Local Government (Boundaries) Order (Northern Ireland) 2012
Executive Committee Business
I am pleased to take part in this debate, but it is more in sorrow and regret than joy. I say that from a fairly strong position, because I spent 33 years in local government, from 1977 until 2010. I sacrificed a great deal to put down the roots of democracy when others were putting up boycott posters and advising people not to vote. So, I hope those people who reached this agreement understand that many people across the North sacrificed a great deal and, indeed, gave up their time and, perhaps, neglected their families to ensure that we would have solid roots on which to build our democracy. I see George Robinson nodding in agreement. I think he understands that we all know about that.
So, you will understand, Mr Speaker, our disappointment that the decision to move forward with 11 councils was not collective or unanimous. That is a matter of regret, because we are still a fledgling democracy, from a worldwide viewpoint. We are still in our infancy and people such as myself who have been here for the past 14 years will understand that there were times when we were not sure whether this Assembly would last. So, to take a departure based on the agreement of two parties rather than all parties is not particularly clever.
I have no intention of getting into the old orange and green thing because I fear that the map has been painted with too much orange and too much green. There are too many peace walls in Belfast, and although there are no actual peace walls in the rural areas, believe you me, there are areas yet where a lot of work has to be done to ensure that those invisible peace walls come down.
I am not sure whether Sinn Féin or the DUP got the better deal here, but the 100,000 people who are currently under nationalist-controlled councils and are moving into unionist-controlled councils do not think that it was a great deal. I am sure that George Robinson and I would disagree about Limavady. I am sure he is very pleased that they are moving into Coleraine, but I am afraid that a lot of people I know would disagree with that and believe that Limavady, for example, had much more affinity with the City of Derry than with North Antrim.
Other areas have been mentioned, such as Newry and Mourne. We had a presentation the other morning from one of the councillors there, and the words “nationalist”, “unionist”, “Catholic” or “Protestant” were not mentioned once. The presentation was purely about the democratic right of local people to live in a geographical environment that they feel comfortable with.
I thank the Member for his remark. I see you smiling, Mr Speaker, and you will know, as someone from Derry city — I do not want to involve you — that your involvement in Derry has, without a cabinet is the name given to the group of senior members from..." class="glossary">shadow of a doubt, enriched that city, and helped it to get to the stage that it is at today, where it is pluralist, is reaching out to the world and, next year, will become the City of Culture. I do not think that that would have been possible without the two communities working in harmony. Indeed, there are many times when I envy the type of agreements reached in the Maiden City between the two communities. I applaud them for it, and, to be honest, I wish that we could have emulated that it in Coleraine.
Of course, I am in a very privileged position because I was the first nationalist mayor of Coleraine. That was about 12 years ago, but when you consider that Ballymena is getting round to that only now and that Craigavon has not quite managed it, I should, perhaps, feel privileged.
Some time ago, we were told, I think by the First Minister, that steps would be taken if our Minister did not agree to this carve-up, or whatever it is. I am not sure what was meant by steps, but I presume that it would not have been particularly pleasant for Mr Attwood.
At times, I wonder whether we really appreciate the history that was made in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Do we really thank the Lord above enough for the opportunity to begin a peace process that was to be built on inclusivity and would put behind us for ever and a day those dark days when people felt excluded? We are a democratic party, and our principles are based on that. The party came into being in 1970, and I joined it in 1973. I think that I mentioned earlier —
William Hay (DUP)
Order. I am giving the Minister and Members some latitude because I understand that it is a big subject and that there are sensitive issues. However, we really need to try to return to the draft local government order.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for putting me right. I will always accept democratic instructions rather than the other form of instruction.
We were told that the 11-council model was the right one, but all the research from consultants, statisticians and everyone else clearly indicated that a 15-council model would not burden the ratepayers or the Department. Massive payouts will go to people in senior positions in councils, and they will, of course, absolutely welcome the reform of public administration. My goodness, if certain people can get early retirement with a golden handshake and all sorts of packages and pensions, they will, of course, agree with this carve-up.
The question of savings has been mentioned. We were told that, under the 11-council model, £438 million would be saved over 25 years, with an up-front cost of £118 million. The ICE programme, which was commissioned by the association of councillors, clearly indicates that a much more substantial saving can be made by following that. There would be far less of a carve-up, and local communities would not be displaced from the surroundings in which they have felt comfortable since 1973. We know that the public at large are slow to accept change. How many Members have met people who think that local councils still let houses? You hear it all the time, and that has been going on for 50 years.
Mr Speaker, you have been lenient with me, and I thank you for that. There are, of course, many other advantages in selecting a 15-council model. I do not have time to go into that, except to mention them briefly. The 15-council model would achieve savings with less disruption; reduce the need to combine or split the assets and liabilities of councils; permit the retention of clusters that have collaborated successfully over the years; and, most importantly, keep natural communities together, thus preserving local communities. Such clusters have worked extremely well between Coleraine and Limavady. They have worked extremely well between Coleraine and Ballymena on one side and Ballymoney on the other. They are very flexible, do not cost anything and can be refreshed as people need them.
Finally and most importantly, a 15-council model would allow the opportunity to build confidence among stakeholders, and given the low level of satisfaction with the Assembly, that, surely, must be taken seriously. I know that everyone here is concerned that public confidence in the Assembly is lower than it should be. To be frank, the decision to go for the 11-council model is not the best way to build democracy.
Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s announcement on the boundaries. It is an important step forward. It is belated, I suppose, when I think that we have gone round the houses several times since, through NILGA, I was first involved with RPA. It is unfortunate that it has taken so long to get to this stage. However, the order is an important development. Although a lot of the issues were dealt with during the cross communication this morning between the Minister and various Members — the debate, by and large, has taken place — there remain some issues that we need to touch on.
The DEAs are important. We now have the council boundaries, and the next stage must come quickly. The Minister has indicated that a commissioner will be appointed, but the speedier that is done, the better, so that the DEAs are set out. Members, parties and the communities can then start to link in with the DEAs, because the new larger councils will make the local aspect of doing that a wee bit more difficult to manage. It is important that we start to look to those communities, because we will be dealing with community planning and various structures that need to be community led.
The transition committees have been mentioned a number of times, and it is important that they are moved from their present voluntary basis to a statutory role. If we are to kick-start this, councillors and council officials need to be sure that, this time, we will complete the journey that has started so many times.
It was said earlier that the transition committees have worked well in their voluntary capacity. That raises two issues. The first is that of the resources that were put into the councils to make it happen — councillors and officials and all were recompensed. The other is that we had transition managers. Unfortunately, we lost a number of those managers in the delays that happened. Some of them went back to different councils. It is important that we reactivate that approach and bring in transition managers to complete the job, because a lot of good work has been done, including in my council area, where I chaired the transition committee for a number of years. In Dungannon, Cookstown and Magherafelt, one of the issues was that the transition manager was key to a lot of work done between the three councils, and it is a wee bit like asking officials to vote themselves out. A lot of them were a bit reluctant to do that, so it was a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. They were reluctant to create the transition committees across the councils because it might mean the end of their jobs. So, we need a transition manager to make that happen, to develop it and to come up with new ideas. I hope that the Minister will be able to bring the system into operation. The key to the success of the transition committees the previous time was a transition manager.
We now expect more powers to be transferred. It is unfortunate that various Departments have reneged on some of the transitions that were to happen with the transfer of various roles from the Assembly to local government. The Assembly is a legislative body, and it needs to deal with legislation, develop it and transmit it down to the councils for implementation. We need to see more powers transferred, and resources need to go along with them. That is to ensure that those powers are not being transferred and jobs are not going to local government without the resources to finance them. Over the past year, we saw something like 11 Bills give more work to local government, but there were little or no resources to make that happen or to help ease the burden.
Tom Elliott (UUP)
I thank the Member for giving way. I do not by any means disagree with him, but I am interested in the line that he is taking on the transfer of functions. Just for clarification, is he suggesting that, now that Members have themselves in position in the Northern Ireland Assembly, they may be building empires for themselves in their own Departments and are reluctant to transfer those functions down to local councils?
He also touched on an issue that I raised earlier. How does he propose to ensure that the finances go with the transfer of functions?
Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin)
It may be the case that some Members who have power bases in the Assembly want to hold on to as much of that power as possible. However, Members who are now in the Assembly need to see that their new role is about making things happen with legislation and about ensuring that local government implements that legislation.
Very often, the issue comes down to officials in Departments delegating and saying that we could transfer this or that but retain the other. We need to make sure that that process is open, and maybe the review of quangos should also be part of the process. We should look within Departments to see what else can be transferred to ensure that we get good powers to local government.
It is important to ensure that any resources that are required for those new functions accompany them. It is up to the Assembly to do that. The Assembly’s role is also to designate that and to ensure that Ministers transfer with that function all the resources that were in the Department that was dealing with the issue originally.
Planning is one such function. However, we hope that local government will have more powers than just planning. At the end of the day, planning will still be controlled by the legislation that is made in the Assembly, so it will not be handed totally over to local government. The Assembly will still have a role in planning. However, making planning decisions is a very important role for local government.
We also need to ensure that councils have the power to make change. I propose that the Minister looks at the power of general competence as one way forward. The power of well-being gives councils a wee bit of a role in seeing and dealing with need in an area, but the power of general competence is stronger. It gives the council more room to identify issues that may have been neglected in the past. Unadopted roads, infrastructure and footpaths and things like that are just a few examples of matters that may, in the future, be transferred to local government. Once it sees the need, local government could then meet it, deal with it and take account of it, instead of passing it back to another Department or around the Departments. I hope that the Minister will look at that situation.
We also need to look at powers, and we should recognise that the primacy of the elected member is still key. Council officials would sometimes like to think that they run the councils, and sometimes they do. We must take that wee thought out of their heads and give power back to elected members and give them the confidence to run the council and make it representative of the communities that they are elected to serve.
There has been a lot of talk about savings. I pointed out to the Minister that making such savings needs co-operation with the ICE programme. Chief executives need to lead that. They cannot step back from it and say that they are not working or co-operating with it. They cannot allow the divisions in two different council areas to develop. We need to ensure that those transition committees are up and running, that chief executives are given the role of implementing them and that the councils are given a statutory role to ensure that that happens.
The new councils will need to have the powers to make the changes, and we are talking about cabinet is the name given to the group of senior members from..." class="glossary">shadow councils as one way of making that transition simpler. However, that will need to be looked at again to see whether it is necessary because it could create confusion. John Dallat said that people still think that councils allocate housing and deal with roads. How will that develop in a transitional or cabinet is the name given to the group of senior members from..." class="glossary">shadow council, and how will it develop in a full council?
