NI's new council members must bring fresh approach
The reform of local government across Northern Ireland five years ago has been evolving quietly, competently and largely without serious public disagreements.
The traditional local political divisions are still evident, but while disagreements are not avoided, they are usually managed in respectful language.
Within the next few days council chief executives will induct the new cohort of councillors into a refreshed administrative structure.
The policy debate leading up to the elections last week was often lacking in solid debate about real local government issues. Claims about dedicated work on behalf of ratepayers and serving the community were strident, but often lacked substance on policy proposals. Also, less relevant, street-wise conversations rarely avoided Brexit or the deficiencies caused by 'no Stormont'.
Each newly formed local council should take time to ask whether it does deliver competently on the range of services within its remit. It should also be ready to give some clear and well-considered advice to the Stormont authorities (when possible) about further reform and further devolution of roles to local government. The oft-repeated shorthand that councils are there to provide for bins and burials is unfair and misleading. There are some new serious policy issues for each of the councils to develop.
There is an emerging debate on the allocation of devolved responsibilities to local councils. In Northern Ireland, there is no convincing argument that roads, water, education or health should not be administered on a region-wide basis. However, there may be a case to reconsider responsibility for housing to go alongside the emerging local community planning obligations which have been developing quietly but slowly. Decisions on community planning, already devolved, might usefully integrate more fully with the provision of social care services which are currently part of the health and social services network.
The Local Government Association has been reminding its members that under the Local Government (NI) Act 2014 there is an unfulfilled commitment to conduct an augmentation review of the operations of the councils. Each of the councils should be considering what changes might be made ready for consideration by a reinstated Stormont.
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Each of the councils is working on comprehensive local development and community plans in the years to 2035. These documents are accumulating on the desks of council officials. New councillors should now take on their mentoring role and begin to debate these plans. A critically important part is to bring together community plans, transport and communications management, as well as housing provision. Upgraded planning for adequate housing, along with urban regeneration and redevelopment in older housing areas, is overdue and on the limited evidence available seems modest in terms of the number of new houses (and apartments) needed, as well as falling short in planning for spatial and communications demands as living standards improve.
This combination of coherent plans is a necessary part of promoting urban revival and reversing the present decline in the vitality of urban centres.
An important aspect of the work of local councils will be the integration of council ambitions into the concept of City Deals. To date, progress on the Belfast Region City Deal (which has the added responsibility of a clear vision for the Belfast region) has been desultory.
Large financial sums are being discussed but the planning and financial management details have been sparse.
The Local Government Association has the ambition that all local authorities here should be covered by a City Deal, or a Growth Deal. The Belfast region has little to show yet from its co-ordinating arrangements. Derry City and Strabane has gained a formal Government commitment. Neither has announced the first parts of an action plan. The possible coverage of the other four council areas has not yet been detailed.
New councils and new councillors have a complicated and demanding delivery agenda. Do they appreciate what is needed and how important it is?
Company Report: Andrews Group Ltd
Andrews Flour Mills has been a major landmark business unit in Belfast for many years.
However in 2015, the former group went through a major restructuring and the Andrews Group, reported here, started trading on January 2, 2016.
The first trading period was for nine months to September 30, 2016.
Andrews Group is principally engaged in the milling of flour.
The group owns several subsidiary companies including Andrews Flour Mills and Andrews Feeds (Malta) and Andrews Investments (Malta).
In the restructuring agreed in late 2015, this new company accrued a significant level of negative goodwill, largely as a consequence of the shares in the Maltese entity being acquired at book value while, at that time, the net assets acquired included the revalued amount for the Maltese property.
This negative goodwill is being amortised over five years which will mean that shareholders equity will be enhanced by £6.4m.
Year-by-year comparisons of operating and pre-tax profits are sharply affected by the accounting for the restructuring in 2016. The group has registered positive profitability in 2017 and 2018.
The group has not recorded any dividends to shareholders.
Post-tax profits have been retained in the business.
The value of shareholders’ funds has been increasing and reached £13.4m in September 2018.
The number of people employed has fallen to an average of 71.