Well, well. Thanks to the blood-crazed ferret having taken a shine to this blog recently, the traffic here has been ridiculously brisk, but I know how to fix that. For all the new readers eager for a bit more Catholic skulduggery – fear not, for we will return anon to the adventures of Ma Pepsi and her merry band. It’s just that, before the stats counter bursts into flames, I thought it might be an idea to calm things down with a discussion of local government reform.
Or rather, why it isn’t happening. First, some background. Following the Brits’ abolition of our Stormont-era local government system along with the parliament that oversaw it, the north was gifted a local government system in 1973 that has remained more or less intact to the present day. The building blocks of this system are the 26 local government districts; and, in the spirit of limited reform that was fashionable in 1973, the new councils differed from the old councils in having a universal franchise and being elected by PR. This was supposed (and remember, we’re talking Sunningdale-era optimism) to lead to partnership and the withering away of discrimination. If you want to know whether that worked, I advise you to pick up a copy of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s volume Belfast’s Dome of Delight, which expertly chronicles some of the literally incredible goings on at City Hall in those far-off pre-peace process days.
Almost as an afterthought, the new councils were stripped of virtually all the powers that local government in Britain would take for granted. Specifically, they weren’t allowed anywhere near housing or planning. You would almost think that Proconsul Whitelaw didn’t trust the natives to behave.
Fast forward three decades or so. With the restoration of devolution, local government was obviously going to come up for discussion again. Since the Assembly at Stormont with its 108 elected members bore some semblance of functionality, the question would naturally arise as to whether we really needed 26 councils with nearly six hundred councillors, who moreover had little to do except sit around with their two arms the one length. The fact that a majority of MLAs were also double-jobbing as councillors, and a few also triple-jobbing in Westminster, only slightly mitigated the argument for efficiency savings. The Brits also dangled as an incentive that a slimmed-down local government system might accrue some actual powers.
The issue, though, quickly got bogged down in which arbitrary number of councils would win out. Unionists favoured a fairly modest reduction from 26 to 15; the Provos, for reasons best known to themselves, preferred a model of seven enormous councils. Eventually a compromise figure of eleven councils, to be created through amalgamating the existing districts, was agreed on.
Moreover, the question was going to arises of boundaries, in the first instance. Some of this had to do with sectarian geography – so unionists in Limavady objected to the possibility of being lumped in with nationalist-controlled Derry and Strabane. (Limavady itself is under nationalist control these days, but that hasn’t quite sunk in yet.) Beyond that, there’s also a more general geographical issue. The old 26 councils generally made geographical sense, being composed in the main of town plus rural hinterland – it could get a bit confusing in the Belfast suburbs, but in somewhere like Cookstown or Ballymoney you would have, basically, the central town plus those rural areas that looked to it. The planned mergers would create some real monstrosities, lumping together areas that have little affinity with each other save that they share a boundary – the idea, for instance, that Dundonald looks to Lisburn as a regional centre is sheer absurdity when there isn’t even a bus link between the two, and indeed, there is a rather large city called Belfast lying directly between them.
You can tell they’re monstrosities by the proposed names. “Newry City, Mourne and Down District Council”? “Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon District Council”? God love whoever had to design the letterheads. I suppose some old Gaelic names could have been dug up, which would have had the useful side effect of giving Nelson McCausland conniptions, but nobody seems to have thought of an imaginative name where a clunky one would do.
So anyway, the 11-council proposal went through the Executive in 2008. Proconsul Woodward also announced that the council elections scheduled for 2009 would be postponed for two years so as to give time to prepare the transition. Which is where we have been until the last wee while, waiting for the transition to kick in.
So why is it that the Executive, having agreed on local government reform two years ago, fails to agree on it now, and the delayed elections next year look like being to the old 26? There are a number of explanations floating around, most of which have some degree of plausibility.
Officially, it’s all about money. Specifically, a dispute between environment minister Edwin Poots (DUP, Lagan Valley) and finance minister Sammy Wilson (DUP, East Antrim) about Sammy’s demands for councils to cough up extra money for the transition, and differing estimates of what the councils might provide in the way of efficiency savings. This boils down to Sammy saying the councils aren’t willing to pull their weight, and the councils averring that Sammy is talking crap. You pays your money and takes your choice.
Another explanation is put forward by Paul Butler (SF, Lagan Valley). He points out that, as a quid pro quo for the councils getting additional powers, there would be mandatory power-sharing as in the Assembly. He remarks, correctly, that nationalist-controlled councils or those with a sectarian balance (Belfast, Armagh) operate all-party power-sharing, whilst unionist-controlled councils like Lisburn or Ards tend to operate a system of power-sharing between the DUP and UUP. As the SF group leader on Lisburn council, Paul knows whereof he speaks; and his theory is that the unionists are getting cold feet about having to share power in their fiefdoms. Well, perhaps.
We may also point to the Pootsiemander, the two interconnected micro-disputes around the boundary between Belfast and the proposed Lisburn/Castlereagh council. One of those relates to where the boundary was drawn in Dunmurry – although the area being transferred to Belfast is overwhelmingly Catholic, some Protestant residents were found and wound up to say that they wanted to stay in Lisburn. This may not be unconnected to Belfast having a fine sectarian balance while Lisburn’s huge Protestant majority can absorb a couple of thousand additional Catholics, which may also explain why the unionist parties (and, weirdly, the SDLP) are very exercised about the Dunmurry boundary. That the independent Boundary Commission heard those objections and rejected them seems entirely irrelevant.
The other element of the Pootsiemander related to the Boundary Commission proposal to include Forestside shopping centre in Belfast, which makes geographical sense as the Castlereagh boundary would then run along the dual carriageway. Edwin’s big idea was that Forestside (and its valuable commercial rates) would stay with Castlereagh, while in return Belfast would get the Dundonald Ice Bowl and the modestly named Peter Robinson Leisure Centre. This would not be a good deal for Belfast, but would help the Lisburn/Castlereagh bottom line.
Just by way of context, until he gave up his dual mandate earlier this week, Edwin Poots was a leading member of Lisburn council. This raised entirely unfounded accusations that Pootsie was more interested in the special interests of his own bailiwick than in getting a workable reform. It’s also hilarious that, since the minister in charge of local government reform was a councillor, he had to recuse himself from Executive meetings dealing with local government reform.
And so it is that DUP ministers turned up at the Executive last week to vote against that which they had voted for two years ago, for reasons not satisfactorily explained, and while the minister responsible (Alderman Poots) had to leave the room. Devolution working for the people, and as Mark says, it didn’t hurt that Edwin snuck the news out when everyone else was preoccupied with the Saville report.
Pootsie does, though, still plan to give the unreformed councils powers over planning. Perhaps not the best subject for a DUP minister to be enthusing about, given the continued outworkings of the Robinson Affair…