor Matt Garrett warned that the coronavirus had turned “financial cracks into craters” and said meaningful collaboration between councils, Stormont, business and the community will be key to safely emerging from the pandemic.

Local government as a sector in Northern Ireland is estimated to be losing £10.5m a month of income as revenue streams like leisure and tourism facilities and off-street car parking were forced to halt during the first wave of the pandemic. Councils in Northern Ireland have furloughed some workers on the government’s Job Retention Scheme, and the Department for Communities recently announced an emergency funding package of £20.3m to be split between local councils which alleviates many short term crisis points until the end of this month.

Laying out his vision for the next 12 months, Councillor Garrett said his priorities included working with the Assembly, Stormont Departments, and the Treasury to unlock vital funds to help local government navigate the crisis, and completing a review of how local government is better understood and funded.

Speaking after the virtual NILGA AGM, Councillor Garrett, new NILGA President, said: “This is an exceptionally challenging time for everyone involved in local government. Covid-19 has exposed the extreme financial fragility of our 11 local councils and, as a sector, we are haemorrhaging tens of millions of pounds a month. The current model of government in the North is not sustainable and cannot continue. For too long, local government has been undervalued and misunderstood.”

“Local government’s response to the pandemic has protected frontline services, the most vulnerable, saved lives, preserved good public health, and brought together extraordinary community and business partnerships across the North. Like partners in health and other key services, our frontline workers have gone above and beyond in serving their communities and I am humbled by the compassion and generosity of our local government heroes. I want to deliver a recognition event drawing on those involved in the response to the pandemic across our 11 council areas, formally thanking them wholeheartedly for their efforts over the past three months and beyond.”

“As NILGA President, I will work collaboratively with all 11 councils, all members, senior officers, council officials and Stormont to redefine the relationship between central and local government in our region, and work tirelessly to get the proper funding and resources that we require. Despite everything that it contributes to our communities, local government equates to less than 5% of NI’s annual public sector budget of £23bn. Councils can be ecosystems of economic vitality and lead the recovery from Covid-19, but they need the right tools and partnerships.”

“NILGA is an organisation driven by a desire to serve our communities and deliver for local people, not by ideologies or party politics. Never has this been as important as in the current climate. While I am honoured to have been appointed President, I am acutely aware of the mammoth task before us this year. Financial precarity is nothing new to anyone involved in local government but it has taken on a crisis dimension this year.”

“Covid-19 hasn’t caused these challenges within our sector, but it has massively exacerbated them. The pandemic has turned financial cracks into craters. It is time for councils to receive the backing they deserve. I and my colleagues will be evidence providers for MLAs, Ministers and Westminster over the next 12 months to secure this backing, and bring about a reformed, revitalised, and resurgent local government sector in the North.”

Outgoing NILGA President Councillor Frances Burton said: “It has been an immense privilege to be President of NILGA for the past year. I am proud of how we have worked through challenges and difficulties in a positive, proactive manner, and I want to thank my colleagues and fellow NILGA Officer Bearers for their work and dedication this year.”

“While Covid-19 and the response to the pandemic has naturally come to dominate the end of my term as President, we achieved much to be proud of over the past 12 months. We launched the ‘Civility in Public Life’ campaign to highlight the increasing level of public intimidation targeted at elected representatives; we celebrated the achievements of our community representatives at the Translink Ulster in Bloom and RHS Britain in Bloom events; we issued local councils with new guidance to help their workers report modern slavery; and we welcomed the return of the NI Executive.”

“I would also like to echo Councillor Garrett’s sentiments and thank everyone in local government who has worked diligently over the past three months to protect frontline services and serve their communities. The pandemic has highlighted the immense talent and dedication within our councils, and I am humbled by the effort and commitment of our frontline heroes.”

“I wish Councillor Garrett every success for the next year and I will be here to support him and the rest of the NILGA team in any way I can.”

NILGA Chief Executive Derek McCallan added: “I am looking forward to working closely with Councillor Garrett, plus the 11 councils at member and officer level over the next year. There is no disputing the importance yet fragility of our councils. Support from central government will be vital to mitigating against the worst excesses of the pandemic. This support should reflect that which has been invested in councils in all neighbouring jurisdictions, coupled with a restructured relationship for common good.”

“After local government kept the lights on in the Assembly’s absence over the past three years, providing key public services and fully functioning democratic representation, a fitting legacy post Covid would be an enhanced and reformed system of government in Northern Ireland. By designing new performance and resource distribution and by every part of government engaging in business transformation, we can reduce the impact of world recession and address it, locally. Immense political bravery plus societal and collaborative effort can make our 11 local councils’ individual hubs of leadership, entrepreneurship, and innovation.”