Chris Page of BBC Northern Ireland reports on the new ‘Super’ Councils, that take over tomorrow. There will be eleven of them, with Belfast taking in parts of Castlereagh, which is being combined with Lisburn (LCCC). Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council joins up with Cookstown and Magherafelt in the new Mid-Ulster Council, while Strabane has been hitched to Londonderry. Fermanagh is combined with Omagh. The other six authorities are: Antrim and Newtownabbey District, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon (ABC) District, Causeway Coast and Glens District, Mid and East Antrim District, Newry, Mourne and Down District and finally North Down and Ards District, whose website appears to be the only one not to have gone ‘live’ so far. It is easy to tell the Sinn Féin-controlled administrations as they have bilingual signs, with Irish often being given first preference above the English. Hardly a very inclusive start to the new structures. Here is an edited version of the report by Chris:
Life in local government will never be the same again. From weddings to waste management (and street cleaning), cemeteries, (parks) and leisure centres: their duties tended to be summed up as “emptying the bins and burying the dead”. Now they are taking on some important new powers. The eleven councils will take most planning decisions. Only those deemed to be “regionally significant” will be retained by the NI Environment Minister. In a year’s time, the local authorities will get powers for urban regeneration.
Tied to that, they will have responsibility for local economic development and tourism. The super-councils will also take over more than 300 off-street car parks from the Department for Regional Development. The idea is that councils will be able to take the lead in shaping towns, cities and rural areas. One example being held up is that of Manchester, where the council has led a striking city regeneration programme in recent years.
The chief executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), Derek McCallan, is “unapologetic” about his enthusiasm. “It’s a very compelling change for the average ratepayer and for the average politician. But there’ll be no such thing as an average council, because there’ll be no poverty of ambition from them. You can be sure of that,” he said.
According to Mr McCallan, similar models of local government elsewhere in the world have brought more prosperity. “In places like the Netherlands, about 88% of development takes place in towns and cities driving their own development. Here, councils will now be able to be a real driver of economic development, rather than a consultee or a recipient of a grant.”
He, and others at the heart of the transition, believe it will take a few years for the new councils to bed-in and get used to using their new powers effectively. Most politicians will surely agree that working to improve local economies should be high on their priority list. But some political disagreement in council chambers is inevitable.
Already, there has been a row in the Mid-Ulster council, when a meeting in “shadow” format resulted in a ban on the sale of poppies or Easter lilies on council property. There has been controversy over Newry, Mourne and Down Council’s decision to place the Irish language above English on its signs. But on the eve of the handover, the super-councils are emphasising the potential positives rather than the possible pitfalls.
On Wednesday, there will be little, if any, change to council services – the public will probably not see much to suggest that a revolution in local government has begun. It may take several years before the public will see if this huge change in the way Northern Ireland is run will have a truly transformative effect.