Belfast Telegraph

Councillors' fury at lack of 'Belfast City Hall democracy'

By Lesley-Anne Henry

Local government officials within Belfast City Council have too much power, some long-standing elected representatives have claimed.

In a scathing attack, experienced elected members say they are being left in the dark by an inner circle of senior directors making major decisions at the City Hall.

Criticism was raised during this week’s full monthly meeting of the council where it was claimed councillors are being “led by the nose” by the chief executive’s group — a body of seven top directors each earning a basic salary of £50,000 or more.

“This is a big problem in this council,” councillor Jim Rodgers said. “You find things out from everybody else except the people who should be telling you — the council. It’s simply not good enough and this issue needs to be addressed.”

The issue arose when members were discussing a bowling area at the Grove Wellbeing Centre which, as revealed in this newspaper on Monday, has never been used since it was built over three years ago.

Speaking after the meeting, the veteran UUP man added: “It’s an elected organisation. But I feel too many powers are being delegated. In the last three years the directors seem to have more power.” David Browne, who has served on the council since 2005, has accused the officers of capitalising on political differences within the chamber.

“We only see what they (senior management team) want us to see,” he told the meeting. “The officers were able to divide and conquer and members were played against each other. But, until we get into some sort of relationship with each other, we are never going to know what’s going on in here — only what the chief executive tells us.”

The chief executive’s group includes Belfast City Council’s chief executive Peter McNaney, town solicitor and assistance chief executive, the director of property and projects, director of finance and resources, director of parks and leisure, director of health and environmental services and the director of development.

A council spokeswoman said: “It meets once a week and the purpose is to bring senior management together to discuss the strategic direction of the organisation.

“The council is a political organisation and its decisions are taken by its elected members at committees and council meetings.

“The council minute book sets out these decisions and the advice provided by officers in the reports presented to committees.

“Officers then implement these decisions and manage the staff responsible for providing council services.”

Davy Brown, who has served on the city council since 2005 has accused the officers of capitalising on political differences within the chamber.

“We only see what they (senior management team) want us to see,” he told the meeting. “The officers were able to divide and conquer and members were played against each other. But, until we get into some sort of relationship with each other we are never going to know what’s going on in here - only what the Chief Executive tells us.”

Alliance Party representative, Tom Ekin said: “We as a group of politicians should be giving political leadership. My party tried to get the each of the party group leaders to meet but people were noticeable because they didn’t turn up. Please get together and support this political leadership group not scrapping around here with ill thought out ideas.”

Also, speaking after the meeting, the SDLP’s Pat McCarthy said: “There's a degree in truth in that officers know much more than councillors. There are more people in Belfast City Council earning more than the MLA's at Stormont.”background

Belfast City Council is Northern Ireland’s largest local authority with 51 elected members, an annual budget in excess of £140m and 2,600 staff. Figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request show 38 employees, including the town solicitor and director and senior managers in all seven departments, earn a basic salary of £50k or more.

The chief executive earns more than £100k. Last month this newspaper revealed how the council had cut spending on ‘away days’.

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