Single waste management was mentioned earlier. I am not sure about that. I sat on one of the waste management groups, and one of our concerns was that if you put it all into one single area of waste management, you end up with an incinerator being the solution to everything. We did not see that solution as a way forward in the rural SWaMP group that I was involved in. The danger is that Arc becomes responsible for single waste management, the incinerator becomes the solution to solving the problems and recycling goes out the window. So, we need to be careful because people are looking at 25-year contracts. Independent recyclers are saying that there is a better alternative — a local alternative — and a means of dealing with that that does not have the same risks as the risks we are taking now.
The key to all this is that we now have the boundaries, and we must get the infrastructure and the transition committees in place to ensure that local government has the power to make decisions and that those decisions will be respected by the Assembly and given the support and resources to carry out those functions.
Danny Kinahan (UUP)
I am pleased to be speaking on this subject as it is the same subject that I spoke on in my maiden speech in June 2009, three years ago. I hope that today proves to be an important day for Northern Ireland as we put the boundaries legislation in place. Then again, I am not sure whether what we are doing today has been fully and properly agreed and that we know where we are going. I am also concerned that we have done nothing for the past three years and that today is a step that looks good in front of the public, but, actually, all sides are not agreed on where they are going.
When I look at a lot of what we do in the Chamber, there are days when I would love to shake it — really shake it — because, many times, nothing happens. We all speak with sincerity and yet we do not listen to each other. Today, we have a chance to start sorting out our local government and get it somewhere, and yet this morning’s debate was reduced to petty politics and trying to show each other up in the Chamber. I want to see this place really working. I want to see the boundaries properly agreed. That means boundaries that do not just suit the two main parties, if it is a carve-up, which is what it looks like. I want to see boundaries that we can all live with. If you look at where we are going, you will see that this is a small step towards the change of government, but the change of government is huge, and we must ensure that that small step is the right one. It will be 20, 30 or maybe 40 years before we can change local government again, so let us ensure that we get it right. From what I have seen going on in the Chamber today as we squabble, I am concerned that this will fall by the way. As proof of that, we have already seen challenges to the Minister, who is trying to take it there, although his heart is not necessarily in the 11-council model. However, we have also seen the other major parties challenging him to the point where they do not like the way he is taking it around the 11 councils. We must change local government. The public want it. They want efficient local government and they want to see things happening. Please, think of shaking this Building, shaking everyone up and getting everyone to pull together.
Now, the point of today’s debate is boundaries, and the way we work with boundaries, which is a form of gerrymandering and the manipulation of constituencies. Let us not make it just a carve-up, so it is set between two major parties. Let us make sure that we do it for the best.
The commissioner will be in place this autumn. That has to be good. However, he must be totally independent and must look at the boundaries for the good of Northern Ireland. In the 2009 model, the commissioner did not regard community identity as an important factor. The commissioner must look at communities, boundaries and the long-term effects that change will have. He must look especially at the most important factor: the communities themselves. This is not a subject that the public will find exciting, but we must remember that they want us to cut the costs and the rates. As Mr Dallat has indicated, we must also remember that the public do not know the differences in what we do. Boundary changes need to fit the Assembly boundaries and the Westminster boundaries and not just be left on their own. This has to be part of a long-term plan.
In South Antrim, we are joining together Antrim Borough Council and Newtownabbey Borough Council. We will build a strong council. At the moment, Newtownabbey leans heavily and strongly towards the DUP, which I hope we will change in time. However, one of the greatest complaints that I get from people on the ground is that the council is not listening to the electorate. When you get a body that is too strong, often it is not listening to the people on the ground. That is not just an attack on the DUP; it could be an attack on any party. We have to put in place something that works for everybody.
I go back to South Antrim. Look at the boundary changes. Poor Glenavy gets kicked about like a football. In at one time, out at another; now in for Westminster and in for the Assembly. We are about to add in Jordanstown, Knockagh and Monkstown. It will be good to see them and to get down there and work with them. However, the electorate do not know the boundaries. They do not know which body they are talking about. They just want to be well represented. What we do today has to make sure that we do not confuse the electorate.
We have already heard that the original RPA was planned in 2002. We have not got anywhere to date. The public, as I said, want to see that working efficiently, to pay less tax and lower rates and to get their problems resolved.
As we have discussed, we were meant to be devolving a mass of other matters to councils. Let us use this opportunity to make sure that we get the best from the changes we are putting in place. We have heard a bit of debate on dual mandates, waste and all the other matters. When those original changes were being put in place, what happened to the coterminosity we were meant to see, whether it was with health or with policing? I think that we have lost our way. I really hope that today’s first step is a step towards getting proper, good, efficient local government.
I am concerned, as our party is, about the cost, and how we are going to have the resources to actually move the councils forward. We have to think of a way of doing it efficiently. If it is going to cost what PricewaterhouseCoopers came up with, or more, we are talking about £120 million. In the economic times that we are in, we cannot just pass that on. We must think again: how do we do it efficiently?
I suppose what we are asking today is that we put in changes to local government, but let us try to put in changes that allow us, in the future, to keep changing it as is necessary, and not put in something that is a closed door right at the beginning, which we will be stuck with for the next 30 or 40 years.
I am often criticised for getting my proportions wrong. Not me, personally, in my shape, but the proportion of when I relate what matters here. When we talked about creating the position of Principal speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker, I spoke about it being another nail in the coffin of democracy.
I go back to the point that I have made all the way through: if we do not do this right and this is just a carve-up, we are putting another nail in the coffin of democracy. I ask everyone to keep that in mind always when we look at the changes in councils. We want good, democratic government here.
I am also concerned about the financing of councils, something that has not come up today. I am not talking about resources; I am talking about the great opportunities that will exist in the future. We have put legislation in place to give them finance officers, but we still have not necessarily found our way. At a recent RCIS presentation, we were shown how the Scottish federation trust or fiscal trust, I think it was, had allowed the Scottish Government to gear up great loans and borrowings so that they could do public realm, large infrastructure projects and others, such as schools and hospitals. We have in the future of the councils a magnificent mechanism to do that. We must look at upskilling councils and their finances and, at the same time, not give them too much in their borrowings and in their loans in the future, so that they cannot make the best of their way forward. My concern is that, if we do not give them the resources, they will borrow more, and, when it comes to doing bigger projects and working together in the future, they will not be able to do it because they have already borrowed too much or have locked themselves into payments that stop them finding a way forward.
Today is phenomenally important. We have got to get it right. We have got to have a good change in our public administration, but I do not like the borders and the boundaries that we have got today. The UUP will, therefore, be against today’s motion.
Christopher Hazzard (Sinn F??in)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support today’s motion. Power and democracy must be devolved locally, but such devolution must be enshrined within firm principles of equality in participation and access to local services. Citizens’ access to the existing services delivered by local government and the additional services that are to be delivered by local government under RPA must be delivered on a value-for-money basis and by ensuring that no additional burden is passed on to the ratepayer, without marked and identifiable improvements to the services being provided.
Within the RPA process, the ratepayer should not have to countenance any increase in local rates without any marked increase in the delivery of cost-effective and efficient local services. With that in mind, the review of public administration presents local government across the North with an important opportunity to design optimum models of service delivery for the 11 new councils.
Since the outset of the RPA process, Sinn Féin has gone on record time and again to state that it is in favour of a significant reduction in local councils and local councillors, particularly now, in the climate of a functioning Assembly and difficult economic times. Our preference was to reduce local councils to seven. For their own reasons, many of which were about little more than protecting their members’ positions, other parties had different views. Agreement was reached on an 11-council model. Despite Mrs Kelly and Mr Dallat’s depictions of carve-ups and side deals, I remind the House that the SDLP backed the 11-council position in its 2011 PFG document:
“In the next mandate the SDLP will press for radical reform of Government, including: … Implementing RPA with an 11 Council model”.
In order to get on with the business, as the Minister put it earlier, can we leave the party political posturing behind and get on with this much needed local government reform? Such reform will see a reduction in councillors and an overall reduction in allowances and expenses. It will also see greater efficiencies and a much better service for the public. That is a welcome move that is supported by the vast majority of ratepayers throughout the North.
The new structures will ensure better governance and equality at local level, but, as the Minister has outlined, it has been calculated that reducing the number of councils will provide savings of more than £570 million over the next 25 years. Moreover, despite the political gymnastics of some in the House, the current financial situation is proving no ally for the procrastination that is being displayed.
Sinn Féin recognises that, due to the different nuances within the new councils, it may not be possible to have a one-size-fits-all model. Because of the different priorities and uniqueness of each of the council areas, there may need to be some flexibility in how those areas deliver or share their services. We believe that there are obvious opportunities for cost-effective benefits to be made through savings, via such avenues as joint procurement and the sharing of services within new councils. Functions such as IT and payroll systems are examples of local government functions that could also benefit from being shared within the councils. With an ever-increasing strain on the amount of available public funding, the opportunities for improvement in service delivery associated with the merging of the new councils will become increasingly important.
We believe that the delivery models for the new councils should be designed in a way that will allow not only for the transformation of existing services within councils but for collaborative solutions being sought between councils. Furthermore, preferred models should be equality proofed on the basis of models of best practice to provide for maximum efficiency savings and collaboration.
It is time to move beyond the flip-flopping on the number of councils and get on with the job of establishing an equitable and democratic system of local government.
We are asked today to approve the draft Local Government (Boundaries) Order, which has been a long time coming to the Floor of the House. It has cleared many hurdles, but there are still deep divisions around the Chamber on what the final council maps should look like. I do not wish to get into that debate or a debate on the number of councils; other colleagues in the Chamber will. I wish to raise an anomaly in the ward boundary proposals that should be addressed and modified prior to the order being approved.
The anomaly that I speak of is the seaside resort of Warrenpoint. In the published electoral register on 1 July 2008, which was the required date for the basis of the Boundaries Commissioner’s calculations, Warrenpoint had an electorate of 4,500 and a population of over 7,000. Today, the population has increased significantly. The new configuration in the order means that nearly 40% of Warrenpoint’s current urban electorate will be resident in the new rural wards of Rostrevor and Burren. The commissioner had a legal responsibility to ensure the proper representation of the rural and urban electorate in the district, but he did not ensure that it happened in Warrenpoint.
The Local Government (Boundaries) Act 2008 also gives the commissioner flexibility to increase or decrease the number of wards per district by up to five, taking account of the size, population and physical diversity of the district and of the representation of the rural and urban electorate in the district. He chose not to increase the number of wards significantly to address that injustice, even after his assistant commissioner recommended 43 wards in the new Newry, Mourne and Down council area.
