Derek McCallan, NILGA Chief Executive
Alongside healthcare heroes and other frontline workers, Northern Ireland’s councils adapted dynamically to support our communities during the pandemic.
By doing vital things well – waste disposal, food parcel distribution, adapting our parks, preventative health sessions, convening meaningful partnerships - councils have led from the front.
It is easy to forget how positive early 2020 was in comparison to the rest of the year. The return of Executive Ministers and MLAs to Stormont after three long years was essential for democracy but, after a few weeks, the pandemic took hold. Yet, Stormont worked as collegiately and dynamically as possible in response to a total crisis.
I thank our Ministers, elected members, officials, and strategic partners who supported councils in 2020, whether through paying for some of our income losses, for rates relief, and for bringing us into co-design of recovery and containment work. The re-establishment of the Partnership Panel with Executive Ministers was another positive example of collaboration between central and local government. This spirit must continue in 2021.
Stormont is currently forming a new Programme for Government for April 2021. With an Assembly election in May 2022, pandemic recovery, our exit from the EU, and meeting our climate obligations to contend with, the capacity at Stormont is understandably stretched. By prioritising the sustainability of our 11 local councils, we can share the burden across local and central government, allowing councils to focus on issues which matter to local people.
Each year, local government invests less than £900 million of Northern Ireland’s average £24 billion public budget. A transformative policy environment and Programme for Government must be community centred, with councils the hub of delivery. This can deliver both substantial time and cash savings, freeing up resources for services which matter to local communities.
The essential services delivered by councils and pressures placed upon them far outstrip their finances. The pandemic has exposed the precariousness of local government in NI and financial cracks have become craters. European funding losses next year means clarity and greater local engagement is needed on the Government’s proposed £3.5 billion Shared Prosperity Fund. This must live up to its name – shared prosperity, delivered locally, to places and people in greatest need.
The recovery and reimagination of our high streets and our village, town, and city centres has to also be an urgent priority for all politicians. The recently convened High Streets Taskforce is a breath of fresh air– no creaking sub-committees and essays on running meetings, just willing and skilled partners working together to solve these challenges. NILGA is proud to be part of it and hopes it will be properly resourced. This will allow local economies to develop in a climate of growth and hope, not red tape and fear, hubs of enterprise led by local communities.
Local democracy is unique. We should nurture it, fund it, motivate it, and be part of it, freeing up more capacity within councils, trusting them to move us forward in partnership. NILGA is looking forward to integrated work with our Stormont and national partners. The future is local - hubs of entrepreneurship, inclusive growth, and social cohesion.