Value fear for council reforms: The role of Northern Ireland's layer of local government must never be underestimated
The role of Northern Ireland's layer of local government must never be underestimated. A priority after the May 22 election to 11 new councils must be to maintain, as much as possible, the 'local' element in the everyday running of the various authorities.
The 1973 re-organisation of local government had its shortcomings, but local involvement was upheld over the 26 district councils, where councillors were returned from wards with a not too over-sized electorate which managed to sustain a meaningful relationship between representatives and those who elected them.
This will undoubtedly change in the regional councils to be established as part of the Review of Public Administration; with party candidates seeking a mandate from a much larger electorate, the grassroots voice will be considerably diminished.
The restricted powers of our existing councils – now in the twilight of their tenure – did not, however, deter many excellent public representatives from stepping forward to play an important role for the benefit of their electors.
A high percentage of our MPs and ministers and members in Stormont graduated from councils to their present positions.
The remit of the new 11 councils will be enhanced with the delegation of planning powers and economic development.
I do, however, feel that more resources will be needed by councils to enable them to effectively deliver this important function.
The increased size of electorates and allotted area-span will make it more difficult for voters to have access to council representatives.
To compensate for this dilution of local input, ratepayers must see and feel the benefits of the re-organisation through the improved delivery of services and reduced rates.
The Ulster Unionist Party does, however, have serious concerns as to whether ratepayers will, indeed, experience such benefits and, as a result, voted against the Local Government Bill in the Assembly
Jim Nicholson is a Member of the European Parliament for Northern Ireland