I do not wish to sound like I am in commissioner-bashing mode; I am not. I recognise the enormous task that he faced and commend him for the courteous and professional manner in which he conducted this exercise. However, he has made two mistakes. First, he did not ensure proper representation of the rural and urban electorate of Warrenpoint. Secondly, he did not amend the boundaries when the error was pointed out to him. He could and should have accepted the new layout as proposed by Newry and Mourne District Council and Down District Council through their local Warrenpoint representative, Michael Carr.
I should say that this stage that, in September 2009, I was deputy mayor of Newry and Mourne council and accompanied Mr Carr and a cross-party delegation of councillors from both councils to give a presentation to the then Minister of the Environment, Mr Poots. He, I believe, was convinced by the argument and had a lot of sympathy for the case for an extra ward in Warrenpoint. The current Minister, Mr Attwood, was also convinced by the argument but was unable to persuade his Executive colleagues to adopt the modification. In fact, the Boundaries Commissioner recognised the argument, and, in his final report, he said:
“The case for an additional ward in Warrenpoint has merit.”
I was astonished this morning by comments from the Chair of the Environment Committee, which were completely inaccurate. She stated that it was not inside the rules. In fact, rule 17(b) was never mentioned at the meeting on 17 May, and that included the urban and rural. I have to express my disbelief that the Committee was actually briefed as indicated, and I suggest that Hansard shows that Mr May said that he would simply answer questions from the Committee. I would like clarification of that. Both councils were very disappointed that the request at the meeting on 17 May 2012 to address the Committee was refused. This is the time to put it right. I acknowledge the comments from Tom Elliott that there is time to put this right. The good people of Warrenpoint should not be brushed to the side in what I see as a carve-up.
The case for Seaview in Warrenpoint is non-political, has cross-party support, has unanimous support from both councils, has been accepted and acted on by the assistant boundaries commissioner, has been accepted in principle by the Boundaries Commissioner, had understanding and sympathy from Minister Poots and was accepted and recommended by Minister Attwood. Yet, it is not included as a proposed modification to the draft Local Government (Boundaries) Order, which has been laid in the Assembly today. I wonder whether there has been a carve-up.
Phil Flanagan (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank you for your patience through such a long and arduous debate. It has been said that you have the patience of a saint, and I think that you have demonstrated some of that today. I also pay tribute to the Members who have spoken so far, because in the Minister’s opening remarks he outlined that he wanted to breach his record of one hour and 40 minutes. He has been kept quiet for quite some time, so another record has been breached today.
I welcome the long-awaited progress of the order. In my county of Fermanagh, there is genuine fear and deep apprehension among the business community and many households about a potential rise in rates as a result of the amalgamation of Fermanagh and Omagh district councils. As a Fermanagh-based MLA, I am keen to ensure that any potential rates increase is mitigated as best as possible and that businesses and households do not feel the burden of the much needed reorganisation of local government. As my colleague Mr Hazzard said, if there is to be a rates increase for households or businesses, individuals or businesses need to see a marked improvement in the services that they get from their local council. From the information that we have received to date, I do not see that as a clear option.
To date, there has been significant local speculation about the impact of RPA on ratepayers in Fermanagh. However, it is much too early for anyone to speculate on the potential financial impact on Fermanagh ratepayers, except to say that the differential between the rates in Fermanagh and Omagh will be reduced. Talk of an 18%, 20% or even 25% rise in rates in Fermanagh is neither helpful nor accurate. The purpose of RPA is to reduce bureaucracy, inefficiency and, indeed, the overall cost of local government across the North. That is what we as an Assembly need to ensure happens, but it cannot be done at the expense of ratepayers such as those in Fermanagh. What we need to aim for is a fair and acceptable solution to the problem before us.
There has been much talk in Fermanagh about the levels of historical debt in Omagh District Council and about the higher level of rates at present. So there is reluctance among some people in Fermanagh about the potential merger with Omagh. That is not downright opposition to the proposal, and I want to make that perfectly clear to the Minister. It is an acceptance that Omagh District Council has spent more money than Fermanagh District Council in the past. Citizens and businesses in Fermanagh do not resent that. Omagh District Council, through a series of strategic investments, has rightly delivered a wide range of community services for its ratepayers. It could be said that Fermanagh District Council did not invest quite so heavily, but those reduced investments also resulted in reduced services for its ratepayers. That decision was taken by both councils and by elected councillors. We cannot change the past.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
The Member said that processes have to be put in place to minimise any increases. Looking at the figures, we can see that there are considerable differences in rates, particularly between those in Omagh and Fermanagh. I am not aware of any facility that can change that in the long term, other than to equalise the rates by significantly increasing the rates in Fermanagh, perhaps by 20% or 25%. Can the Member tell the ratepayers of Fermanagh how he proposes to alter that?
Phil Flanagan (Sinn Féin)
I thank the Member for his intervention. I will continue with what I have outlined here, and, if the Member is not satisfied that I have addressed his point by the time I have come to the conclusion, I will happily let him in again.
Certain people in Fermanagh seem to believe that Omagh District Council simply threw bars of gold into the River Strule in an effort to spend as much money as possible. That attitude is not helpful. That is definitely not the case, and it can be seen very clearly in the community services that are available in Omagh. The differential between the rates in Fermanagh and Omagh is mirrored by the difference in services. The decision on the level of services in the new council area will be a matter for that council, when it is constituted, and its elected councillors. So it is much too premature to predict what the rates will be. There are several issues. There is the historical debt level and the difference in rates levels. The primary reason for the difference in the rates is the annual expenditure of a council that delivers services.
It is up to the Executive to deliver on RPA, but the Minister must take the lead. The Minister needs to bring the issues that have been raised by an awful lot of Members in the House to the Executive. He must seek investment from the Executive to offset issues such as the differential in rates and historical debt between Fermanagh and Omagh.
Before the debate got up and running again, my party colleague Michelle Gildernew asked the Enterprise Minister for her assessment of the potential impact of Fermanagh District Council and Omagh District Council amalgamating. As a local MLA, the Minister will be aware of the issues. However, responding as Minister, her only comment was about the collaboration and co-operation between Fermanagh and Omagh on the Survive and Thrive project. She made no reference to a potential rates increase for businesses, which is quite disappointing. It is clear that the Minister needs to bring the issues to the Executive and seek investment to address them.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
Is the Member aware that, if additional moneys can be found from the Executive, that may smooth the initial process, but, in the long term, the rates charged must reflect the expenditure in that council area? In the long term, that will mean a very significant increase for the ratepayers of Fermanagh. Does he accept that?
Phil Flanagan (Sinn Féin)
I accept that that is one possibility, but, if you look at where the differences lie, you will see that the rate of debt in Omagh is much higher than in Fermanagh. If investment from the central pot were to address that, it would mitigate any potential rise in rates in Fermanagh. The other issue is that of a council’s annual spend, but it will be up to the new councillors to decide how that is spent. The new council could address that, but it will take significant funding from the centre to address those issues. Nobody is standing here saying that rates in Fermanagh will not go up as a result of RPA, but there must be a fair and acceptable solution for ratepayers there.
Neither ratepayers nor any local council can be expected to take the hit for much-needed reform. It is completely unacceptable for any Minister not to take that seriously on board and provide answers on how they plan to address these issues. Earlier, the Minister said that he had received correspondence from several business organisations in Fermanagh. I received similar correspondence, and I share many of their fears. Those correspondents articulately outline their concerns about the impacts of RPA.
The Minister also said that he had received correspondence from me on that matter through written questions. It is not acceptable that he refuses to answer those concerns or provide us with any kind of solution. It is time that the Minister stepped up to the plate, showed some positive leadership and sought a resolution to the many problems in the RPA process, because the Executive have agreed that we are moving forward on an 11-council model. We all need to row in behind that and ensure that it is a fair process for every ratepayer in this state.
Ross Hussey (UUP)
The Minister made it clear that today’s discussions not only cover the draft Local Government (Boundaries) Order but relate to the reform of public administration. I believe that what we have here is a dirty deal that was negotiated between the coalition partners, Sinn Féin and the DUP, to carve up Northern Ireland into political fiefdoms that suit their political strategy. In the past, it could have been suggested that such a concept was negotiated in a smoky room, over beer and sandwiches. However, given the participants, it may have been buttermilk and sandwiches, and not the devil’s buttermilk.
The idea of the reform of public administration was to create a series of coterminous local authorities in line with parliamentary and Assembly constituencies. There is no doubt that this shoddy deal does not reflect any form of local government that I can relate to, neither parliamentary constituencies that exist today or that may exist in the future. “Local government” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a system of administration of a county, parish, etc, by the locally elected representatives of the people who live there. The Minister went further when he described councillors as being able to represent the society for which they act.
In my constituency — I am disappointed not to see other Members from West Tyrone here — the entire district council areas of Omagh and Strabane are brought together as a parliamentary constituency. Common sense would dictate that anyone looking at West Tyrone with at least one eye open and with any local knowledge would see the bond between Omagh and Strabane.
If we are looking at boundaries, let us look at the towns of Strabane, Newtownstewart, Castlederg and Sion Mills together with the villages of Ardstraw, Victoria Bridge, Plumbridge, Killen, Killeter, Clady, Bready and Magheramason. They come together under the auspices of Strabane District Council, which is located in an area of County Tyrone. The churches, youth organisations and other clubs all form part of the culture of the county, and there is absolutely no allegiance in that part of the world to County Londonderry or the city of Londonderry. The proposed unholy alliance that would force Strabane District Council to merge with Derry City Council would create a scenario in which the minority unionist community would become virtually irrelevant and this part of Tyrone would become no more than the tail wagged by the dog that is based in the city of Londonderry.
I again declare an interest as a member of Omagh District Council, and, until last Thursday, I had the honour to be the vice-chairman of that council. The idea that the county town of Tyrone should be amalgamated with the county town of Fermanagh would obviously mean the demise of the status of one of the towns. Make no mistake: forcing the amalgamation of Omagh and Fermanagh councils would be like forcing chalk and cheese together. Here we have yet another unholy alliance.
I am sure that Members from Fermanagh and South Tyrone will have already seen the posters up in Fermanagh. It is clear that, locally, the proposals are unacceptable. I was born in Omagh and am a proud Tyrone man. The proposal before the House today would, in effect, destroy County Tyrone and split it in three. The surrounding towns of Fintona, Dromore, Drumquin, Beragh, Sixmilecross and Carrickmore — I do not see Mr McElduff in the distance — and the villages and hamlets of Greencastle, Gortin, Mountjoy, Trillick, Killyclogher and Kilskeery are all proud of their Tyrone roots and their association with Omagh. Strabane —
Ross Hussey (UUP)
Not to you, no. You accused us of throwing gold into the River Strule. Sit your ground. [Laughter.] You will find gold in the Strule, but I will not give you the opportunity to throw anything else at me.
