Derek McCallan, Chief Executive, NILGA (Northern Ireland Local Government Association)
During both Friday’s NILGA 11 council virtual meeting and then a further engagement with the 11 council chief executives, it is clear that local government’s response to Covid-19 has saved lives, kept essential public health services going and brought together extraordinary community and business partnerships at local level everywhere, but at a massive cost.
To say the situation facing councils is perilous is an understatement.
NILGA has, together with all councils and their senior officer teams, presented the short and long-term finances required to keep councils open beyond the summer to the Treasury and to Stormont. The Covid 19 response by councils from March to June has over £40 million invested in it, money that is simply irretrievable as income losses alone sit at £30 million.
A non-payment of domestic and business rates, forecast at 25% by many English local authorities and yet to be determined here, would lead to around £175 million of income obliterated.
Taking these things together, when you consider the budget of about £800 million for local government annually, a small amount of the NI Public sector budget of over £23 billion, you realise that this model is unsustainable.
It is heartening to hear and read letters of support from Ministers, the public and councils’ many partners. However, this must transfer into cash, on the same proportionate basis as English, Scottish and Welsh councils, in what is called “Consequential Losses”.
Consequences means talking about impacts – which are massive. As a citizen, imagine no or reduced public health, planning, regulatory, community development, business support, leisure and wellbeing, preventative health, sports and local cultural funding stopping or being drastically cut. Recovery would be halted. Emergency provisions would be called for. We have had enough emergencies. This emergency can be avoided with funding.
Consequences means, also, rewiring how we do business – not just in councils, but as NILGA has reiterated since the new councils formed in 2015, establishing a completely new model of resource distribution of our entire public purse, because the institutions providing them are far, far less important than the people delivering and the people receiving these services.
We will need a transformed public sector and councils are part of the solution, but only if brave, radical, decisions leading to cash for councils to survive is provided. Because communities need reassurance like public services security at this time, and government depends on local authorities to be the hubs of these communities, drawing on their information to make better decisions based upon local need.
Since the new councils were formed almost exactly 5 years ago, our colleagues in Stormont could not legislate in any substantial way for 3 of them. Thank goodness we have a Legislative Assembly operating, but now we must sustain the 11 councils, which kept Northern Ireland locally governed amidst a different type of crisis altogether.
It is time to be brave, to transfer resources and challenges via councils to local people and places, but they too will change, beyond the emergency financial planning all 11 are engaged in right now.
I believe that Northern Ireland’s public services, government departments and the 11 councils have innovative, change ready, committed, entrepreneurial people at every level, capable of delivering radical change. We must unlock that talent, sit down with community and business leaders too, on an East – West and North – South basis and co-design our recovery.
Neither politics nor bureaucracy, neither silo budgets nor short termism should be barriers.
The heroes in our health service and other front-line workers, and the public itself, deserve changes for the better, as well as hope. Investing in our councils, now, is not only the right thing. It will make recovery happen faster and provide the hope we all need in a secure, effective, local democracy.
There is no time to waste.