Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

The 'other' election

HAVE you had a former councillor - or even a would-be councillor - call at your door recently?

The chances of a visit from political representatives from the nearest council may be even higher than from Stormont candidates.

There are two elections taking place on May 5 - to the Assembly and local councils - although you could be forgiven for being unaware of the latter.

Most of the media have all but ignored the 'other' election, even though the basis on which it is taking place - to the 26 councils set up in the early 1970s rather than 11 'super'-councils - is due to one of the major failures of the Executive.

So this is a debate being conducted on the doorstep rather than in the newspapers, radio or television.

Council candidates say the biggest single concern being raised on the doorsteps is rates - and fears that they will be raised substantially next year.

"People are annoyed when they see funding being squandered on projects while it is being cut from other priority areas," says one senior Ulster Unionist.

Among other worries at local level are demands for the protection of adequate leisure facilities as well as a need to sort out the farcical situation over the gritting of public paths that arose during the winter freeze-up.

It does not seem the collapse of the biggest shake-up in local government for 40 years - with the aim of saving more than £420m over the next quarter-century - has registered very heavily with citizens.

Yet all the major parties fighting at both Assembly and town hall levels have said they want the reform programme back on Stormont's agenda as soon as possible.

In spite of the failure of Sinn Fein and the DUP to agree to implement the 11-council model last summer, quite a lot of work has continued behind the scenes.

The Finance Bill dealing with the financial powers of the new authorities has completed its passage in the Assembly and consultations on the Reform Bill finished in March.

In addition, the transition committees set up at local level to oversee the amalgamations have been continuing to meet in a voluntary capacity - that is, without funding from Stormont.

But the dispute that prevented the go-ahead - over whether Dunmurry becomes part of Belfast or Lisburn's new authority - remains.

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