Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Councils have a vital role

Letters to the editor should be sent to: 124-144 Royal Avenue, Belfast BT1 1EB. E-mail: writeback@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

The Belfast Telegraph editorial on November 13 is an interesting and useful contribution to the current debate regarding the return of powers to local councils in Northern Ireland.

While it is true, to an extent, to say that the Assembly has no tax varying powers, readers will be aware that it does have control of regional revenue raising powers through the regional rate.

Councils also have revenue raising powers through the district rate and councils have exercised those powers in a responsible and prudent manner in the last 35 years; certainly in a more responsible and prudent way than Direct Rule ministers managed in the last three years.

Why is it that every national and regional government in these islands, in Europe and across the world, values local government as a legitimate sphere of government in its own right and places a wide range of responsibilities with local councils?

Why is it that both the UK and Irish Governments, and the Scottish and Welsh regional administrations, are currently in the process of further strengthening their local government sectors?

There are many reasons why this is the case, but largely it comes down to one answer. Local government does it better.

Local people electing local representatives dedicated to improving the quality of life of people in that area. Local elected representatives; not distant, faceless, unaccountable bureaucrats and civil servants.

These principles are so important within Europe, for example, that they are enshrined in a European Charter of Local Self Government that all countries in the European Union have adopted. The UK government is a signatory to the Charter. However, in adopting it in 1998, the Government noted that "for the time being, it is also proposed not to apply the Charter to district councils in Northern Ireland ... The Government reserves the right, however, to apply the Charter to local authorities in Northern Ireland in the light of future constitutional and political developments".

We call on the Government to apply the Charter's provisions to Northern Ireland now.

Local government has been working positively and constructively with the Assembly and Government departments on a programme of modernisation for local government. We have been engaged in this because we want to do even better. Better local government means even more efficient local government.

Most people would acknowledge that the difficult and extraordinary times that we lived through in the 1970s and 1980s drove the extraordinary system of local administration that we now have. Those times are in the past and so should be the inadequate structures of local administration.

We are a modern, Western democracy. Our people deserve nothing less than a system of local government fit for the 21st century.

Ald Arnold Hatch, President, Northern Ireland Local Government Association

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