Strabane and Omagh District Councils have already taken steps to share a chief executive, an indication of the close ties that already exist in the county between these two local authorities. The proposed new parliamentary constituency of Mid Tyrone clearly still shows the majority of Strabane and Omagh councils remaining together, with the addition of parts of the existing Cookstown District Council. Why, then, has someone decided that coterminosity is to be abandoned and political skulduggery is to be the main driver in this push for local government reform?
I feel sorry for the Minister of the Environment today; I genuinely do. I hope he bears that in mind when he tries to push this thing through. He is being forced by the Executive to put forward proposals that he does not agree with. When these plans come in for public criticism, Minister, I can assure you that the DUP and Sinn Féin will run for cover and point their joint two fingers — if you will pardon the pun — at you.
I cannot see how other West Tyrone MLAs can nod this through without murmur or discontent. The proposals tear the heart out of County Tyrone. They tear down Omagh as the county town. I know there will be some who will say that I am being defeatist and that this will not happen, but I am a realist. The proposals are not good for my constituency of West Tyrone, and I will continue to oppose them.
When Strabane finds itself getting the scraps from the city of Londonderry, if it is lucky, and when the small towns in the Omagh district find that a Fermanagh/Omagh council is not as generous to local groups, small towns and villages as the previous Omagh council was and that the leisure facilities that Omagh had to pay for because it does not have the natural waterways that Fermanagh have been blocked by the council, it will be too late to complain. In fact, the Member who spoke previously accepted that Omagh council was very generous to the people of Omagh.
Omagh has no natural affiliation with Enniskillen or Fermanagh. Omagh has a strong affiliation with Strabane. Strabane has no natural affiliation to Londonderry. It has a natural affiliation to Omagh. The county-based groups that I have already mentioned — the loyal orders, the GAA, the churches and others — will find themselves and, at times, their parishes split by unnatural boundaries that the Assembly seems hell-bent on enforcing.
I find it sad that the DUP, which continually supported the 15-council model until it eventually did the dirty deal with Sinn Féin, could find only the name “Derry” as a stumbling block to an amalgamation of Strabane and Londonderry city.
Sinn Féin is destroying the county of Tyrone. Maybe it does not like the O’Neills; maybe it is because Tyrone won the Sam Maguire a couple of times more than some of the other counties it has political strength in. I do not see any valid reason for it, but Sinn Féin is determined to push this through.
The 15-council model would have suited the 18-parliamentary constituency model. Even a 14-council scenario could have been produced very quickly on the basis of the 16-parliamentary constituency model. Here we have a ragtag approach that will demoralise and destroy any allegiance to local government. In fact, on the basis of these proposals, I suggest you stand up and say sorry, and leave the 26 councils as they are.
Local councils, Minister, are putting forward proposals to attack you because it has been realised that there is no money to pay for RPA. As I said, you will be blamed for that, and the two coalition partners will sit back and smile. Sinn Féin councillors on Sinn Féin-controlled councils, supported by DUP councillors, are tabling motions that call on the Minister to set aside money for RPA, so that no cost is attributed to local councils. Yet, they know, Minister, and publicly acknowledge that there will be a cost implication, and they know that it will be borne mainly by the ratepayer.
Ms Lo and Lord Morrow said that RPA is no longer up for debate and that the matter has been decided. Nothing is decided until the House agrees the review. I, as a public representative, have a moral duty and a right to put forward the view of my constituents, and I am sure that everyone here will agree that that is my duty. My colleague Mr Elliott made reference to the fact that many do not yet realise the consequences of the review and how it will affect their lives.
I will not support the proposal before the House. Those of you who do, whether you are whipped or not, will have to live with that decision, and hopefully the electorate will see you for what you are. I am proud to be from Tyrone, and, on this occasion, even if it means I am on my own, “Come on, Tyrone”.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate on the draft order. I start by setting in context some of the previous decisions and discussions on the matter, given the comments that have been made across the Chamber about alleged delays by my party colleague, Minister Attwood.
The review of public administration was launched in June 2002 and was designed primarily to streamline local government and make it more efficient. It also aimed to strengthen local government by transferring significant powers and functions from central government to a reduced number of larger councils. That is a subject I will come back to. For most of the time, the initiative has been under the management of direct rule or DUP Ministers. In the last mandate, it was the responsibility of Sammy Wilson, Arlene Foster and Edwin Poots. At their meeting on 14 June 2010, the previous Executive were informed by Minister Poots that he was unable to agree a way forward to allow the RPA restructuring plan to go ahead by the then target date of May 2011.
Although there had been some movement towards an 11-council model, other fundamental issues remained unresolved, including who would pay for RPA — local or central government — the names of the new councils and the boundaries. A number of areas were disputed between the DUP and Sinn Féin. In his opening remarks, the Minister referred to some of those areas. One of those areas is commonly known as Forestside, and the dispute was over the rateable value of that asset. There was also the situation in Lisburn City Council over Dunmurry Cross. After nine years, there was still no agreement. So, Mr Flanagan and other newcomers to the House would do well to bear in mind that the delay was caused by disagreements between Sinn Féin and the party opposite. The delay has been caused primarily because of the dysfunctional relationship between the two main parties in government. That is just one example of the delays that there have been.
Some nine years later, there is an SDLP Minister, who has made substantial decisions over the past year. That is resonating with the public. Hence, the considered, orchestrated and concerted attack, both in Committee and on the Floor, on Mr Attwood. He has shown up the inadequacies of your ministerial colleagues.
Not at this stage, but I will shortly.
From May 2011, Minister Attwood had a round of consultations with all the RPA stakeholders. He made an assessment of what had changed during the nine-year delay that might be reflected in a new comprehensive RPA package that he will bring to the Executive in October or November. That package will hopefully get the whole RPA project moving forward again.
As we all know, the councils had been mandated to work in collaboration voluntarily in the meantime. That initiative was commenced by Minister Poots and will hopefully see significant payback in the interests of the ratepayer in the next two or three years. Indeed, if it were allowed to be developed further, there could be considerable savings, even higher than those forecast in the PwC report. Mr Beggs referred to the huge costs. However, there are potentially £500 million of savings under the ICE project as opposed to, I think, the £478 million over a 25-year period as per the PwC report. However, what is undisputed is the fact that the upfront costs will be high. The PwC report estimated those to be £118 million.
Mr Hussey referred to the debates that are going on across the council chambers. Those are conducted primarily by Sinn Féin councillors who know full well that their own Executive Ministers have yet to support Minister Attwood or others who seek the money to implement RPA. They are speaking out of both sides of their mouth, but we are well used to that from that quarter. However —
Phil Flanagan (Sinn Féin)
I thank the Member for giving way. Perhaps the Member who furnished us with quotations from the Oxford dictionary would do so again to let her know what “shortly” means.
I want to take the Member up on her point that no Ministers have supported Minister Attwood’s claim for extra money through the Executive. Am I not right in thinking that he has not actually gone to the Executive looking for funding? If I am misadvised, he can correct me.
It is interesting that the Member is giving glorious praise to the Minister for his hard work on RPA and taking tough decisions. Given that she is the deputy leader of the SDLP, is it still the SDLP’s position that he will be taken out of that job in a number of months? Given that decision to take him out of the job, is he best placed to take RPA forward, or would it be better to let somebody else do it?
William Hay (DUP)
Order. The Member has had quite a bit of latitude on this issue in the House today. Interventions should be about the business that is before the House and the motion. Let us all be careful as Members of the House.
I will get back to my script. Funnily enough, somehow or other, some magic deal then appeared on the horizon. Rather than the inclusivity of power sharing and government, which Sinn Féin and the DUP say that they aspire to and are part of, Sinn Féin and the DUP did a deal over the local councils. Indeed, by September 2011, the DUP and Sinn Féin had resolved their differences. As Minister Attwood referred to in his opening remarks, that was evident in the changes around the Lisburn, Castlereagh and Belfast boundaries.
I move on to some of the comments that have been made by others. I think it was Mr Hazzard who talked about a functioning Assembly and called into question the leadership given by Minister Attwood. However, if we had a functioning Assembly, education would be sorted; dealing with the past would be sorted; a shared future would be sorted; and the North/South review might even be published after five years.
We might actually have a decision on the North/South Parliamentary Forum, two years on from the conference that was held in the Slieve Donard Hotel. We might actually hear something about participative democracy and why the review of the Civic Forum has not been published. What are you all afraid of?
There is something around participative democracy. As the Minister rightly put on record, many people contributed on local councils over 40 years of violence by stepping up to the plate and providing some democracy for, and lead to, local communities. Participative democracy was something that we cherished when others were targeting local representatives, and it should be the standard by which this place is judged in terms of RPA, legislation and any review of departmental structures that is committed to under the terms of the Programme for Government. In addition, the number of boundaries and the number of Assembly Members are to be agreed on under the terms of the St Andrews Agreement. I believe that that agreement has to be reached by the end of 2015, although the Programme for Government states December 2012. Again, the St Andrews Agreement was another agreement between the two big parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, not necessarily in the interests of the wider community but certainly in their own interests.
Another concern that many Members have raised in the debate is the cost to the ratepayer. Mr Flanagan was at pains to point out that there should be no additional burden on the ratepayer. How is that going to be? Does he know of a pot of money that exists or some bank loans that we can get that could ensure that it will not be a burden on the ratepayer? Frankly, unless central government stumps up, it will be a burden on the ratepayer. We know that some councils have been prudent —
I will send you a dictionary definition, if you wish. [Interruption.]
The point is that local councils will have to bear the cost, because central government has not yet stumped up. That was one of the reasons that Mr Poots, when he was Minister of the Environment, could not get this over the line.
Mr Boylan, I will give way to you now. Perhaps you will tell us where the money is.
Cathal Boylan (Sinn Féin)
I thank the Member for giving way. She was asked this earlier, but can she clarify whether the Minister went to the Executive and asked for any money? In my contribution, I asked the Minister when he was bringing a business case. Maybe the Minister can clarify this, but it is you who is speaking and it is you who brought it up, so can you clarify whether the Minister went to the Executive and asked for funding, because I do not believe that he did.
What I do know is that Mr Boylan, as a member of the Committee, has already supported the Minister’s bid in the June monitoring round for additional funds to start off the initiative. Some nine years later, did the Executive not think? Sinn Féin agreed to a four-year Budget that did not set aside money for RPA. Our party voted against it. Sinn Féin Members had the opportunity to put it into the Budget over the four years, as did other Members, but this party was the only one that highlighted that particular matter as a point of concern. There are a number of others, but this is not the day for them. Mr Flanagan and others come in as johnny-come-latelys and tell us how there should be money set aside, but they need to reflect and question some of their party colleagues about how they fell asleep at the wheel on this matter, along with a number of other matters.
