Devolving powers

As Stormont faces a lengthy lay off and the potential for a prolonged period of direct rule, the prospect of greater devolution of powers to local councils is a topic requiring further discussion.

Although still in relative infancy the transfer of economic development, planning and community planning powers to local government has been viewed largely as a success and encouraged talk of greater devolution of powers and resources from central government.

Prior to the dissolving of the Assembly, local governments were dealt a major blow when Communities Minister Paul Givan (above) u-turned an agreed decision to devolve regeneration powers, including the ability to improve public realm and provide development grants. The legislation to transfer the powers had timed out under the previous Assembly and after taking up the role, the Minister opted for a “new direction of travel”.

Retaining the powers of regeneration within the Department, the Minister said: “I want my Department to be at the forefront of that change, using all of the powers and resources at its disposal to achieve the outcomes and the ambition the Executive has for our society as set out in the Programme for Government. This is not the time to tinker with who is responsible for what, or to concern ourselves with the splitting up of the regeneration budget. Rather it is the time for all the stakeholders to work together to maximise our joint effect and achieve positive change in the issues that have bedevilled this society for too long.”

The move was largely criticised both by opposition parties and by local governments. Speaking at a Westminster All Party Parliamentary Group last year, Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) Chief Executive Derek McCallan summed up the felling around the potential of devolving further powers.

“The reform conferred new powers like planning, developing the local economy of each area, and community investment to the 11 authorities, taking a multi-agency, one public purse approach to delivering services to and representing our all of us in Northern Ireland,” said McCallan. “But reform in service quantity terms is much, much less than that proposed in 2007 under direct rule. Councils have some power and some services, much less so than in other devolved nations, and when compared to the Republic of Ireland. Good government requires local decision taking which is effective, innovative and responsive.”

He added that the ideology that central government can accommodate the variety of needs across councils: “I sense an appetite for change amongst fatigued local businesses and residents, and also from civil service colleagues too. Councils invest six per cent (less than a £1 billion) of the £20 billion public purse here in Northern Ireland – compared to 23-26 per cent elsewhere across these islands. Some activities which should be in the hands of local government remain, often absurdly, in the grip of central government. Should gullies be emptied by a central body, and on-street parking and libraries still in the hands of a central government department?”

NILGA has promoted widely its Programme for Local Government which includes widening of powers and resources but have also proposed a Devolution Bill, going beyond Stormont. The recent inaction of Stormont has given even greater credence to such a bill.

Speaking to the BBC after the recent collapse of the Assembly, McCallan suggested that councils were willing and able to step up and fill the void left by Stormont.

“Eleven councils now, seamlessly since 1972, have been delivering services, and they want to plan their local economies,” he said. “They want to assemble land, they want to get regeneration, they want to work with other government departments.

“If there isn’t a budget in this looming uncertainty, then give the councils the power and the resources to do the job.”

While the no timeline can be put on the current political impasse, the current economic situation has increased pressure on central government to approve greater devolution – even beyond the withheld powers of regeneration.

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