The general public would be right to ask why a process which started some seven years ago to reform local government in danger of collapsing due to a failure to meet legislative deadlines. They public may feel that given the time available those responsible could have managed the process better. The truth is yes they could. There is no single reason why this process should now be stalled. Instead there are several. The public should judge whether or not they are viable reasons.
Drawing up the boundaries for the new councils was always going to be fraught with difficulty. The balance between retaining local identity and the efficient delivery of services was always going to create tensions. For that reason a Boundaries Commissioner was appointed to take an independent view of these issues.
While local political parties and Councils could make representation, the decision was placed in the hands of an independent Commissioner. Imagine the situation if the decision was left to a Councillor from Belfast and a Councillor from Lisburn/Castlereagh to decide the boundary around Forestside or the Ice Bowl. Since whichever Council has Forestside has a significant income and whichever Council has the ice bowl has a significant liability in terms of upkeep, two opposing councillors in this situation will never agree.
Yet despite the independence of the Commissioner the process has one more hurdle. This hurdle is the Northern Ireland Executive where Belfast Councillor Sammy Wilson MP MLA Minister of Finance and Personnel, former Minister of the Environment, has one view and Lisburn Councillor Edwin Poots MLA, Minister of the Environment, apparently takes a different view.
The entire basis upon which the independent Boundaries Commissioner was appointed, to prevent this issue being stalled by two or more councillors taking opposing views, has been overridden. Logic and good governance would dictate that both Councillors would exclude themselves from this particular issue due to a conflict of interest, yet instead their narrow agendas combine to bring the process close to collapse.
While all of this has been going on, consultants PwC have been working on the economic appraisal of the various options to transform how councils work. This appraisal, recently released, has raised more questions about the outcome of the RPA than it has provided answers. Rather than starting the process by looking at what can be achieved by Northern Ireland’s councils working together, PwC have based their projections on previous experiences in carrying out similar work in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Since local government in the rest of the United Kingdom is very different PWC’s figures are based on guessing what the impact would be in Northern Ireland. In some areas costs which will fall to councils are ignored and in other areas savings which can be made are not counted. The result is an economic appraisal without any robust economic basis. The report has caused so much concern that Local Government Associations in England Scotland and Wales are writing to the Minister to warn him of their concerns.
The report suggests that local councils will be able to borrow the money to pay for the transformation they propose. However, projecting the savings to be made over 25 years seems more like wishful thinking than sound economics. Who 5 years ago would have predicted with any certainty where the economy would be today? Yet we are asked to accept at face value the figures given for a 25 year period. One Scottish council Chief Executive has informed us that they too were given such promises yet after 15 years they are still not seeing the benefits in financial terms.
Which brings us to the third issue, policing and justice. What might one ask has local government reform got to do with policing and justice? First we must recognise that Sinn Fein never wanted the 11 council model of local government, their preferred option was for 7 councils over which they would have more control. Unionism wanted a 15 council model until the DUP and SF agreed on 11. Now Sinn Fein see within the PwC report an opportunity to back out of the process citing the cost, abandon the reforms and come back at a later date asking for 7. This would leave the DUP holding the can for 7 years wasted effort within central and local government and many millions of pounds lost. Except, despite all their concerns about finance and desire for a 7 council model, Sinn Fein might, just might set aside their concerns if policing and justice was devolved to their timescale.
Should RPA go ahead? Of course it should. Over the past few years Councillors and staff have all identified the opportunities to deliver services to the community in a more effective and efficient manner. Working closely together the opportunities are there to deliver value for money at the same time as transforming our communities through community planning and improving the health of society by integrating sport and leisure with health and well-being. A spat between Councillors in the Executive, a poorly prepared appraisal and an opportunistic attempt at political bribery are signs of a dysfunctional Government unable to manage change not reasons to set aside a process that will improve the quality of life of our communities. The Ulster Unionist Party initiated this process because we had the foresight to prepare for a Government that will bring change for the better to people’s lives. We cannot allow those who have the mandate to govern but not the maturity to govern to take that change away.