Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Local Government Reform: New councils can deliver better service to citizens

The additional powers given to the 11 new local authorities will give ratepayers better value for their money and help stimulate the economy, says Billy Ashe

There is an unprecedented opportunity for public services to be delivered in a more joined up and holistic way against citizen need with Local Government Reform. The upcoming implementation of the reform will see 11 new councils formed next year in shadow format.

I believe that this creates an excellent opportunity and a new chapter for local government across Northern Ireland. Along with my elected member colleagues in Ballymena, Carrickfergus and Larne boroughs, we look forward to the formation of the new Mid and East Antrim Council and much work has begun on this front.

Of course, the whole process can't take place overnight. Currently there are 11 transition committees set up, made up of elected representatives from each of the councils in any one cluster.

As chairman of the transition committee for the Mid and East Antrim cluster of councils, the elected members and I understand the challenges that lie ahead in creating a new council, and ensuring that citizens get better services. That's our job as civic leaders.

The primary focus as we undertake this reform is to make sure that the needs of our constituents and citizens are met and where possible, exceeded. As elected representatives, we remain committed to meeting the needs of our community and ensuring that citizens still feel connected to local identity.

One of the biggest opportunities that this reform presents is the new powers and responsibilities that will transfer locally, to be managed and delivered in line with local need.

The transfer of planning and regeneration and, powers for community planning, will create an opportunity for local elected representatives to deliver on local need for our citizens.

As chairman of a transition committee, I see three important drivers within this reform.

The first – and one of the most important – is about driving economic growth and working against disadvantage by enhancing our ability to support both the private and the community and voluntary sectors.

The new councils, with increased economic development functions and new planning powers, will play a key role to provide the conditions for business growth locally and deliver programmes to help build the economy; creating real prospects for local business.

The second driver is about improving service provision for our citizens and in my view it is about 'better with less'.

The transfer and introduction of the new powers will, in my opinion, make councils stronger and avoid duplication, meaning that councils will be able to provide a greater number of efficient and high-quality services on the front line.

The third driver is the real economies of scale to be derived from going from 26 to 11 councils. Such cost savings can be found by purchasing services and materials in bulk – meaning more money for front line services. Stretching the public pound at a time when our ratepayers are hard-pressed is an essential element of local government.

The greatest threat to any organisation is inertia, and so as chairman I welcome this reform and feel it will be a way to deliver better public services and allow elected members to deliver in a more holistic way for citizens.

Each of the 11 new council areas will have many opportunities to deliver better for our citizens and to help grow their local economy.

Turning to my own area of Mid and East Antrim, I believe it presents real potential.

Between Ballymena, with its strong manufacturing reputation, the port in Larne, and Carrickfergus, with one of the best medieval castles in Europe, our cluster of councils has a comprehensive offering which will help drive excellent sustainable growth.

Billy Ashe is chair of the Transition Committee for the Mid and East Antrim cluster of councils.

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