Local government facts and figures: Northern Ireland

Quick facts

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  • Since 2015, Northern Ireland’s local government system comprises 11 City, Borough or District Councils.
  • Belfast City Council is the smallest council at 132 square kilometres, while Fermanagh and Omagh is the largest council in Northern Ireland, with a size of 2,857 square kilometres.
  • But in terms of population, the 2021 census showed Belfast City Council was the largest council in Northern Ireland, with a population of 345,400, while Fermanagh and Omagh District Council had the lowest population at 116,800.
  • Councils in Northern Ireland are responsible for approximately one-sixth of the powers and spending that councils in Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland have (NILGA 2023).

  • Ards & North Down council has the highest percentage of people aged over 65 at 22.1 per cent. Mid-Ulster council has the highest percentage of people aged under 15 at 21.7 per cent.
  • Northern Ireland’s longest-serving Councillor is Dermot Curran, who entered public service in 1973 to the then Down District Council. (Newry, Mourne and Down District Council).

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Councils and councillors

How many councillors are there?

Across 80 District Electoral Areas (DEA’s),  462 councillors are elected to 11 district councils, with boundaries reviewed every 10-15 years by the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner.

Councillors are elected for a four-year term of office and do not receive a salary, but the main allowances which may be payable to a councillor are a Basic Allowance of £16,394 (April 2023), with other allowances available for travel and subsistence, Chairperson/Vice Chairperson and carers.

How is local government structured?

In Northern Ireland, local government is organised into 11 district councils which form the third tier of government, below Westminster and the devolved government at Stormont. Unlike Scotland or England, there is no lower tier of local democracy below NI’s 11 unitary Councils.

Compared to local government in other UK regions or the Republic of Ireland, local government in Northern Ireland has “fewer responsibilities and functions than their counterparts in the other parts of the United Kingdom.” (Congress of Local and Regional Authorities 2022).

For instance, local government in NI is not responsible for providing social care, education, roadbuilding and housing.

 

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How are councillors elected?

Local government elections normally take place on the first Thursday in May every four years, and the last local government election took place on Thursday, 18 May 2023. Read our two-part analysis of the NI Local elections here.

Councillors are elected under a proportional representation system called the Single Transferrable Vote. Each candidate needs a minimum number of votes to be elected, and a quota of the number of seats and votes cast determines this number. Once a candidate meets this quota, votes that would have gone to the winner instead go to the second preference listed on those ballot papers (see the Electoral Reform Society for more).

Electoral ID when voting has been in place for local elections since 2002 in Northern Ireland and was also used in the NI constituencies for the UK Parliamentary Elections since 2007 (CAIN).

The NI Code of Conduct for Councillors sets out the Principles and Rules of conduct to which councillors must adhere to. Currently, this is under review with NILGA, NAC and the Department of Communities.

Despite recent increases, only 26% of Local Councillors and 18% of Mayors or Council chairs are women, according to 50:50 NI. Moreover, over three-quarters of local councillors in Northern Ireland (76%) have experienced abuse in their role, while a further 52% have said they have been intimidated by members of the public and ‘trolls’ according to NILGA’s 2023 survey.

b

What other roles are there in a council?

  • Administration– a group of councillors within a council who are able to command majority support and thus control the running of the council.
  • Mayor or Chairperson*– A mixture of ceremonial and chairing roles who is elected for a one-year term by a full Council annual meeting in June.
  • Chief Executive – As per the Local Government Act 1972, the Chief Executive is the head of council’s paid service having authority over all other officers as far as this is necessary for the efficient management and execution of the council’s functions.
  • Committee chairperson – Most councils operate a committee system with the chairperson presiding over meetings.
  • High Sheriff – Dating back to the Local Government Act 1898 (Ireland), appointments to this ceremonial role are made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, usually upon the recommendation of the council
  • Officers – Politically neutral, officers are directly employed by the Council in a variety of administrative, professional technical and operational roles

*In Northern Ireland, City and Borough councils appoint a Mayor and Deputy Mayor while District councils appoint a Chair and Vice-Chair.

What do councillors do?

Decision-making – councillors attend full meetings of the council, and some hold decision-making posts

Regulators – councillors sit on planning or other regulatory committees and consider issues from planning applications to licenses for pubs and restaurants.

