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Great reforms needed in Local Government

The advertising for NI Local Government Reform in 2015 had the strapline: "It just makes sense." Two years on, it makes no sense at all. I was, therefore, not surprised to read (News, Feb 22) that Belfast City Council (BCC) is planning to spend around £80,000 on top-of-the-range mobile phones and computers for their 60 councillors.

Struggling families would be grateful to be able to afford even one of these devices. Is this largesse really necessary to get their job done? Or is it another example of local government's broad indifference to spending ratepayers' money looking after themselves? Will any councillor stand up and say: "Less will do"?

At a time when the RHI scandal dominates our thinking and public services are under severe pressure, it is worth reflecting on the following:

l The new 90-seat Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly and the Executive oversee nine departments, distributing around 95% of public spending each year;

l Local government - in the form of 11 councils, 462 councillors and over 9,000 staff - oversees the remaining 5% of public spending, at a cost of £818m in 2014-15, with staff costs representing 40% of that total.

To put this in context, while the civil service has been subject to more that 3,000 voluntary redundancies in the past year, Belfast City Council happily employs around 2,600 staff, which is almost as many staff as five Executive departments combined.

This is unsustainable. Councils, cosseted in their own world, believe they are a job-creation scheme. Most of what they do could be outsourced to the private sector at less cost and with more choice to the public.

We should also reflect on where two of the most recent contentious issues had their origins - the Belfast flags protests and the Raymond McCreesh play park.

When are we going to see local government deliver a voluntary redundancy scheme and general belt-tightening like the rest of the public sector? It just makes sense.


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