Next week, Northern Ireland will implement the biggest reform of it’s public services for 50 years, as 11 newly-established councils take on a range of increased powers. Matt Burrows explores how reform is putting localism at the heart of services.
In the wider context of Northern Ireland’s deep political history, the reform of local government may come to pass as a relatively low-key affair in the realms of time. But, on the eve of a historic handover which will see the biggest change in local services since power-sharing began, it may prove to be one of the most significant.
As of April 1, the 26 councils which have delivered services for almost 50 years will be formally abolished, and replaced with a leaner system of 11 “super-councils”, which have been preparing in shadow format for over a year.
The aim is to move the future of shaping local communities from the national Executive into the hands of the new councils – giving them key powers and responsibilities, such as community planning.
Traditionally, councils in NI have been set-up as providers of local services – recycling, bin collection, parks, street-cleaning, leisure facilities and building control to name a few.
From April 1, under the new 11-council structure, they will take on the additional strategic services that will allow them to shape the long term future of their communities – including community planning, economic development, planning, regeneration & tourism. They will also be given a new power of general competence – enabling critical freedoms in how they choose to set up and deliver services.
With greater powers and more ability to directly engage local residents in decisions, community planning will allow councils to lead a multi-agency vision for the future of their communities – engaging residents in how their area should develop, and increasing local influence over decisions.
The newly-transferred powers such as planning and regeneration – both critical in shaping the long-term built environment – will then allow them to deliver it.
Residents will have easier access to local plans, and more influence in shaping their area, with community plans being built locally. The new councils will then have the necessary powers – critically, regeneration and planning – to deliver those plans.
John Kelpie, the Chief Executive of the new Derry City & Strabane District council, believes the shift towards localism presents a huge opportunity for local government in the country.
“We are hoping for a seamless transfer of powers,” he said ahead of the handover next week. “But the most important element of reform by far is the new powers that councils – and by extension their local elected members and communities – will have to shape their areas.
“They are transformative powers – the ability to plan locally what we collectively want for our communities, and then to run the strategic services that will allow us to deliver that plan.”
In Derry & Strabane – an area with high levels of deprivation and low economic activity – the new powers offer more than place shaping; they offer potential for transformative change.
“Our deprivation and economic figures have stubbornly refused to move, because we’ve not had the powers to really address long-term issues,” said Kelpie. But in taking forward the new council and with the new powers we have to act for local people, it feels like, for the first time, there is a real hope of improving things.”
Theresa Donaldson, the new chief executive at the combined Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council, believes the handover will see services delivered “in a way Northern Ireland has not experienced before”.
“There have been great examples of partnership collaboration in the past,” she said, “but the statutory obligation around community planning provides a genuinely exciting opportunity to deliver citizen-focussed services.
“This is about the critical elements of a community, such as planning, regeneration and others, being determined by the people who live there, and the elected members who represent them – not by someone in central government.”
At Belfast City Council, Chief Executive Suzanne Wylie agrees the focus on localism presents an opportunity to deliver much improved local outcomes.
“Improved outcomes for local people are central to the purpose of the new councils and there has been a significant shift in the focus on better outcomes over the last year,” she said.
“In particular, the new power of community planning is in part a reflection of the fact that many outcomes – such as improvements in employability, reductions in health inequalities and better educational attainment can only be achieved through meaningful and effective partnership.
“Community planning provides a statutory basis for this partnership and also requires us to take an outcomes based approach.
“At Belfast, we see community planning as an opportunity to bring coherence to a shared city agenda – the “Belfast Agenda” - which will provide a simple and clear framework within which partners can work towards better outcomes.”
With elections to the new councils held last year and Shadow Councils in operation for the past 12months in preparation, much has been done behind the scenes to ensure a running start next month.
Before this can happen, though, the massive task of launching the councils and handing over the services has had to happen.
The logistics of setting up structures and organisational design, appointing new leadership teams, and organising the transfer of major services has been a major focus ahead of the handover, supported by efficiency agency iESE (Improvement & Efficiency Social Enterprise). With ten years’ experience in supporting councils through transformational change, iESE were able to draw on a range of case studies to help the reform process.
“Primarily, our role has been about providing the support and tools to the authorities in getting the building blocks of successful transformation in place,” said iESE Executive Director Alison Templeton.
“For example, we worked closely with the Department of Environment (NI) and Transfer of Functions Working Group to develop an Organisational Design Toolkit and a set of design principles that was right for Northern Ireland councils.
“This provided a consistent methodology and approach for preparatory work to inform the different options for new organisational models, allowing the Shadow Councils – which have been preparing for over a year – and the Statutory Transitional Committees (STC) to make well-informed decisions about new structures and service models.”
John Kelpie agrees, adding: “Having experts on board who are non-affiliated to any council, who know the sector and who objectively focus on giving councils the tools while we focus on decisions, has been critical in getting to where we are.”
A successful transformation of services in Northern Ireland also presents opportunities for councils in England & Wales to draw on the country’s experiences as English councils edge closer to the inevitability of full-scale reform. The reform of services covering NI is larger in geographic terms than even the largest counties in England.
While in terms of innovation, efficiency and structural change, a Northern Ireland case study has it all – sensitive political management, boundary changes, devolution of strategic services to a local level, service redesign and shared services/organistional mergers. Councils in England and Wales have explored one or more of these avenues, but examples of reform on this scale are limited.
Council reform may not register in the history books quite as significantly as other milestones in Northern Ireland’s past. It will never make headlines in the same way as national power-sharing and Good Friday agreements. But it is the result of those things – and as usually, local government has gone about it quietly, efficiently, and without fuss.
Article: published in the MJ 16th April 2015