I will talk about boundaries, because this is about gerrymandering. There are two debates in the House today on gerrymandering. Shame on Sinn Féin for not standing up for the people, when over 100,000 nationalists are moving into unionist-controlled council areas, when we see what happens on unionist-controlled councils in terms of power sharing and partnership. Therefore, Sinn Féin need not give the SDLP any lectures on gerrymandering. At least we are being consistent. [Interruption.]
One of the remarks made was about the level of powers that were to be devolved. One would have thought that, nine years on and given the collaboration and the experiences of this devolved institution, we might take the opportunity to reflect and see what additional powers could be handed down to local councils. That makes sense. What is the point of change for change’s sake?
In recent weeks, I asked a question of each Minister to find out what additional powers they would devolve and what review had been done. If I may, I will highlight a few. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) has no plans to devolve any powers or functions to local councils, and this is in line with its previous commitments. So, then and now, none. The Finance Minister said that:
“No powers or functions within my department have been identified for transfer to local councils under the Review of Public Administration either at the current time or previously.”
Now, this is interesting. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure said:
“My Department is not devolving any powers to local councils as part of the Review of Public Administration.”
However, the functions that she does plan to transfer include this:
“Armagh County Museum will transfer to the Armagh/ Banbridge/ Craigavon Council.”
As a representative for that area, I have tabled a question to the Minister to find out the cost implications of that. Is the money going to follow? We all know that these facilities cost money; they do not make money. So, there is some devolving of functions, but no powers.
Members will be pleased to hear that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has agreed to devolve some powers, and, rather than take up time this afternoon reading it out, I refer Members to the written answer in Hansard. Essentially, they are powers around tourism, social entrepreneurship and youth entrepreneurship programmes. I know that the Minister is in discussion with the Minister of the Environment on some other matters.
The Minister for Social Development is also devolving some powers. However, those were agreed under the previous Administration, when the SDLP held that Ministry. His answer states:
“As the overall list of functions to transfer from central government to councils was decided upon over 3 years ago, it is now being subjected to review.”
Let us hope that that review does not mean that fewer will go but that more will go. The Minister finishes by saying:
“Ultimately, the Executive will decide the way forward and the package of functions to transfer.”
The Education Minister states:
“My position is unchanged. I do not plan to devolve any powers or functions to local councils.”
Sinn Féin is not giving up very much, sure it’s not?
The Minister for Employment and Learning says:
“I have no plans” —
William Hay (DUP)
Order. I have given the Member quite a bit of latitude. If I were to be really strict, this debate has very little to do with the devolving of functions to local authorities, but it has certainly a lot to do with boundaries. I am trying to be as fair as possible and am trying to give as much latitude as possible to Members and even to the Minister because I do think that the scene needs to be set. However, I warn Members to be careful because this debate has very little to do with the devolving of functions to local government.
I thank the Speaker for his ruling. The other answers are available in Hansard, and I draw Members’ attention to them. Members who spoke earlier said that although this is the beginning of the boundaries Order, there was an opportunity, as you rightly said, to set the scene. One thing that is not good in any change management system is having change for change’s sake. It has to make good sense, particularly in these austere times.
The other arguments that I wish to make are around some reflections on Fermanagh in particular. Fermanagh does not have any council in its boundaries at this stage and will have to go into partnership with Omagh. I ask the Minister to confirm, when he has had time to reflect on the earlier comments, the representation that he has had on that. In particular, what representation has been made by political representatives? I am sure that the Minister, like others, is well aware that, at Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) level, all the parties except Sinn Féin supported the 15-council model.
I will finish by saying that local councils, in essence, give communities a local identity. When I look at some of the arguments that have been made and some of the changes that have been made, I find it difficult to understand why, for example, it has been accepted that Castlereagh Civic Centre should remain part of Lisburn when it is very clearly in east Belfast? I find that quite —
Well, whatever. At least it is in Belfast, not Lisburn.
There is, as we know, another boundary report in relation to the Westminster boundaries. It will be interesting to see how that develops. One would have thought that it might make sense to have some sense of relationship between the two, at least in our assessment and analysis. Given the nine-year delay, one wonders what the rush is now. In the absence of delivery on any other widespread decisions that are part of the Sinn Féin/DUP logjam, one wonders why they just pick on the portfolios of other parties. It is something that they can agree on. It is not, obviously, in the interests of the wider community or for the greater good; it is very much in their partisan party interests.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
I declare an interest, as my dad is a councillor on Larne Borough Council.
My Ulster Unionist colleagues and I had expressed a preference for a 15-council model based on the 14 existing Westminster boundaries and the four Belfast constituencies. However, the boundaries being debated here today follow the 11-council model agreed in a DUP/Sinn Féin carve-up. We learned today that additional commercial rates and 10 houses will pass from the new Belfast council area to the Lisburn/Castlereagh area, which already has a lower rates base. I seek an explanation of why that has occurred. If I were a Lisburn ratepayer, I would be well pleased at getting additional commercial rates. However, if I were a ratepayer in Belfast, I would be concerned that that base has moved. There ought to be a transparent process to explain why that late deviation occurred. Is it just part of some deal concocted by the DUP and Sinn Féin?
Roy Beggs (UUP)
No, I will not give way. Perhaps I will later.
The boundaries that this regulation will set for my constituency will not be the best boundaries for the people of Larne, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey. There are natural community linkages along the east Antrim coastal strip, through youth football, churches and general community linkages, but they will be broken, with Newtownabbey borough moving in a different direction and Larne and Carrickfergus being linked to Ballymena. There is, of course, a natural communication linkage along that east Antrim coastal strip, where the A2 travels right through Larne and Carrickfergus and on to Newtownabbey. That is a perfectly good means of communication. There is also the A8, which travels inland between Larne and Newtownabbey. However, the linkage to Ballymena is different and somewhat fraught. Larne also has a railway line between the three areas. I would have expressed a natural preference for Newtownabbey to form part of any boundary proposal. Sadly, if the regulation goes through today without further reconsideration, the opportunity to change that will have gone.
I also have concerns about the communication from Carrickfergus to Ballymena, which, based purely on population numbers, will be the urban centre of gravity in the new borough. The road linkages are atrocious. On public transport, getting from Carrickfergus to Ballymena requires a 60-mile return journey, probably via Larne or Belfast. A return bus journey will cost £13·50, and a return train journey will cost £14·50. Those who may have to travel to that new council centre to make, perhaps, a presentation to the council will be faced with a considerable cost, rather than travelling 10 or 15 miles along the east Antrim coastal link, as I said earlier. Ratepayers who wish to engage in council committees will face unnecessary costs in the future.
In addition, common sense tells us that if we create new council boundaries that are based on urban populations that are relatively close together, we will have more efficient structures. There is a natural geographical boundary between Larne and Carrickfergus and Ballymena; it is called the Antrim hills, comprising Agnew’s Hill, Shane’s Hill and the Collin. It is not only a geographical feature; it adds considerable costs, because employees of any new such council, should they have to travel between the other centres, will have to travel considerable and unnecessary distances at unnecessary costs, which will have to be paid for by the new ratepayers of that new council area. As a ratepayer, I think that we should all be looking carefully to minimise costs. I still think that it would be best for everyone if the Larne, Carrick and Newtownabbey model had been pursued. As has been suggested by other Members, there is still an option to do that, even at this late stage.
There is a particular issue in the Ballynure and Ballyclare area. Interestingly enough, in order to travel by car from Carrickfergus to the new Newtownabbey area, linked with Antrim, you would have to travel around Ballynure and Ballyclare and then further along relatively poor roads, over the Collin Hill towards Ballymena. You will actually travel into the other council area and then back into your own council area unnecessarily. Why were those couple of wards not transferred across? Even if we were to go with the 11-council model, it would have tidied things up and improved them if those wards had been transferred.
Why not Larne, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey? There are some very practical reasons why it would be better for my constituents, none more practical than the future cost of their rates. Looking at the current poundage levels for non-domestic rates, I see that Ballymena’s costs are 4% higher than those in Larne. Carrick’s are 5% higher and Newtownabbey’s are about 2% higher. The increase to businesses in Larne and throughout the area would have been lower if Larne and Carrickfergus had been linked with Newtownabbey rather than Ballymena. There will be considerable increases in business rates because of the choice, which will be set in stone by this draft boundaries order, to link Larne and Carrick with Ballymena rather than Newtownabbey.
Turning to domestic rates poundage, the figures for Ballymena and Carrickfergus are slightly higher than those for Larne. Ballymena is about 1% higher and Carrickfergus is 1·6% higher. Interestingly, Newtownabbey is about 4% lower. Again, if Larne and Carrick had been linked with Newtownabbey, there would be lower rates levels for householders. Those who vote for the boundaries today are voting for unnecessarily high rates for my constituents in East Antrim from Larne and Carrickfergus, because they have chosen to link Larne and Carrickfergus with Ballymena rather than Newtownabbey, where rates bills for businesses and households will be higher.
There are other important costs that have not yet been addressed. We are proceeding with the new boundary. I would have thought that it would have been vital to get the business case settled at a much earlier stage. We were told that, because of the finances involved, that was one of the reasons why the original PwC model was not pursued. However, to come up with a savings figure over a 25-year period is highly unusual. No business would use such a model. You need payback periods of three to five years to justify investment, or, perhaps, a little bit longer if you are certain of the returns. Certainly, however, I did not have clarity from the original model that those savings would be achieved for the ratepayers, and I would have thought that that business case ought to have been finalised before pursuing this local government reorganisation. It seems to be a political deal that is proceeding regardless, without a clear and current business case having been established.
I say to those considering supporting the order that they do so at their peril. Do not come running to me in the future, blaming me, my colleagues or the Minister. This will fall on those who vote in favour of the order today. The decisions will fall on you, and the boundaries set by the order will fall on you. Do not try to pass the blame on to anybody else. I express my concern —
Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin)
Does the Member acknowledge that the person who started this process was Mr Nesbitt, as the then Minister? Had he been in control of the situation and finished the job, we would not have to deal with the problem.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
The original boundary review fell because of the instability in the original Assembly caused by the failure of some to act on their responsibility.
Some of the costs really ought to be nailed down at current prices, reflecting changes that may have happened over the past number of years. What will be the cost of establishing the new councils? What additional costs will face ratepayers as a result of reorganisation? Senior officers might be made redundant and seek redundancy packages. The ratepayers need to know — we all need to know. We need to ensure that this is for the better and makes sense. So who is aware of the figures? They have not been made available, but we really ought to know what they are. What central support will be available to assist the process?
