Next month will see another milestone in the biggest transformation in Northern Ireland local government for more than a generation, with an election that will decide who will provide political representation and public service delivery within the 11 newly formed local councils.
The elections to local authorities on 22 May 2014 will determine the makeup of interim bodies known as “Shadow” Councils whose members will be making the necessary preparations for 1 April 2015 when our current 26 councils will cease to exist, making way for the 11 new “super” councils.
After a 40 year period where the work of local councillors was best described as civic representation, bins, births, burials and leisure centres, the Local Government Reform programme endows Councils and Councillors with significant new responsibilities.
As the membership and representative body for local councils, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) has been working up to this milestone for a number of years. We have been working with councils and local councillors to prepare them for these significant new powers and responsibilities, powers that we believe makes this the most meaningful local election in more than four decades. We have also made various elements of reform better, including the introduction of new powers, up to £47 million in investment from central government to absorb some of the costs of the transformation, and the creation of a formal partnership to better integrate policies and actions within and between local and central government.
In the last local government election 55 per cent of the population came out on Election Day to vote. Compared to other countries across the world this is a significant turn out – but we believe we can do better.
This is an opportunity to understand and strengthen local democracy, giving your knowledge and your participation in ensuring that politics and politicians are truly connected to local people, local economies and local places.
Not to vote, not to learn and understand what these changes mean or not to engage with your local council’s decision making, means missing out on the chance to create a community you want to plan for, live in and work in – a community with economic prosperity, exceptional local services and a safe and healthy environment for residents, visitors and future generations.
Last month NILGA launched the Participate 14 campaign in order to encourage local people to understand more about local government and make a difference in the communities they live in. Following the election, councils and communities have a chance to make big, local differences and influence government policies from the bottom up, not the other way round.
Although most people know this time around that their councils are reducing in size from 26 to 11 they might not realise that with this reduction comes major new responsibilities and opportunities.
We should all find out more. Councils are the civic and democratic hub of our communities and will have new powers to plan, drive investment in and develop local places.
Councils will have delivery powers over planning for the first time – bringing us into line with all neighbouring jurisdictions - and will be required to produce their own Local Development Plans (LDPs). The LDPs will guide the future use of land in their areas, and inform developers and other stakeholders.
They will have powers of community planning that will enable councils, in partnership with other public service providers and departments, as well as local communities themselves, to influence how and where services are provided, allowing for a more flexible and arguably innovative and cost effective approach to meet local needs - without duplication and with many local development priorities met.
Regrouping a number of key functions such as planning, urban regeneration, local economic, development and local tourism, will give councils some powerful tools with which to shape their areas and communities.
Councils will also have a new power of general competence, which is best explained as a power that will allow them to act reasonably with similar freedom to an individual, to better their local areas.
The possibilities are endless – councils can prudently borrow and invest in order to improve services and develop facilities they corporately determine are most important to their community.
Over the weeks until Election Day, 22 May, NILGA will be exploring many of these new powers in greater detail, explaining to the public exactly what these changes mean and how they will effect communities, families and businesses across Northern Ireland.
Never before has such significant power over how a community’s needs are determined been put in the hands of local politicians and local people and we urge people here to grab it with both hands.
All politics is indeed local – democracy and devolution carries on before, on and after May 22, 2014.
Derek McCallan is chief executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) - the regional body for local government in NI