In order to understand what makes up the current system of local government in Northern Ireland – the least funded and empowered system in the UK – Thomas traces through the evolution of, and major reform periods in, Northern Ireland’s ever-twisting path of local government.
As the only current manifestation of democracy in Northern Ireland, local government plays a critical role in underpinning good governance, a role which far outweighs its current statutory responsibilities.
But that begs the question of how did local government in Northern Ireland end up with the least empowered model when compared to their counterparts across the UK and Ireland? In order to tackle this question, this article situates Northern Ireland’s unique model of local government through a wider reflection on the history of divisions on the island of Ireland as a whole.
The history of local government can be traced as far back as 1613 when a second royal charter in 1613 conferred the role of Mayor to Derry/Londonderry.
While piecemeal municipal reform in the 19th century imported systems of Poor Law Unions to the island of Ireland and reconfigured cities and boroughs, the roots of local government in Northern Ireland can be traced principally back to the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898. Replicating a system of local government from Scotland and England, the Local Government Act 1898 replaced various systems of landlord-controlled grand juries with county councils, along with borough, urban and rural district councils.
Even 125 years later, you can see relics of the 1898 Acts in Belfast City Council with positions such as High Sheriff and Lord Lieutenant, positions long lost from their counterparts in the Republic.
Northern Ireland’s early years
Following the partition of the island of Ireland in 1921, which created the new political entity of Northern Ireland, from 1921 to 1973 Northern Ireland was divided into six administrative counties (subdivided into urban and rural districts) and two county boroughs.
To understand the current system of local government in Northern Ireland, it is crucial to consider the two major periods of reform over the last 50 years that now shape the powers and functions of councils today.
Firstly, the Local Government (Boundaries) Act (Northern Ireland) 1971, and the Local Government (Northern Ireland) Act 1972, which replaced the two-tier county–district system with 26 district councils in Northern Ireland, sparked an era of centralisation in local government in response to the systemic patterns of discrimination in housing, elections and jobs.
During this period, distrust of local government suffered from “a fundamental lack of trust in Local Government and a belief that it cannot fairly and equitably deliver services free from political bias.” (NI Secretary of State Peter Hain in 2005)
Consequently, during the Troubles, local government reform was inextricably linked to the growing political conflict across Northern Ireland. The reforms introduced in the early 1970’s followed the publication of a review in 1970 led by Patrick Macrory. Introducing a strong centralising tendency over public service delivery, the aim was to reduce the levels of discrimination that were at the heart of grievance. Effectively, the NI/UK Government would exercise functions over housing, planning, education, roads and libraries, with local government being left with minimum responsibilities and a broken-up structure based on district councils rather than the prior county structures.
This ultimately resulted in the proliferation of quangos in Northern Ireland, many of which still remain, such as the Housing Executive, which was created following the transfer of housing functions from Northern Ireland councils to a new, single all-purpose housing authority (Housing Executive Act (Northern Ireland) 1971).
During the ensuing conflict in Northern Ireland, local government was largely the sole democratic forum in Northern Ireland in which all political parties participated. In fact, local government was at the forefront in developing power-sharing arrangements with mayors/chairs and committees, and cross-border working practices, which is suggested to have made provisions within the Good Friday Agreement more palatable (Knox 1998 and Birrell 2007).
Review of Public Administration
Following the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998, a second period of local government reform took the spotlight with the Review of Public Administration (RPA) in 2002. Starting the slow-burning process of reform – 12 years of consultations, proposals and counter-proposals over exactly what model a reformed structure of local government would look like persisted until the 2014 Local Government Act.
While the broad consensus throughout the Troubles identified the need to look at the powers and structure of local government in Northern Ireland, other issues arose including debate over the exact number of councils and the principle of co-terminosity, which introduced the idea that the new council areas should, as far as possible, replicate the boundaries of other public service providers such as the divisions of the new police service, came to the fore (LGIU 2017).
Despite a clear momentum and appetite for empowerment, a view clearly advocated for by the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), one significant factor during this period was the centripetal effect of Stormont’s return post-GFA. As an LGIU briefing in 2017 noted, it was “the natural desire of the various political parties to retain and exercise executive authority”. The selection of the 11 council model, instead of the seven council model, did not sit easily with the co-terminosity concept, given that the boundaries of the councils and other bodies would not be shared.
‘there should be a presumption that the maximum number of powers exercised by unelected bodies should be returned to local government or the Assembly’ Northern Ireland Local Government Association, 2005
Owing to the contentious nature of boundary lines in Northern Ireland, fears over “Balkanisation” and the stop-start nature of devolution in Northern Ireland, the implementation of local government reform continued until the 2011 Stormont Programme for Government, when a timeline outlined the transfer of powers and functions from the 26 previous districts to a new 11 council structure.
Implemented through the Local Government Finance Act 2011 and the Local Government Act 2014, powers and functions previously delivered by Northern Ireland executive departments were transferred to these new councils. While the exact nature of the powers transferred did not shift Northern Ireland’s status as the least empowered region for local government, what was significant was the momentum created for further reform and powers. For example, the 2014 Act established the General Power of Competence in Northern Ireland, denoting the power to do “anything that individuals generally may do”, meaning councils do not have to look to enabling legislation. Instead, they have to check there is no legislation restricting an action.
This growing momentum for local government empowerment is perhaps most clear in planning. While the Department of Infrastructure continues to play an important role, the introduction of community planning, coupled with the ability for councils to act for the wellbeing of communities, facilitated a growing focus on place-shaping, with expectations growing for the further devolution of regeneration powers.
So what path is local government on now?
It would be easy to view 2015 as the start of a linear process of growing local government empowerment. Instead, optimism for further empowerment of local government since 2015 has largely dissipated. Owing largely to the instability in Stormont, it is also fair to say the UK Government does not view local government empowerment as a priority. Despite the language of levelling up, and city and region growth deals, the UK Government is still yet to deliver on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s recommendation for an independent review of local government powers and finances within 12 months by either the Executive or Secretary of State in 2018.
While the UK and NI Executive watch the kettle boil, Northern Ireland’s 11 councils continue to innovate and collaborate in the delivery of critical services. But despite the critical and valiant partnership, and collaborative work of local government during the pandemic, a changing policy landscape wherein central government works directly with individual councils through City and Growth Deals, and an overall public desire for local decision-making, local government remains subsumed under the centripetal tendencies in NI and UK governance. This is despite the consistent work of NILGA and the innovation from councils, which demonstrate the untapped potential for change and growth that local government can provide.
However, unfortunately, motivations trumping public service reform and stop-start devolution have marred any real devolution of power to local government in Northern Ireland since 2014, meaning it is therefore questionable that such motivations will, in any substantive sense, be tempered by a return of the Assembly in the Autumn of 2023. And even if Stormont returns in the Autumn of 2023, it is hard to imagine local government empowerment will be high on the priority list even before considering the Northern Ireland Executive’s centripetal view of governance. Going forward, local government will continue to provide a local and accountable democratic platform in Northern Ireland where consensus politics actually delivers, and in doing so, will provide a template for real partnership work when democratic governance returns in the Northern Irish Assembly.
May’s 2023 local election held significance for its snapshot on wider demographic trends and the effect of political parties’ standpoints on the Stormont stalemate. More broadly, local government in Northern Ireland remains focused on innovation and collaboration across an array of exciting policy areas, but rather disappointingly, the final sentence of a 2023 article on Northern Ireland local government is the exact same as our 2017 briefing,
“local government once again has taken up that additional role from the past as it is now the only functioning, democratically elected, structure in Northern Ireland”