It was clear to me in the original process, in which I had some involvement through contributions in council and other bodies, that the Executive had to make seed money available to encourage the development of new efficient models and to encourage collaboration, not only among the one, two or three councils going through the transitional model, but over a larger area. Seed funding is an important element in encouraging local government to bring about more efficient processes for the long term, to invest for the long term and to secure returns that will reduce the costs to their ratepayers.
It would be helpful if the Minister advised whether anything has yet been built into the current Budget. I have not been made aware that it has. However, for the record, I state that it is important that seed funding is built in to encourage councils to collaborate, work together, bring about much more efficient models of processing and produce a better level of performance and customer care for ratepayers and everyone living in those areas.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime, certainly in several generations, opportunity to reorganise local government. The last time was in 1972. When it happens, we should take the opportunity to bring about significant improvement in the processes in a way that reflects the technological changes that have happened since. Seed funding is an important element of that.
I have some sympathy for the Minister. Today, we are looking at the 11-council model in the order, which is based on boundaries agreed by Sinn Féin and the DUP. Of course, Sinn Féin and the DUP also set the Minister’s budget. Yet, in many council areas, we have Sinn Féin councillors and, perhaps in some areas, even DUP councillors, blaming the Minister for potential rate rises. However, it is those who vote for the order today who will set the boundaries and the costs that will ultimately flow from it. It is also the DUP and Sinn Féin who set the overall Budget that we will debate in a number of weeks’ time. That will determine what help will be available for local government in this process.
It is important that people take responsibility for their actions, and when they cast their vote today, they should not blame the outcome on others. I ask everyone to think very carefully about what they are doing and to take responsibility for their actions. I do not believe that the case has yet been made — I doubt whether it can be — to go with this 11-council model. If it has to be 11, there are better models that would improve outcomes for my constituents, and I will argue for those.
I wish to speak on the motion because this is a fundamental issue about the future of local democracy and government in Northern Ireland.
The reform of local government is the primary issue that we have been dealing with for some time. Local government, essentially, is about district councils that represent and reflect local communities, social and spatial relations, and cultural and sporting interests. In Tyrone, those things are important. In the west, we have strong Tyrone and Fermanagh identities, and the GAA and the Orange Order are good examples in my county. So, the sense of belonging and connectivity is crucial. Fermanagh people need and want a county identity and affinity that is protected and reflected by a Fermanagh district council. That is a legitimate desire and aspiration. Fermanagh people feel aggrieved and hurt at being aligned with Omagh council. Financial consideration of the rates is an issue, but it is not the fundamental issue that drives their concern.
In my county of Tyrone, we have strong community, cultural and sporting interests. A west Tyrone council, as Mr Hussey spoke about, is needed and is sensible for the Omagh and Strabane districts, geographically, socially and economically. If Derry City Council becomes what is proposed and stretches from the Donegal border beyond Castlederg and Pettigo up to the top of the Glenelly valley at Sperrin the whole way to Derry city, that will be not a great cultural, social and economic region for a district council. There are conflicting interests and there are concerns. Strabane people feel that Derry city interests will override their interests, and Omagh District Council people feel that the Fermanagh interests will override the Omagh interests. As we have said on many occasions, west Tyrone is a natural configuration, with two main towns at either end, and that would reflect a west Tyrone council that could serve the people’s needs to maximum advantage.
My party supported the 15-council model, which would be much more reflective of the social, community and spatial connections. We have all agreed that the Macrory report served the interests of Northern Ireland very well, and it was based on geo-spatial consideration, analysis and evaluation. This configuration of 11 councils has been done on the back of an envelope. It is nothing more than a geo-spatial gerrymander drummed up by a political gerrymander between the DUP and Sinn Féin. I ask the Minister formally: what academic research has gone into the model? I do not think that any has. Surely something as important as a completely new system of local government requires a research-based academic approach that will be objectively determined and set out and will balance the social, community, economic and cultural interests.
The current 11-council model and its proposed configuration of boundaries is an illogical outcome. It does not reflect what should be the normal considerations of a major reform of local government. FEDO, the Fermanagh Economic Development Organisation, is holding meetings throughout the county of Fermanagh, in Lisnaskea, Irvinestown, Belleek, Enniskillen and other places. I fear that if the outlined proposal is implemented, it will lead to great concerns for the future, and I will be extremely concerned about the discontent and annoyance that people will have. It is so important that the local government boundary review is reflective of the interests of the people. I do not think that it reflects the interests of the people, certainly those in the counties of Tyrone, Fermanagh or Derry.
Michael Copeland (UUP)
It is much too late in the day for that.
I was born into a house called Tigh Deargh — “red house on the hill” in the Scottish Gallic language — at a place called Carnamuck on the Ballygowan Road in Castlereagh. My address, for all my life, was Lead Hill, Castlereagh, 50 yards from the city boundary of Belfast. That is the local identity that I had for my rates and the council that I eventually served and continue to serve on — local. My grandmother was slightly stranger. She referred to “going to Belfast”. Despite the fact that, for 91 of her 110 years, she lived on the Beersbridge Road in Belfast, she remembered and considered Ballymacarrett as Ballymacarrett and Belfast as Belfast. She was firmly of the view that at least three of the major world industries that were claimed by the city of Belfast were actually resident in Ballymacarrett. [Laughter.]
Local government has suddenly become a good deal less local, and there have been curious constructions on its fringes. The council area that I represent — Castlereagh Central DEA — is pretty much to go lock, stock and barrel into the city of Belfast. That is not surprising, since all the roads go to Belfast; all the buses go to Belfast; the taxi companies go to Belfast; and the postcodes are Belfast. What is slightly more curious is the fact that to our left is Lisburn and to our right is Lisburn. To empty the bins in one part of the new Lisburn construction, they will have to go through the bit that is now in Belfast.
No matter what anyone says, I know that there may well be mathematically calculated reasons to establish a rates income. I know that there may be very sensible reasons in the political considerations of drawing lines on maps, and I have heard the term gerrymandering used frequently. I think that the first time that I heard that expression was in a James Young sketch, in which a BBC English-sounding reporter was interviewing people in the city of Belfast and asking them their opinion on the political situation. He got the usual Belfast answer from a man in a duncher, with a scarf round his neck and a cigarette butt behind his ear. When he was asked what he thought of gerrymandering, he said that he didn’t know Gerry Mandering, but he knew Gerry Fitt — and Fitt for Ulster! It was really a most humorous interchange.
The difficulty is that Dundonald, which is a small village on the outskirts of the city of Belfast that was swamped by the growth of Belfast, is now, suddenly, to be linked, for whatever reason, with the borough and city of Lisburn. At the time, I was a councillor without any researchers, pollsters or scientific method of establishing whether the people of Dundonald felt a deep, historic and significant linkage with Lisburn, so I did some private research. I got a phonebook and I phoned every taxi company that operated in the greater Dundonald area. I asked them to tell me the last time that anyone had booked a taxi to go to Lisburn. They laughed at me. They could not remember; it did not happen.
I then wandered round Moat Park, Ballybeen, Davarr, the left hand side of the road, and Coronation Park. I talked to young people. I found Glen men and I found Blue men, but nowhere could I find anyone who had any interest in or knowledge of — indeed, some had never even heard of — Lisburn Distillery. [Laughter.] So, we do have an attack on our sense of identity.
I do not want to go into the geopolitics of it. I know that in Israel, for many years, they had a saying, “Next year in Jerusalem”, because they felt that their capital city was in the hands of others. That would be to take a negative approach to this.
As a councillor, I know that many councillors of all parties have and express privately about what they really think of this place, with its “Fancy salaries, high expenses, ministerial cars and government Departments”. They see this as a legislative Assembly that takes a set amount of money from the Westminster Exchequer and bean-counts and divides it, according to the will of those in the Chamber.
Councillors see themselves as having something that they refer to, quite properly in many ways, as a tax-raising power. They see us — I was going to say “youse” there, but I cannot hide behind that term — as looking at them, with their tax-raising power called “the rates”, and they fear that we shall transfer function without ultimate finance from this place to them, and that the responsibility for raising the finance to discharge those functions will reside with them. I have to say that if we think that they will go to the electorate, having raised the rates to cover the cost of functions transferred from this place on their behalf to allow them to assume responsibility for it, I think that within the closed and cosseted rooms of political parties, there may well be some serious conversations.
It is important to remember that although rambunctious political debate and the possession and putting forward of opinions goes with the territory, the truth is that 3,500 people gave their lives for us to sit in here to take matters seriously, and their children and loved ones who remain are entitled to a dignified explanation of why we are forced to do what we do.
For the life of me, I know that Dundonald, Ballybeen and those estates, or the Newtownards Road, lifted from where their families had lived for generations in streets without gardens and, in some cases, without toilets and dumped in the middle of the country with gardens — but no shops, pubs or bookies and none of the fabric of the thread of life that goes to make up a city. The Newtownards Road and Ballybeen are the same place; they are just separated by a ribbon of tarmac. I dare say that the same thing applies to those who were evacuated from the Shankill to Rathcoole and other places. Their hearts, homes and grannies are in those places from which they were moved. We need to bear in mind that the most important word in local government is “local” and ensure that we enshrine that in everything that we do.
A heavy responsibility falls on you, Minister. You are the driver of a bus in many ways, but, unfortunately, the passengers are dictating where the bus goes on this particular issue. You may take it in a certain direction for a certain time, but it will become apparent to them at some stage that they are not going where they want to. At that stage, you must take your own decision.
As I say, the most important word in local government is “local”, and many of us who have a history or grounding in local government know what it delivers. It delivered democracy at a time when places like this did not exist and could not deliver. Although they were not always models of democracy, they were, in very many cases, superb methods of delivery of a reasonable service at a reasonable price. People need to bear in mind the importance of the word “local” in all of this. Thank you, sir.
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
We approach the end of the debate. We have been debating this now for something approaching four hours. For me, the most striking aspect of this debate is that in all that time, I have yet to hear a single cogent defence of the core proposition that this House will doubtless vote through: namely, that we should move to 11 district councils. We have heard very cogent, persuasive and eloquent reasons from no less than the last Member to speak as to why we should not move in that direction, but, because it is indefensible, stony silence from those who will use the strength of their numbers to vote through the proposition.
There is no rational, arguable, cogent, persuasive reason why we should move to this artificially contrived concoction of 11 councils, bearing out the belief of many that this is not about bringing rhyme and reason to government. This is not about bringing some logic to the disposition of local government, but it is undoubtedly about the political expediency that produces, out of the air of expediency, the figure of 11 for our councils. Of course, that expediency is underscored by the fact that it is being driven through by a Minister who does not believe in it.
