Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Power to the people is way forward

As the Executive engages in a power struggle with the councils, Ulster-born Princeton academic Quinton Mayne argues that we will miss a golden opportunity if we don't decentralise

The current debate on the reform of local government may well seem like an unimportant turf war between councils and the Assembly.

Nothing, though, could be further from the truth.

The debate marks a critical juncture in the life of democracy in post-devolution Northern Ireland. If the Executive follows through on the proposals it recently issued, and only limited powers are transferred to local councils, we will miss out on an important opportunity to make our decision-makers more accountable and our public services more responsive.

With the Assembly in place, a first step has clearly been taken to improve the functioning of democracy in Northern Ireland.

A direct link now exists between people and policy-makers in the form of free, fair and timely Assembly elections.

In addition, it has become easier for citizens to petition government between elections than it was under Direct Rule.

The current challenge, though, is to build on these successes achieved at the regional level by empowering government at the local level.

Setting aside the issue of how many local government units there should be, there are two compelling reasons why important powers should be transferred to local councils.

These relate to the two natural advantages that our councils possess over the Assembly, which if coupled with real policy-making powers, would improve the quality of our public services.

First, while the Assembly should play a vital role in setting overarching policy for the whole of Northern Ireland, departments operating at the regional level of government lack the agility and information-gathering resources to meet or identify the varied and changing demands of local communities.

In contrast, as the lowest tier of government, local councils are much better placed to ascertain what people need and want.

If local governments' information-gathering advantage is coupled with their having significant policy-making powers, public services will be better adapted and resources better deployed to make a real difference for how we live our lives.

The second reason for empowering local government is that it is generally easier for us to hold councillors to account for local affairs than it is members of the Executive and Assembly.

Not only do councillors live and work in our local communities, making face-to-face contact with them more likely and less daunting, but for most of us, getting to our local town hall is also easier than travelling to Stormont.

What's more, when voting in Assembly elections, we consider what's best both for our local communities and for Northern Ireland as a whole; however, when voting in council elections, we may be concerned only with local issues.

This means that it is more difficult to punish MLAs than it is councillors when they fail to serve our local communities. Given the relative ease of holding councillors to account, it is quite rational that councils should be given the power to plan and deliver important public services.

In light of councils' natural advantages, transferring powers to local government makes sense. It would play to the strengths of different levels of government, ensuring that the needs and wants of people in Ulster are better met.

Born and raised in Banbridge, Quinton Mayne is writing a doctoral thesis on European local government in the Department of Politics at Princeton

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