One of the biggest opportunities local government reform in Northern Ireland presents is the transfer of local economic development powers to local councils.
These increased responsibilities will enable councils to determine greater local investment, business development, and sustainable planning for each of the 11 councils and sub regionally looking at key strengths of a given area and developing distinct, enterprising models of engagement with local people and local businesses.
The future of high streets, promoting and investing in local enterprise and business improvement, and councils as the hub of enterprise co-ordination – these are good and achievable challenges. Notably, to date, the MyVote survey so far has identified local economic development as the number one priority for local government. To date, more than 6700 of the almost 9000 participants have named this as their key issue for local government.
After April 2015 one of the most noticeable impacts will be that the vast majority of planning decisions made at local level by district councillors, supported by specialist resources, rather than all this happening centrally through the Department of the Environment. Local elected members, who currently have an advisory role in planning decisions and effectively act as an additional scrutiny layer for the Planning Service on behalf of their constituents and areas, now become the decision makers.
Each of the 11 new councils will also be required to produce their own Local Development Plans. The Local Development Plans will guide the future use of land in their areas, and inform developers and other stakeholders. This brings Northern Ireland into alignment with all neighbouring jurisdictions.
They will crucially need to strike the balance between constituent interests and creating a council area with the right infrastructure, economic opportunities and skills for its residents and visitors. Councils will have a statutory and strengthened role - ensuring that the local investment climate fits the needs of local businesses; supporting small and medium size enterprises, encouraging the formation of new businesses, attracting external investment and generally supporting the growth of business in their local areas.
Healthy high streets and sustainable businesses create GDP – productivity – which pays for the public sector – in cities, towns, villages and hamlets. We’ve a great opportunity to provide consistent, quality, service – but there should not be a blanket, homogenous approach to local economies. That’s why the planning role can strengthen distinctiveness in each of our local economies, and promote the good use of local natural, community and commercial resources.
This will create healthy competition where the corporate and sustainable development credentials of one council area may attract inward investment over another. Natural resource tourism businesses may be incentivised to come to one area, whilst technology, artisan and craft businesses go to another. Crucial is having a diverse base of sustainable businesses, many of whom should be home grown. That’s a challenge we should all relish and deal with, and the emerging Councils will celebrate and develop distinctiveness.
We must not forget that local councillors are local communities. They are your business owners, your butchers and bakers, farmers, solicitors and teachers. Who knows more about how to bring prosperity to your community than those who live and work there? In a time when belts are increasingly tightening, putting enhanced powers and achievable challenges in the hands of those who know our communities best can only create a prosperous and vibrant economy.
This is a good move for strengthening local democracy and accountability. Above all, our new Councils will not suffer from poverty of ambition. They will want the best, as proud, local, custodians and authorities, for local people.
Derek McCallan is chief executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) - the regional body for local government in NI