As others have pointed out, those who claim to believe in the 11-council model will be quite happy to heap the blame on the Minister when things go wrong and when people start to ask why they are aligned in this manner in local government. When the people of Ballybeen wake up and ask why they are in a council with Moira, rather than with the Newtownards Road, and when the people of Omagh ask why they are not aligned with Strabane, plenty of people will say that that was Mr Attwood’s decision. This is the decision of the DUP/Sinn Féin cabal that governs in Northern Ireland. That is whose decision it is.
It is notable that the DUP, in the main, has sat in stony embarrassed silence throughout the debate. If I recall correctly, there was only one contributor — Lord Morrow. The DUP had no defence to offer and no justification to provide for the proposition that, nonetheless, they will use their votes along with Sinn Féin because they have pledged to Sinn Féin that they will vote through this utterly illogical proposition.
This is a dog’s dinner of proposals for local government. We have heard mention of Castlereagh and Lisburn, and Omagh and Fermanagh. Ballymena, instead of being aligned to its natural north Antrim hinterland of Ballymoney, will be twinned in some bizarre way with Carrickfergus, even though, as Mr Beggs pointed out, it is so geographically disparate from it. There is nothing sensible, logical or necessary about these proposals. They are simply the product of political expediency. Those who vote them through know that, and they will still vote them through, because that is the deal that they have pledged to do with Sinn Féin. Of course, they did not arrive at that instantly. Oh no; we had several months, nay years, of cabinet is the name given to the group of senior members from..." class="glossary">shadow-boxing about the future of local government.
We had Minister Poots, who was going to die in a ditch over Dunmurry because he was not going to copper-fasten a nationalist majority in the city of Belfast. Of course, once the election was over and it had served its electoral purpose, it was jettisoned. In the Executive, there was no more opposition to Dunmurry going into Belfast; rather, they embraced the lunacy of divorcing Castlereagh from its natural attachment to Belfast and putting it in with Lisburn to give in to the Sinn Féin demand for a nationalist-dominated Belfast. What were the great concessions that were then won by the DUP to enable it to endorse the 11-council programme? Well, we hear that there were two. It was to protect the rates base of Castlereagh — yes, that favoured place of the First Minister. It was more important to protect Castlereagh’s rates base by transferring Forestside out of Belfast into Castlereagh.
Surprise, surprise; another Castlereagh concession. Two precious fields that align the leisure premises in Castlereagh — they, too, had to be transferred. With that, all was good and all was fine. The deal was made. Dunmurry? Forget about it. Belfast goes nationalist? Pull down the flag? Complete the process that has already started? Well, so be it. That was the attitude. That is the attitude. They who contrived that attitude will be those responsible for that when it happens, and those who, today, either sit in stony silence or absent themselves from the debate, too embarrassed to try to defend that which they have concocted with Sinn Féin.
Of course, Mr Poots had many interesting things to say about the reasons why local government reform could not proceed back in 2010. Things were nicely dressed up. Things were dressed up financially. In June 2010, he said that it was a matter of cost. He said:
“The cost of amalgamating the councils is 118 million, the interest to be repaid on that over the next ten years is 33 million, bringing that to 151 million. To assist councils where rates were converging would require a further 20 million with an additional 5 million for interest on that to be paid back over ten years. That brings us to the sum of 176 million. The savings over 25 years were 159 million. It is easy to see that these figures do not stack up.”
Maybe the Minister can tell us, in Mr Poots’s terms, do they now stack up, or was that just so much flannel, so much window dressing, and really of no substance whatsoever? That certainly is what it has the appearance of.
After the sham fight about Dunmurry and all that, we had yet another climbdown by the Democratic Unionist Party to give Sinn Féin what Sinn Féin wanted on councils. They who once championed 15 abandoned that, without any capacity to justify it or to say it is sensible, rational or reasonable. That is why we arrive at a proposition that is utter, utter folly. A proposition that sees pitched together communities that know nothing of each other; that are divided geographically and in so many other ways, as was illustrated aptly by the Member who spoke previously about Castlereagh and Lisburn. The product — the hotchpotch — that that has produced is something that we, as Assembly Members, are expected to vote through. I am glad that I for one will not assist in voting it through. I trust that there are many others who will likewise take that course. This draft order does not deserve the support of this House. As someone pointed out, there has never been any empirical research to justify the division that has been come up with. It is, as I have said, simply the product of sheer political expediency.
I move on to ask the Minister about two specific issues. He has indicated that, in due course, when elections to the new councils take place, MLAs will not be permitted to be MLAs and councillors. If my understanding is correct, it is likely that the councils will be initially elected in cabinet is the name given to the group of senior members from..." class="glossary">shadow form. Will the Minister assure us that MLAs will be prohibited from being candidates in elections to the councils in cabinet is the name given to the group of senior members from..." class="glossary">shadow form? I understand that some parties already think that they might be able to run their MLAs as candidates and substitute them thereafter, so will the Minister assure us that MLAs will not be eligible to stand?
I invite the Minister to provide a word of explanation on some of the content of article 1. Article 1(2) states:
“Subject to paragraphs (3) and (4), this Order shall come into operation on the day on which an election under section 11(1) and 11(1A) of the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962(c) is first held after the making of this Order.”
Presumably, that is the same day on which the election to the cabinet is the name given to the group of senior members from..." class="glossary">shadow councils will take place. That is an interesting composition in itself.
Article 1(4) states:
“For the purpose of making and levying of rates … this Order shall come into effect on 1st April 2015.”
If the expectation is of elections to cabinet is the name given to the group of senior members from..." class="glossary">shadow form in 2014 and new councils taking over in 2015, and given that article 1(4) indicates that, for the purpose of making the rates, the order shall not come into effect until 1 April 2015, how will the rates applicable from 1 April 2015 be set and by whom? How will rates be made for 2015, if the order, which would establish the councils that you would expect to make them, does not, for rating purposes, come into effect until 1 April? Maybe there is a very simple explanation, but that certainly puzzled me when I read it. I look forward to the Minister’s explanation.
I welcome the contributions by all of the Members who spoke. There was criticism of my opening comments, in that I was shown some latitude in my commentary around the RPA. Mr Speaker, I think that the full story of this debate vindicates your judgement, my sense and, clearly, the contribution of many Members, that this was to be the opportunity to discuss, in parallel, the 11-council option that is before us to be voted on today and the other equally important matters that revolve around the issue of the 11 councils and RPA generally. Mr Speaker, I want to acknowledge that, in my view, there were good reasons for the sound judgements that you made on giving latitude to Members. It would have been incongruous if the House had not taken the opportunity today to interrogate the arguments that were being made, of which there were many, and to call me to account for the decisions that I am making and for the decisions that the Executive take on the principle of the 11-council model.
I welcome to the House Mr Spratt in particular. I welcome him back to the Chamber. I thank my colleague Karen McKevitt for the prompt, but even that will not be adequate for the speech that I am about to make.
I intend to go through the various comments made by Members and, in that way, try to respond to the substantial and material contributions, if not every contribution and specific point.
I acknowledge the work of the Committee. As was outlined, the view of some Members was that there were some issues with how the matter was managed by the Committee. I want to make one thing very clear, and I will check the Hansard report.
I want to verify whether the comments made by the Chair of the Environment Committee reflect the advice and information provided by my officials to the Committee because the Chair referred to matters that were not brought to the Committee’s attention by my officials or by my departmental Assembly liaison officer (DALO) in correspondence. If there are matters that the Chair relied upon in her assessment and in the Committee’s assessment about the proposal to do some adjustment of the district electoral areas in Warrenpoint, that is their judgement. However, I want to make it very clear that some of the information that appeared to be relied upon in that judgement did not come from my Department or from my officials in briefing, and it did not come from my DALO in correspondence. The Committee is perfectly entitled to make a judgement, to take whatever soundings and to gather whatever information they think is appropriate. However, I want to make it clear that if there were matters that were relied upon as coming from my Department that did not come from my Department, I will want to have the record of that corrected.
When it comes to the latitude granted under the Venice Commission in respect of the variance between the numbers in each district electoral area, the Venice Commission says that it can be up to 15%. While it is best not to go as far as that, under international best practice, the variance in the numbers of electors in a DEA can be up to 15%. That matter was not relied upon in what the Committee Chair said.
The Member for South Belfast, speaking in a personal capacity, said that she was looking forward to tangible plans for local government that were robust, rational and expedient and that did not see any further slippage in deadlines. I have to say to the Member for South Belfast that the body of work that has been undertaken by my officials in the Department, working with councils and senior management, and endless meetings that are ongoing with NILGA and ICE advocates demonstrate that, in the past three or four months, there has been a body of evidence of the very aspiration that the Member outlines in relation to tangible plans that are robust, rational, expedient and with deadlines not slipping. I believe that the evidence is there to answer that challenge in an affirmative way.
It is not straightforward, and this debate captures the fact that RPA is not straightforward. The various streams of work that are being undertaken by the work groups involving officials centrally and locally, involving me as chair of the regional transition committee and members from various councils around the North, demonstrates that there is a process that is robust and rational and is trying to work to deadlines, and that the challenge of tangible plans is being lived up to.
I will turn to the comments made by Lord Morrow. Curiously, as Mr Allister pointed out, he was the only contributor from the DUP Benches. I cannot explain why the DUP took that choice, but I think that the scale and character of the details of this issue deserve the fullest contribution in order to test the options and decisions that have been taken. It was curious, as Mr Allister pointed out, that there was only one contribution from the DUP Benches. However, having said that, I acknowledge the point made by Lord Morrow when he referred to the tenacity and bravery of local councillors.
I want to again put it on the record that I recognise the tenacity and bravery of councillors. I and my party have had fundamental issues with the conduct of some councils over the past 40 or 50 years and their internal affairs in business, but that does not discount in any way the tenacity and bravery of members over the years of terror and state violence or the fact that those who upheld democratic practice and principle deserve applause for being tenacious and brave in what they did. Given that fact, is it not highly appropriate, despite what people may or may not think about politicians, that councillors such as John Dallat, who served for 33 years, and the many who served beside him be given recognition? In this moment of fundamental change and reorganisation, do they not merit, more than any other category of politician in this part of the world, some form of recognition as they depart political life? I think that they do.
When I bring proposals to the Chamber in the next number of weeks and when regulations go before the Committee in the near future, I trust that there will not be politicking around the service of politicians from all parties; some a lot more than others over the past 40 years. I hope that there will not be politicking when recognising those years of tenacity, bravery and service and that there will be unanimous support, going out from the Chamber to the public and the media, for the fact that when people leave public life, they deserve and have fully deserved recognition for those years of public service in very turbulent times. I look forward to that being endorsed.
