Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Ulster gripped by a power struggle

As councillors today complete a week of consultations, Political Correspondent Noel McAdam examines the backdrop to the debate over the share-out of functions between Stormont and local government

We've already had the review. Now, in Environment Minister Arlene Foster's own words, we are engaged in a review of the review. And soon, should councillors get their way, will come a review of the review of the review.

Which is not to mention the certainty of further, fresh consultations when final decisions about the future shape of local government emerge, probably in January.

No bad thing, some might say. More important to get things right than half-baked. Yet the Review of Public Administration was a key issue even prior to the last Assembly.

The aim now is that an agreed structure will be implemented by 2011 which, though yet to be formally announced, will mean the postponement of local government elections due in 2009.

Beneath the surface tension emerging between all 26 councils and the restored Stormont administration, the issues are complex. At the root is a desire by all involved to streamline and improve public services.

One key concept feeding Peter Hain's original RPA, for example, was 'coterminosity': that the envisaged seven 'super-councils' as well as area health and education authorities and other agencies would have common borders. But there is little agreement how that might be achieved.

Hain's cunning plan to force the 26 into seven was, of course, widely seen as yet another pressure point on the parties to seize the Stormont helm.

But even as they agreed to take part in the task force modernising local government, three of the four main parties (DUP, SDLP and Ulster Unionists) made clear they opposed the seven model. Only Sinn Fein remains in favour.

While the numbers are being reviewed, with seven looking more likely to expand to 11 or 15, the current focus (and the key theme of Tuesday's Assembly debate) is the functions which the councils will have.

It is worth recalling the story so far. It was 2002 before the review finally got under way, after a long tussle over its terms of reference, and late 2005/early 2006 before conclusions were to emerge in two separate announcements.

Proposals included the transfer of a range of functions from central government including a new council-led statutory planning process and the " power of well-being" designed to tie councils more closely into their communities.

It is these very responsibilities along with some housing, local economic development and others which are under review in the review of the Review. So far, that exercise has produced an initial proposals document, Emerging Findings, which the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) has warned would be a "travesty" if implemented. Mrs Foster has stressed the blueprint is the beginning rather than the end of discussions and, along with a number of other Executive ministers, is due to meet NILGA later this month.

With all parties in the Assembly this week supporting NILGA's basic demand for " significant and meaningful" powers councils, the rising temperature of the debate has cooled. There is now at least the possibility of real engagement.

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