This blog looks at the importance of local governance in Northern Ireland (NI). Since the revival of NI’s devolution in 1999, Pivotal calculates that the power-sharing Executive has not been functioning for more than 40% of that time.
With the majority of attention focused on the October 28th deadline for Stormont’s “caretaker” Executive to return, this blog focuses on how Belfast City Council operates during the current deadlock at Stormont.
Remarking upon NI’s local governance at the start of the Peace Process, Colin Knox (1998) identifies three roles for local government; an executive, a representative, and a consultation. Understanding NI’s local government in this manner provides a guiding framework for this blog to expand upon three key areas where local government overcomes deadlock at Stormont.
The context of local governance in Northern Ireland
Mirroring the tumultuous history of NI, the structure of local government has fluctuated in its 101 year history. With the number of council administrations jumping from 6, to 26, and then to the current structure of 11, the powers council’s exercise has similarly wavered. Following the partition of the island of Ireland in 1920, local governance in NI was plagued by systemic patterns of discrimination in housing, elections and jobs. With local governance discrimination forming the bedrock for the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement demands, the unrest of NI in the 1970’s saw councils lose many responsibilities. For example, the 1971 Housing Executive Act transferred the housing responsibilities of local authorities to a new agency, the Housing Executive, which remains to this day, remains as an independent organisation with a single comprehensive regional housing authority.
Following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the 2015 local government reforms, NI currently has 11 councils responsible for local planning, waste collection, parks and leisure, economic development and arts, heritage and cultural facilities.
1- Executive: Political leadership during deadlock.
In the policy vacuum left by the current caretaker Executive, leadership in NI’s 11 councils is providing the space for innovative cross-border policy advances. Thanks in part to Brexit, NI’s Minister’s have been unable to embark on new policy initiatives since February 2022, so local authorities such as Belfast City Council are now leading the way in securing policy initiatives and funding in areas such as;
- While £400 million of NI’s public spending cannot be allocated by an Executive, the Belfast Region City Deal secured an investment package of £850 million from the UK Government.
- Political leadership in local authorities mean 9 councils in NI benefit from Irish government funding on collaborative cross-border projects and Belfast City Council has accessed £14 million in PEACE funding since 2018 to fund projects and events promoting cross-community relations.
- Collaborative working with Cork City Council on sustainable dockland regeneration.
- The Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor involving 8 councils has seen successes in transport infrastructure, peace-building and employment opportunities.
- The All of Ireland Smart Cities Forum provides the space through which City Authorities across the Island cooperate on Smart Initiatives.
2- Representative: Opportunities for cross-community relations
Functioning only 40% of the time since 1999, LucidTalk polling data for 2022 illustrates widespread public dissatisfaction with NI’s power-sharing Executive. However, whilst Stormont’s stop-start governance staggers on, councils act as important forums for reconciliation.
Sidetracking the tribal “us versus them” politics which defines deadlock at Stormont, council Leaders can use their role to make inroads with other communities. 2002 provides a powerful example of the local government’s potential for reconciliation. The mixed composition of many council wards means those whose party may refuse to sit in the same room at Stormont are often happy to work together on local issues. A powerful example of this is the electoral ward of Lisnasharragh, where East Belfast’s first Nationalist Councillor and representatives from the DUP, Alliance and the Green Party find common ground to work together for the entire ward.
3- Consultative- Council views on centrally planned services
Knox (1998) outlines a consultative role where councils’ views are sought on centrally provided services such as planning, roads, water and housing. A power granted to councils in 2015, Community Planning aims to improve the connection between all the tiers of government and wider society through partnership working to jointly deliver better outcomes for everyone.
A compelling example of this work is Belfast’s City Council’s approach to Community Planning. With input from the city’s residents, the Belfast Agenda adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic and has created the conditions where job creation and neighbourhood regeneration is flourishing, demonstrating the importance of local service delivery.
This blog does not pretend that local governance is the panacea for NI’s multitude of issues.
Instead, this blog provides a timely reminder that whilst Stormont remains in deadlock, Local Authorities in Northern Ireland continue to provide local solutions for local issues. Looking ahead to the 28th October, the deadline for Stormont to return or face elections, the greatest challenge facing NI’s councils remains that of funding. Entitled to only 4% of the public funding available in NI, the Northern Ireland Local Governance Association stresses that councils are already committed to supporting communities, irrespective of their limited statutory role and finances. Therefore, properly funded and empowered, local governance in NI can provide a crucial forum for citizens to shape the place where they live and work.