Scrutinise decisions – councillors may serve on scrutiny committees responsible for the scrutiny of existing policies and service delivery.

Representing their ward – councillors represent and meet with residents and groups within their ward and address the issues that they raise.

How do councils work in Northern Ireland?

Shifting the debate from “can we do this?’ to ‘how can we do this?’”, the 2014 LG 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.

In terms of governance, there are three broad forms available in the 2014 Act.

  1. A committee system, which can range from Belfast’s over-arching strategic policy and resources committee to functional, joint and Quasi-Judicial committees.
  2. Executive Arrangement, either a cabinet-style executive or a streamlined committee executive
  3. Prescribed Arrangements, an alternative form which requires approval from the Department for Communities

Typically, at a council’s Annual General Meeting, the d’Hondt system is the default method for appointing councillors to ‘Positions of Responsibility’; however, the 2014 Act also permits two alternative methods of selecting positions of responsibility (Sainte- Laguë Method and STV).

Who's Who in Northern Ireland's Councils?

Council name Chief Executive Mayor/Chair Political party 2023 political control (NOC=No overall control)
Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council Jacqui Dixon Cllr Mark Cooper DUP NOC
Ards and North Down Borough Council Stephen Reid Cllr Jennifer Gilmour DUP NOC
Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council Roger Wilson Cllr Margaret Tinsley DUP NOC
Belfast City Council John Walsh Cllr Ryan Murphy SF NOC
Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council David Jackson Cllr Steven Callaghan DUP NOC
Derry City and Strabane District Council John Kelpie Cllr Patricia Logue SF NOC
Fermanagh, Omagh and District Council Alison McCullagh Cllr Thomas O’Reilly SF SF
Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council David Burn Cllr Andrew Gowan DUP NOC
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council Valerie Watts* Cllr Gerardine Mulvenna Alliance NOC
Mid Ulster District Council Adrian McCreesh Cllr Dominic Molloy SF NOC
Newry, Mourne and Down District Council Marie Ward Cllr Valerie Harte SF NOC
Northern Ireland Local Government Association Alison Allen Cllr Matt Garrett SF
SOLACE Roger Wilson

What do councils do?

CouncilsStormont
Education✔️
Roads✔️
Passenger transport✔️
Social care✔️
Housing✔️
Libraries✔️
Leisure and recreation✔️
Drainage and waste water✔️
Environmental health✔️
Waste collection and disposal✔️
Recycling and waste management✔️
Fire services✔️
Local planning✔️✔️
Strategic planning✔️
Rate collections✔️
Trading standards✔️
Cemeteries✔️
Street lighting✔️
Regulation of HMO's✔️
Urban regeneration✔️
Estate Management✔️
Arts, heritage and cultural facilites✔️

Political control of NI Councils

Unlike the rest of the UK, local government in NI is unique in that No Overall Control is the norm, not the exception. In fact, the 2023 local election was significant as it was the first time since 2014 that we have a Council controlled by one political party (Fermanagh and Omagh District Council).

First preference votes in Northern Ireland 2019-2023
2014 Local election first preference vote share 2019 Local election first preference vote share 2023 Local Elections first preference vote share
DUP (23.1%) DUP (24.1%) SF (30.9%)
SF (24.1%) SF (23.2%) DUP (23.3%)
UUP (16.2%) UUP (14.1%) Alliance (13.3%)
SDLP (13.6%) SDLP (12%) UUP (10.9%)
Alliance (6.7%) Alliance (11.5) SDLP (8.7%)
TUV (4.5%) (Indp 15.1%) Ind. (4.6%)
Source: CAIN Source: BBC NI                               Source: House of Commons

Local government finance

How much do councils spend and on what?

Local government finance differs in NI from the rest of the UK.

Most council revenues come from a combination of district rate income (around 78%), devolved and central government grants (7%) and fees and charges (15%). (NILGA 2021)

But unlike local government tax systems in the UK, rates collected in Northern Ireland are split between the Regional (to the NI Assembly) and District Rate (to the council).

Local government expenditure can be categorised broadly as capital expenditure on tangible assets like land and revenue expenditure on day-to-day service provision.

