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Councils could help restore hope by being a little more parochial

By Paul Connolly

Published 03/06/2016

A common theme of the Belfast Telegraph postbag is local representation - or the lack of it. By 'local', on this occasion, I mean very local; not Stormont. For on the Hill we have a surfeit of representatives.

Last week wasn't a typical postbag, simply because the formation of the Executive and its Programme for Government rightly took centre-stage.

Letters to the Editor in the print edition, for example, were dominated by spats over whether the DUP's victory was highly significant, or a "false dawn"; or whether it was stately that virtually the Executive's first act was to try to borrow yet more money from the Treasury.

The effectiveness or otherwise of Opposition by the SDLP and the UUP were well-dissected, as was the appointment of the inexperienced Claire Sugden to the Justice hotseat.

The seizure of Infrastructure and Finance by Sinn Fein and the capture of Education by the DUP, for example, will all make for interesting column centimetres in coming months.

But in a normal week it's often very local - sometimes known as 'ultra-local' - matters that occupy readers' minds.

The thing is, I detect the stirrings of a sense that we may have a local democratic deficit following the creation of our super-councils.

Followers of politics and public administration will recall how Northern Ireland was given 26 local councils in 1973 following the sweeping abolishment of most of the existing local government structure amid accusations of political maladministration. These were chopped down to 11 super-councils in 2014.

This all makes sense; 26 councils of the type that had existed was expensive and unwieldy for a place our size. And, yet, I detect in letters and online comments that local government can now appear rather remote. Can the super-councils really, properly relate to the towns and villages on their peripheries? An eminent Dublin-born former editor once told me how much he loved Northern Ireland and its people, but lamented the lack of civic action. Our small towns, he said, reminded him of those in the Republic circa the Seventies. I bridled, initially, at his suggestion, but then had to admit he was right. There is not enough joined-up government at local level to properly rejuvenate many local towns.

I live in south-east Antrim and towns like Carrickfergus, Ballyclare and Larne, for example, are crying out for both investment and civic leadership.

The money will only follow the latter. Where are the ideas for revitalisation of towns that should be thriving local shining lights, but are in reality rather staid entities with little for young people in particular?

Take Carrick, for example. The finest Norman castle in Ireland borders a four-lane highway; there's a car park beside it, a power station glowering next door and a modern slate roof poking from its centre. A missed opportunity: the castle and town centre should jointly be a celebration of medieval Ireland (with Warwick Castle as an inspiration).

Or Ballyclare: what should be a lovely old town square, dating from the 17th century and complete with 1855 town hall, is often a traffic-choked rat-run, and the nearby lovely Six Mile Water is barely visible to visitors.

Towns like these have huge potential, but have been underdeveloped down the years by a lack of vision, civic leadership and proper representation.

It was right to remove a layer of cost and administration from over-governed Northern Ireland, but we have also removed a layer of democracy and vision.

I suggest a network of parish-style councils similar to that in England, with no budget, or statutory responsibilities beyond the requirement to listen and reflect upwards to the larger councils. It could be paid for, in part at least, by streamlining the number of MLAs.

That would restore hope to dreary towns and liven up the public debate - along with newspaper postbags - into the bargain.

Belfast Telegraph

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