Councils face a new future in Northern Ireland
by Paul Gosling
Local government has played a central role in the modern history of Northern Ireland – but not an honourable one. The failings of local authorities in the 1960s were a major factor in the onset of the Troubles, in which over 3,700 people died. So the big question now, with devolved government restored and a successful peace process in place, is can local authorities perform better this time round? Councils are being given an opportunity to prove they can, with reorganisation now agreed that will lead to limited new powers.
The immediate cause of the Troubles was anger amongst Catholic, nationalist and republican populations at their treatment by government – particularly local government. Housing – controlled at that time by councils and the Northern Ireland Housing Trust – was perceived by Catholics to be allocated preferentially to Protestants. When Catholics created their own housing associations -as they did in Derry under the leadership of John Hume – planning applications for the building of new homes were rejected, again by councils. Catholic anger was further stoked up by their claims that unionist councils mostly gave jobs to Protestants. In some instances, control of councils was achieved through blatant gerrymandering of ward boundaries and housing allocations.
Even today, many Protestants would dispute this version of history – but it is a view that has been backed by the UK Government. “Local government was identified by the [Government’s] Cameron Commission as one of the immediate causes of the outbreak of the Troubles,” says Dr Sydney Elliott, a politics lecturer at Queens University and a leading historian of the period. But Elliott points out that seeing only unionist councils discriminating against a Catholic/nationalist population is too simplistic. “There was a very effective nationalist system in places like Strabane and Newry,” he explains.
Discrimination and inequality reached a point where the unionist Northern Ireland government felt it had to intervene. Councils guilty of what Elliott calls “bad conduct” in abusing powers had those powers removed. With Belfast, Londonderry, Armagh and Omagh all losing their powers, this effectively put an end to local government in Northern Ireland. When local government was fundamentally reorganised in 1972, councils were left with few responsibilities – widely referred to as just the bins, baths and burials.
That situation has remained – until now. Things began to change with Peter Hain as secretary of state for Northern Ireland. He instituted the Review of Public Administration, which recommended that councils gained significantly more powers – including over planning, local roads maintenance, youth services, libraries and fire and rescue – and the replacement of the existing 26 district councils with seven new single-tier regional ‘super councils’. The proposals caused a storm.
Whether by accident or design, the seven council model was acceptable to only Sinn Fein of the main political parties. The Democratic Unionists and the Ulster Unionists wanted 15 councils, while the Social and Democratic Labour Party was very cautious about regaining powers taken away with good reason in the 1960s and 1970s. (“The SDLP haven’t moved on at all,” says Elliott.) The seven council option became one of the bargaining tools used by Hain to force Ian Paisley’s DUP into government – so they could reject it.
With the restoration of devolved government, the new environment minister – the DUP’s Arlene Foster – put the RPA seven council proposals on hold. When she published her ’emerging findings’ of outline alternative proposals, preferred options included going for either 11 or 15 councils, and with many fewer powers – losing the previously recommended fire and safety, road maintenance and most of planning. Speaking to LGC at the time, Heather Moorhead, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, said: “It’s completely de minimis – it’s 25% of what was on offer previously. It’s a joke.”
Minister Foster has now published an agreed outline decision on local government reform – just in time to meet the deadline for cancelling next year’s elections for the existing district councils. Following a day of hard negotiations between the two main parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – a compromise was agreed of 11 councils, that will be operational, probably, from 2011.
The negotiations focused on the number of councils, rather than resolving what they will do. Some transferred powers have been agreed – including community planning, local tourism, local economic development and urban regeneration, with more to follow, if the councils prove up to the job. But there are several uncertainties.
Transferred responsibilities are to include “aspects of planning” – but officials are unable to explain what that means. One leading SDLP politician told LGC the party would find it unacceptable for local government to be given full planning powers. Yet Alderman Arnold Hatch, an Ulster Unionist councillor on Craigavon Borough Council and president of NILGA, says this is a non-negotiable minimum requirement for additional powers. “If you don’t have planning, you don’t do local government,” he says. “Planning is an essential part of place shaping.”
Bumper Graham, assistant general secretary of Northern Ireland’s main public service union, Nipsa, says it has been told by the minister’s officials that planning decisions will definitely be handed to local government. However, there will be no involvement by councillors in individual approvals, with full powers delegated to officers. Instead, councillors will decide local policy, while regional government officials will decide on schemes of regional importance and set regional planning policy.
There is also confusion over the delegation of new housing powers. While NILGA says it has not been given any information on which powers will be devolved, Nipsa reports that energy conservation, multiple occupancy homes, unfitness inspections and the provision of travellers’ sites will become responsibilities for the new councils – though NILGA says councils do not want responsibilities for travellers’ sites.
Other powers that may – but may not – be handed over to councils include a role in the provision of libraries and youth services and some oversight of health services. A final decision on these has not yet been made. Leading DUP figure and former minister Gregory Campbell MP told LGC that he expected all these matters to be resolved by the time the minister addressed the Assembly providing further details of the new arrangements, soon after Easter.
One key decision, though, will not be resolved by then – how the councils will be governed. At present, there is no structured political leadership of councils. Decisions are made by committees and meetings of the full council, with a figurehead mayor, but no designated leader or cabinet. To protect religious minorities, committees are constituted proportionately in line with the number of elected members a party has.
While this has mostly worked in preventing sectarian decision-making (though there are still occasional accusations), critics say it has failed to provide dynamic and consistent leadership. As councils take on more powers, they need to adopt a stronger and more coherent model of political leadership.
NILGA’s Heather Moorhead says that there is interest in following Wales’ example of giving councils a choice between the cabinet, committee or elected mayor models. But any of these options may face strong resistance from people concerned about a return to the bad old days of rotten borough local government.
Arlene Foster chairs a strategic leadership board, which is overseeing the move to stronger local government and has a policy development panel that is to propose a new system of governance for councils, with checks and balances. Yet, although it has been meeting for months, there is no sign of it achieving a consensus favouring any particular model.
“That governance issue will be dealt with in the next year or so,” says Alderman Hatch. It needs to be. Without it, Northern Ireland’s councils may again prove incapable of operating effectively.
* This article originally appeared in Local Government Chronicle in March 2008