Local government spends over £900m on critical services, with £350m of this fund from domestic rates, £350 from non-domestic rates, and the rest from government grants and service fees. (NILGA 2021).

Most of the 11 councils’ expenditure is on staffing costs, waste management contracts, overhead and programme costs and capital financing,

But this only equates to under 4% of the total NI Public Services budget, a proportion which makes local government spending one of the lowest in Europe and within the UK, compared to 26% in Scotland and 24% in England. (Northern Irish Fiscal Council)

Local government expenditure falls under capital expenditure on tangible assets like land and vehicles, and revenue expenditure on day-to-day service provisions.

Acronym buster

NILGA – Northern Ireland Local Government Association is the council-led representative body for local authorities in Northern Ireland.

Local Government Commissioner for Standards – The purpose of the Office is to promote and regulate Local Government Ethical Standards.

Northern Ireland Audit Office – Wholly independent of the government, the Northern Ireland Audit Office supports the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland.

C&AG – Comptroller and Auditor General

LDP – Local Development Plan

CPP – Community Planning Partnership

DAERA – Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

DfI – Department for Infrastructure

SOLACE – Solace is the UK’s leading membership network for public sector and local government professionals.

National Association of Councillors – The NAC represents Councillors at all tiers of Local Government and is a non party political organisation.

APSE – Association for Public Service Excellence hosts a series of events for our member local authorities, as well as hosting training events, performance networks benchmarking meetings and providing other support through APSE’s services.

NICVA – Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action is a membership and representative umbrella body for the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland.

What is the history of local government in Northern Ireland?

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Broadly speaking, the current system of local government in Northern Ireland can be understood through major reforms in three periods.

Pre-1921

While 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, piecemeal municipal reform began on the island of Ireland, with Poor Law Unions, the reconfiguration of Cities and boroughs. 

Replicating a system of local government from Scotland and England, the Local Government Act (Ireland) 1898 replaced various systems of landlord-controlled grand juries with County Councils, along with Borough, Urban and Rural District Councils. You can still see relics of the 1898 Acts in Northern Irish local government today 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

With the partition of the island of Ireland in 1921 creating 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.

The reforms introduced in the early 1970’s followed the publication of a review led by Patrick Macrory, in 1970. The review effectively introduced a strong centralising tendency in Northern Ireland to reduce the levels of discrimination that were at the heart of grievance at that difficult time. 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 old county structures.

Review of Public Administration

During the ensuing conflict in Northern Ireland, from 1969-1998, local government was largely the sole democratic forum in Northern Ireland where all parties would participate. In fact, local government was at the forefront of developing power-sharing practices arrangements in mayors/chairs and committees (Knox 1998). Birrell (2007) suggests that cooperation and cross-border working in local government made provisions within the Good Friday Agreement more palatable.

Following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, local government reform took the spotlight with the Review of Public Administration in 2002. Starting the slow-burning process of local reform, the subsequent 12 years saw in-depth consultations, proposals and counter-proposals and discussions over what a reformed model of local government would look like in terms of the numbers of councils and their powers.

Several functions previously delivered by NI Executive departments have transferred to these new councils during this period, such as the legal powers to lead on community planning, the power of “well-being”, local economic development and off-street car parking, to mention some. Perhaps more importantly, the reforms have set the scene for the transfer of further functions, most notably planning with some elements of local planning now in place at local government level.

For more on the role of local government in NI, make sure you read our in-depth policy briefing here!

What are the emerging policy areas for local government in Northern Ireland?

In 2018, the UK Government noted the NI Affairs Committee’s recommendation for an independent review of local governments’ powers and finances within 12 months by either the Executive or Secretary of State.

Fast forward to 2023, neither the independent review nor even the 2014 promised review has materialised. So where is local government going now?

While the UK and NI Executive watch the kettle boil, NI’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. (Check out our latest policy briefing on the potential of community planning in Scotland)

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.

Critically, however, local government continues to provide a local democratic platform in NI where consensus politics work, and in doing so, can provide a template for real partnership work when democratic governance returns in the Northern Irish Assembly.

However, unfortunately, motivations trumping public service reform and stop-start devolution have marred any real devolution of power to local government in NI 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.

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References