Local government in Northern Ireland is in the midst of major reform. It has not seen changes of this scale for 40 years, in terms of a reduction in the number of councils and a significant transfer of powers from central government to local government, as well as new roles and responsibilities.
This reform programme offers a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity to improve local government, making it more efficient, more effective and more responsive to local needs – ultimately making local government work better for, and mean more to, local citizens.
Undoubtedly, it is an extremely challenging programme to be leading, but one which I am committed to driving forward.
It is now just under 600 days until the 11 new councils assume full responsibility, on April 1, 2015. The clock is ticking.
It is essential that we all fully embrace reform, realise the opportunities it presents and use this time to get it right.
Much good work has already been done. A structure has been established to deliver the programme and legislation to finalise the new council boundaries has been approved.
Vitally, my predecessor, Alex Attwood, secured an Executive package of £48m to help fund the transition period and to help ease any burden on ratepayers come 2015.
Agreement has also been reached on the functions transferring from central to local government, providing more clarity and certainty for the staff and elected members who will be impacted by the changes and paving the way for the practical transition work still to do.
So, what is next on the agenda? This is now my time to build on all the good work to date and take the programme through the next stages.
The next major piece of legislation, the Local Government Bill, is imminent. It is before my Executive colleagues and my intention is to introduce it into the Assembly as soon as it returns in September.
Pilot programmes and capacity-building to help prepare councils for their new planning-related functions will be rolled out over the coming months.
I also intend that the new council chief executive recruitment process will see successful applicants take up their posts early next year, so they can begin to lead and shape the new organisations.
This process should not be underestimated. It is a radical reform programme and it is a challenge we all need to rise to.
Councils are important to the lives of citizens. It is often their first port of call and experience of the democratic and political process
Rightly, residents have high expectations of the level of service, as ratepayers, that they should – and deserve to – receive from their councils. The whole purpose of this reform process is to benefit and enhance the lives of citizens.
The vision is to have a "thriving, dynamic local government that creates vibrant, healthy, prosperous, safe and sustainable communities that have the needs of citizens at their core".
"Citizens at their core" is the key. Through the functions and new powers that councils will receive, it will change the way we plan our cities, towns and rural areas.
It will allow local people to influence and make decisions on local business development, infrastructure provision, job-creation, economic competitiveness and community environment.
New structures are being put in place to transform local government, but the real drive behind this transformation will be the leadership and partnership working of elected members and council staff.
It will be their dedication, determination and drive, their courage and imagination, their goodwill and generosity of spirit, which will deliver a much more effective, efficient, citizen-centred and responsive system of local government.