Belfast Telegraph

Chance to make real difference

Editor's Viewpoint

Tomorrow sees the biggest shake-up in local government in Northern Ireland since the early 1970s. Eleven super councils will take over from the previous 26 local authorities with promises of greater efficiency and delivery of more services.

Judgment will have to be suspended on how effectively those promises will be fulfilled, but certainly councillors will have to be wary of the temptation to create new fiefdoms with expensive headquarters which might add to the burden on ratepayers.

Our councils were often compared unfavourably with those in other parts of the UK, due in large part to their limited range of powers. The behaviour of members in the chambers of some sharply divided authorities did little for the image of local government - with Belfast City Council becoming a particular bear-pit when Sinn Fein began to make electoral gains to the dismay of their opponents.

Yet it is to the credit of the outgoing councils that they continued to function throughout the darkest days of the Troubles - even when members became terrorist targets - and they ensured that services were delivered to ratepayers.

The councils also proved a valuable training ground for those politicians who saw a more high profile role for themselves, either as MPs or, latterly, as MLAs.

However, councillors will have to rise to new challenges in the new councils.

Among the additional powers which will transfer to them are planning, urban regeneration and community development, local economic development, small scale tourism development and the ability to recommend listing of historic buildings.

This is bringing some government decision-making right down to street level and it will be a test of the councils to ensure that their influence is spread right throughout their areas and not just concentrated in the wards with the greatest political representation. With increased allowances now payable, there is an incentive for more people to consider entering politics here. It would be to the advantage of every party to see new blood coming through in the medium term.

No longer will councillors be told that all they do is bury the dead and empty the bins. Instead they have the opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of the ratepayers. Let us hope they seize it.

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