Would a radical reform of the powers of the council restore political stability?

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THE novelist Edward G. Bulwer Lytton once said: “A reform is a correction of abuse; a revolution is a transfer of power.

Continuing instability in Stormont, extremely long hospital waiting lists and desperation over the state of our local infrastructure should challenge us to decide who is best placed to deliver our public services.

Like a portrayal in a Greek tragedy, we have seen the collapse of Stormont, threats to bring down structures and constant dead ends. The protagonists include the NI Protocol, an Irish Language Act, and the RHI scandal, all in a context that at times doesn’t seem out of place in one of Aristotle’s dramas.

Whether we support a united Ireland, whether we cherish the Union or prefer neither of them matters little when families suffer and grief is felt in every community.

We all need solutions that provide both effective and efficient services and improve political stability here in Northern Ireland. It’s true that the political struggles in Stormont have made it more problematic to make tough decisions about utilities, but maybe our councils could do more to help.

Since the creation of the 11 super councils in 2015, they have successfully assumed planning responsibilities, certain functions of economic development and the operation of off-street parking.

And despite the occasional negative headlines, elected councilors typically come together and agree on the day-to-day issues that impact our local communities.

In Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon ​​Borough Council, the most controversial debates tend to revolve around national issues, while most local decisions are approved by councilors.

Should we therefore transfer more powers to our 11 councils? And you may ask, why on earth should we trade one group of elected politicians for another?

First, giving elected councilors responsibility for potholes and local roads would improve accountability and promote efficiency. It can also solve some of the systemic problems of the planning system, as many of these delays can be linked to the operations and priorities of different departments and statutory bodies.

Delegating more powers, such as full regenerative powers, public libraries, local roads and some public transport responsibilities could boost our struggling city centers. After all, since the pandemic, many of us work, shop, and socialize differently.

So what is going on elsewhere?

In Scotland, local authorities have more extensive powers, including responsibility for local roads, libraries, social and health care in addition to parks and recreation, rubbish bins, cemeteries and planning.

Therefore, perhaps our local councils could help provide social care or related services. This could ease some of the pressure on the health ministry and allow it to focus on its core functions of delivering quality health care and reducing wait lists.

In general, there are social and economic reasons for delegating more powers to local communities. In European countries, like Switzerland, it can be argued that the key to their success is localism, decentralized decision-making and direct democracy.

Their process of deconcentration is qualified as “subsidiarity”; and defined as anything that can be done at the lower or local political level should not be done at the higher level.

But would Stormont want to give up some of his powers? It would be like asking the “Beatles” to give up the rights to their precious catalog for the first time!

Stormont has already recognized the regional imbalance across Northern Ireland, and this can be seen in the urban and regional agreements that are being dealt with in an attempt to reverse the lack of investment in areas outside Belfast.

If there was a change, it would certainly have to be a gradual process. Stormont would likely need to retain the responsibilities of health services, justice and police, education and national highways, as well as the role of surveillance and law-making.

Finally, local community groups and charities are already providing valuable services through their own fundraising activities and with the help of financial aid grants from local authorities.

Coming out of the pandemic, transferring more power from Stormont to boards could also strengthen these groups and empower our local communities and businesses.

Would a dose of radical reform also restore some political stability?

:: Councilor Brian Pope is the leader of the Alliance Party group in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon ​​Borough Council


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