The new President of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) has said that addressing current political uncertainty is crucial to putting local government on a more sustainable and secure financial footing.
Speaking at his inauguration at NILGA’s AGM, which took place this morning at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy, Councillor Matt Garrett (Sinn Féin, Belfast City Council) said current financial pressures on public services, including services provided by councils, shows that central and local government must work proactively together in delivering the transformation that is needed to put Northern Ireland on a sustainable footing for the long term.
It comes as the Secretary of State’s recent budget puts serious pressure on public services across all departments, which has resulted in the recent Department for Communities budget planning to cut the rates support grant to its lowest level ever of £4.9m in 2023/2024. This follows a period of investment in councils during 20/21 and 21/22 from the Department for Communities, reinstating the total rates support grant to just over £20m, which is similar to the total rates support grant provided to councils in 2008/2009.
This demonstrated the department’s commitment to the services provided by local government and was recognition that the purpose of the rates support grant is to support critical public services in the least wealthy council areas.
As Northern Ireland enters a new council mandate following May’s elections, NILGA is reiterating calls for the devolution of further powers to local government including place-shaping and regeneration, as well as greater investment in transformation and innovation for councils and councillors.
Speaking at the AGM, Cllr Matt Garrett, NILGA President, said:
“Frontline services across central and local government are under serious and significant pressure. We’ve seen in recent weeks cuts announced by almost every department which will affect service provision for communities, businesses, and citizens across the north. Local government is not immune to these pressures. Indeed, our councils find themselves in a very precarious fiscal position, after years of underinvestment and under-resourcing.
“The new council mandate offers an opportunity to rejuvenate and refresh the relationship between local, regional and central government. Local government is agile and resilient and can best respond to challenges facing our communities and ratepayers on a local level. However, this will require a determined focus from both central and local government on the financial sustainability of councils, which allows us to prepare for the medium to long term, and refreshing the way in which local government is funded.
“This will require the restoration of the Executive and Assembly. While councils have once again stepped up in their absence, we can thrive by working together hand-in-hand with our colleagues at Stormont. As NILGA President, I am committed to working with all 11 councils, our members, council officers, and our MLA colleagues to redefine the relationship between central and local government.
“Our councils have shown, through unprecedented challenges like Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis, that they are best placed to respond and deliver for citizens. However, we must be given the finances, powers, and resources to effectively do our jobs.”
Outgoing NILGA President Cllr Martin Kearney (SDLP, Mid Ulster District Council) also added:
“It has been an honour to be NILGA President over the past 12 months. Heading into an election year, I am pleased that we have been an active organisation and provided a strong voice to the local government sector. We have continued to make the cause for councils across the country, lobbying for greater finances and new powers, which will allow councils to remain strong community leaders.
“The cost-of-living crisis and the absence of central government at Stormont has placed further strain on our sector this year but I am proud of the response from all 11 councils in providing leadership, delivering for local citizens, and supporting their communities. As we move into a new council mandate, it is vital that our sector gets the proper funding and resources we need to continue delivering for those we support.”