Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

It is time to focus on citizenship: Local government reform will be firmly on the political agenda for the foreseeable future

Local government reform is going to be firmly on the political agenda for the foreseeable future, with the merger of all Northern Ireland councils from 26 to just 11.

While local government reform might seem like a yawn-inducing topic, it should be viewed not just as a procedural money-saving exercise, but an opportunity to 'refound' local democracy.

This transformation could allow the emergence of local government becoming 'local democracy' and not simply viewing of local government solely as a service provider.

Service provision and value for money are important, but people are citizens – not just ratepayers.

The concept of citizenship is vitally important for our society, but for it to be successful, it needs to be a two-way relationship. A good example of this potential is community planning.

As citizens with rights – rights to be included in decision-making which affect their lives – community planning will give local citizens more say in how their area develops. This has the potential to really bring power to the people.

But while the Department of the Environment is putting funding towards building officials and councillors for community planning, there is less funding going into up-skilling the community to be able to take advantage of the opportunities of community planning.

Citizens can provide solutions, because they spend the most time confronting the problems and issues of where they live, so they will always have greater insight into the dynamics of a community beyond that of any outside planner, developer, architect, or politician.

So, by not including active and real participation by a community in planning, or development, the structure of government is divorcing itself from a valuable asset.

I believe Government needs to move beyond business as usual; passively consulting citizens, rather than actively engaging them. There can be no innovation without community participation.

Steven Agnew MLA is leader of Green Party in Northern Ireland

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