Local government in Northern Ireland (NI) occupies a unique role as the only current manifestation of democracy in NI. As a result, local government plays a critical role in underpinning good governance, a role which far outweighs its current statutory responsibilities.
Unpacking the true importance of NI’s local government, Thomas from LGIU Ireland chatted with Northern Ireland’s Local Government Association (NILGA) President, Cllr Matt Garrett. Elected for a second term as President of NILGA, in this Q&A, Cllr Matt Garrett outlines the importance of community-driven local government, and illustrates NILGA’s aspiration to enhance collaborative working under the auspice of a resourced and empowered local government system in the country.
Tell us a bit about you and your experience in local government.
Thirteen years ago, I was selected to stand as a councillor, and since then, it has been grey hair and wrinkles. That said, when the opportunity arose to enter local government, it was a fairly easy decision to make. I am from the Upper Falls area of West Belfast, which is also the area I represent. It was natural to enter into local politics in an area where I was active through resident associations and community groups.
This year, I was elected in my fourth local election. Looking back over my time in local government, it all centres around being rooted in my community, and that desire to deliver what is best for the area where my family and kids live. That’s what drives me to continue. At the same time, you go through peaks and troughs. In councils, you can have good terms and bad terms, good weeks and bad, but all in all, it is hard to describe the privilege of being able to take those local issues into the chamber and make things happen for the area you represent.
What has your time as NILGA President been like and what are your priorities for your upcoming term?
During my first term as NILGA President in 2020/21, we were really in crisis mode in dealing with the pandemic and the financial craters that were emerging during this period. Fast forward to my current term as President, we are now dealing with the effects of the pandemic on top of the cost of living crisis. For local government, this means the focus has to be on continuing that collaborative and partnership spirit that saw us deliver for our communities during the pandemic and making sure this translates into equitable resources for councils.
That transition from crisis to crisis presents a massive challenge. The huge burdens to local councils are clear in revenue budgets, and many councils are having to sit down and look at what level of support we can actually provide. While we would want to see more powers devolved, we are extremely wary of taking on additional powers without proportional resourcing. We are in a unique position where 80% of local government finance comes locally from rate-setting. Looking at Scotland, England and Wales, local councils have a lot more power and resourcing to deliver services at a local level.
But much like the reform of local government itself, when councils stepped up to the plate during the pandemic and took on extra responsibilities, the resources simply did not follow. We should be supported more to deliver what people want us to deliver, and we have a proven track record in terms of delivering that. For instance, in recent reforms, we acquired community planning and other powers. Before 2015, in planning, councils had no role in it other than being consultative. However, it has taken a considerable amount of time for local councils to find their feet in what we are supposed to be doing with those powers. What we find, since taking on the extra powers in Belfast, is that we can utilise developer contributions to draw in resources to help deliver infrastructure differences around those sites – but we still need the resources to follow. But you have to be realistic. There is a storm of massive deficits in the civil service, and you have to prioritise. Unfortunately, local government seems to come last in line for resources.
A final big focus as NILGA President will be making the local government sector work together. NILGA is a key example of the collaborative spirit in local government. As representatives, we all come together, and it doesn’t matter who you are and where you’re from, you all share the same drive to deliver for people in your areas. In a recent meeting with the Head of the Civil Service, we re-emphasised that local government is a good partner, we are willing to do more, but we simply need the resources to follow to give us that ability to be good partners.
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What is your vision for local government in NI, and what role do you identify for NILGA in that journey?
One word – collaboration. Covid was a catalyst for collaboration, but on a wider level, for a geographically small place, we have a plethora of departments and governance groups, meaning it was a really important step for NILGA to secure the legislated Parthernership Panel for local and central government to sit down.
While we currently have no Executive, NILGA hasn’t stopped meeting with central government and is taking the initiative to meet with the Civil Service to ensure that no matter what happens, we are building relationships and working collaboratively for our communities. Going back to NILGA’s collaborative nature, we always strive to find that commonality with other people, and we should be pushing more for it.
A voice for local government, what key messages do you wish those outside of NI understood about the local government?
Recognition. In the list of elected officials, councillors often come last in line as elected representatives, but who are the most important when it comes to dealing with issues? Councillors are first through your door dealing with issues in your community. By association, we want local councils to be seen as the first line in delivering those services. If we said no to everything that did not fall into our remit, very little would get done.
One area where NILGA is really keen to collaborate on the role of the councillors is with the Association of the Irish Local Government (AILG). Issuing our first joint press release in September 2023, this is a perfect example of how local government collaboration can draw action and attention to an important issue, in this case, the growing abuse facing councillors. On the growing relationships with local government associations, working closer and more collaboratively with the other government associations in these islands makes it very clear the commonalities and shared issues local government faces and the opportunities for learning.
Finally, what advice would you give to those interested in standing for local democracy?
You can’t pick and choose. The very first thing people should ask is if you want to serve your community at a very grassroots level – and if you do, you’re in it for the long haul. It is a 24/7 job. I can go out in the morning and find passport forms put onto the windscreen wipers of my car for me to sign and return. That’s part and parcel of what we do.
Second, you need to come at it from a principle that you care about your community and make sure this is at the very heart of all that you do. It’s very easy to become an establishment councillor, where you spend all of your time down in city and town halls getting involved in committees, and you lose sight of what you have actually been elected to do – to deliver within those communities. It’s very satisfying whenever you’re able to see that you can make a difference in people’s lives, and you build up some great relationships in the community sector and also in local government. For those considering a route in local government, go in with your eyes wide open – and just enjoy it.