Lord Morrow quite rightly raised the issue of whether there would be constraints up to and including, as he put it, a moratorium on capital expenditure in the run-up to local government reorganisation in order to ensure that no council is tempted, in advance of RPA, to deploy a capital programme that would have legacy issues for the merged council of which it will be a member after 2015. I do not agree with a moratorium, because, as Belfast City Council demonstrated only a short while ago, it is appropriate in times of growing need that council civic leadership show leadership by embarking on a capital programme to develop opportunities over the next two or three years, including work opportunities for the people of Belfast and beyond. Not only the Lord Mayor but the First Minister and deputy First Minister spoke to affirm their support for the council’s, I think, £240 million initiative. Therefore, a moratorium would be hostile to the ambition of Belfast City Council — an ambition that I think is very appropriate.
Having said that, a number of principles have to inform capital expenditure, and I want to state what those are so that councils, in making their capital projections over the next two or three years, realise that this matter will be watched and managed with great vigilance by the Department. If we are not going down the road of a moratorium, these are the principles to be followed. The first principle is to encourage prudence, which is self-evident, but it is something that needs to be self-imposed by councillors and council management. Secondly, the finance working group, which is part of the process of taking forward RPA, will look at whether statutory controls are necessary to reduce the risk of councils embarking on capital projects that may be in conflict with the best interest of local government reorganisation. Thirdly, under current legislation, the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2010, there are opportunities for controls on local government finance, particularly in respect of disposals and contracts.
Although that particular clause in the Bill has not been commenced, if it is necessary in order to send a message out to local councils that they have to show prudence in respect of their capital expenditure, those provisions in the 2012 legislation will be commenced. In any case, beyond the general principle of prudence, there should be some self-control existing between clusters of councils in order to flag up any capital ambitions that any council might have to the other councils with which they might merge in the future.
Beyond all of that, in response to some of the comments made by Lord Morrow and others, I also want to confirm what it is that I am doing in respect of looking for money to help RPA going forward. I will come back to that later, but for now I just want to confirm that my June monitoring bid is for £2•3 million. It has two broad elements — a much larger and a much smaller part. The much smaller part is to seek £100,000 in order to build up capacity, within the Department and external to the Department, in taking forward community planning.
At the end of my comments this afternoon I will try to scope out the opportunity that exists with local government organisation. Behind the politics and the details, important though all of that is, there are enormous opportunities with local government reorganisation on a whole lot of fronts, including on the issue of community planning, a power that local councils do not have at the moment, and a concept that, with some notable exceptions, is not embedded in the community and planning life of Northern Ireland.
If we are to stretch ourselves over the next three years and develop a robust model of community planning, such as has been worked up by Community Places in its pilot schemes, and as exists in some council areas in Scotland, building up, internally and externally, the capacity around community planning is going to be a vital feature of getting planning transfer right and, on the far side of getting it right, making sure that community planning works in a way that is consistent with the needs of local communities.
More significantly than that, there is a bid in for £2•2 million. Why? Because it is quite clear that, given the scale of the local government reorganisation challenge, there is a need to try to build up transitional support by building change management capacity and personnel into the structures of local councils. That is why, on the far side of the June monitoring round, given the comments that have been made around the Chamber this afternoon, I trust that the Minister of Finance will recommend acceptance of those bids to the Executive. If they are accepted, the £2•2 million will be distributed equally between all of the councils, without fear or favour, in order to build up capacity. Whether or not some councils are more advanced than others in terms of RPA transition, each council will get an allocation, under my proposals, of £100,000 in order to enable them to take it forward. Later in my contribution I will come back to the wider strategy around local government finance going forward.
Mr Boylan asked a relevant question, reflected in the comments made by a lot of other people, namely, whether voluntary transition committees would become statutory. As I indicated, although I think that — as the evidence presented by Lord Morrow and others confirmed — voluntary transition committees can get on with a lot of good work, as they did prior to the political stalemate at the Executive around RPA, I nonetheless accept the argument that something based in statute is likely to create an even higher level of authority and certainty in terms of the transition to RPA. For that reason, it is my ambition that, within this calendar year — this is a very challenging timeline, given that subordinate legislation is going to be required — regulations will be passed in order to put the voluntary committees on a statutory basis. However, that is not to send out a message to our councils that they can sit back for the next six months. Far from it.
They should realise that, if voluntary transition committees are going to become statutory, although that will give them a higher level of authority than heretofore, it will also give them a higher level of responsibility than heretofore; a responsibility that they need to be seen to live up to.
In respect of Mr Boylan’s comments, I confirm — and the Environment Committee Chair will want to know this — that there is a significant roll-out of legislation in respect of local government. There is not simply the boundaries order that is before the Chamber today, the significant piece of legislation on local government reorganisation that will come in the autumn, or any regulations that I might bring forward in terms of councillors’ severance. There will be a significant body of subordinate legislation on issues such as governance, ethical standards, performance improvement and service delivery. All of that is going to come before the Committee during 2013-14. There is a very significant body of legislation, primary and secondary, that is going to occupy the Assembly, the Committee and the Executive on a rolling basis between now and the RPA. A timeline for all those pieces of legislation has been shared with the Executive, the Chair of the Committee and the Committee itself.
Mr Elliott questioned the issue of why there was no coterminosity with anything, which is the way he put it, in the 11 model. The theme was also touched on in other contributions. I will correct one mistaken impression. There were arguments, and research was undertaken, in respect of the seven, 11 and 15 models in previous days when options around local government reorganisation and council numbers were being developed. That thorough research looked at the seven, 11 and 15 models, but if you read the evidence as produced at that time, it is quite clear that the model of seven or of 15 councils fulfilled the ambition of Mr Elliott’s contribution, namely the principle of coterminosity, and that 15 or seven works better for the wider public service shape of Northern Ireland.
Many people consider that the 11 model was included because there might be a need for some compromise, given the stated positions of parties at that time. Although compromise has its place, and compromise is the height of ambition of the Executive in this regard, the better argument in terms of coterminosity and other criteria, which was prepared long before I became Minister and long before Edwin Poots became Minister, was for seven or 11.
Mr Elliott also raised the issue of rates convergence. As I indicated in my earlier remarks, it is not my sense that there is going to be a Big Bang approach to rates convergence; that on 1 April or 1 May 2015, there will be rates convergence irrespective of whether there are reduced or increased rates for those ratepayers in the merged council area. My sense is that that is not going to happen.
I want to say, especially to businesses in Fermanagh, that without prejudice to my personal view in respect of 11 or 15, there has been some exaggeration about the potential increases in rates for merged councils where there has historically been a significant differential. These figures of 20% and 25% are probably at the upper limit. The actual differential in rates adjustment will be more on the scale of 10% or 15%, but it is still significant. It is not something that we can bury our heads in the sand about. It will still be a matter of concern and interest and something that has to be resolved. So, how are we going to work through rates convergence over the next three years and possibly beyond?
I referred to the finance working group, which is part of the process of dealing with RPA financial issues. Rates convergence will be part of the work stream of the finance working group, which is due to meet soon. There will be conversations with the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), because, never mind the principle of equality, it is clear that there are financial and legal issues with rates convergence. So, we will have to work through very systematically the legal and financial consequences of rates convergence, as well as phasing, if it is appropriate.
There had been some discussion about transitional relief, which was previously on the radar. However, as people know, the Executive have made a policy decision on assistance for local councils through RPA. On the face of it, that is in conflict with the principle of transitional relief, which had been on the radar. I will come back to that decision later.
This is something that I will touch on in my concluding remarks, but local government reorganisation means that there is potential to look for new models of funding for local government services. Given Treasury rules on central government expenditure that is on and off the balance sheet, and, in moving towards RPA, we must ask whether we have the opportunity to engineer new and innovative commercial and financial models that will help councils, through their borrowing capacity and access to various sources of funding, to maintain and develop their services on the far side of RPA.
More than any other, the funding that we should be considering is that from the European Union. The record of the Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly in drawing down funds from various European funding streams, particularly FP7, is not healthy compared with that of the Republic of Ireland. So, part of the finance working group’s stream of work will include scoping out whether there are further European opportunities that, as part of RPA or on the far side of it, may help to create financial assistance and support for local councils.
I reassure Mr Elliott that I will honour the principles that I outlined. With the transfer of functions, most of all planning, the full resource will be transferred in a way that is rates neutral. It will be for the councils to decide in years two, three and four whether they want to enhance or reduce the planning function they have responsibility for. That may or may not have consequences for the rates burden in any merged council.
I will in a second.
At the point of transfer, and given that planning is going to be the most significant transferred function, it is my firm intention that the funding threshold for planning will be built back into the Planning Service. That capacity is elsewhere in government at the moment. There are issues with the funding threshold for planning, given the vagaries of planning income on one hand and, on the other, planning resource, which has been moved out of the Department.
It is also my intention to win an argument with DFP, because, given the centrality of planning to growing a sustainable economy, we need to have a funding threshold that cannot be compromised, and, on the far side of agreeing a threshold of funding for the Planning Service, there will be a funding threshold of going to the council along with the transfer of functions.
Tom Elliott (UUP)
I thank the Minister for giving way. I accept the point that functions will be rates neutral at the point of transfer. However, how will he establish the mechanism to take that forward? Irrespective of what councils do and whether they want to make efficiencies or grow the service — whatever service it may be — how will he transfer the finance that follows on year after year? Will councils be given that money directly from central government, or will they be able to withhold that from the regional rate?
The precise models, options and mechanisms to bring about that transfer will be interrogated by the finance working group working with the regional transition committee and the voluntary and, in the fullness of time, statutory transition committees. However, the ambition is that, at the point of transfer, the threshold of funding will be adequate to deliver the service and will transferred in full at the point of transfer of the function.
The models and mechanisms of how it will work thereafter will be interrogated through the structures that I have outlined to ensure that we do not create a circumstance in which councils end up with a planning function, which they might be minded to live up to in respect of local planning decisions and development plans and community planning, only to find after a year that the rug is pulled from under their feet because of issues around the maintenance and guarantee of resource. To borrow a phrase that Mr Allister used, it would be folly to give the function and funding and then to see it unpicked over following years. How that will be done is a matter for discussion between central and local government, the finance working group and the regional transition committee. However, that is the model that I am working for. I am pleased to give that reassurance.
Mr Elliott referred to the potential for a single business organisation. That did not find favour with local councils in the previous discussions on local government reorganisation. The alternative that councils and the council management came up with was the ICE programme. Although a single business organisation was recommended as one way of creating greater collaboration and sharing of services to reduce costs but maintain service, the ICE programme was the council’s alternative to that model. If it is the alternative, it has to be given a life. There must be a gear change around how ICE is rolled out.
Mr Elliott also raised the issue of the single waste authority. I have told the three procurement groups that I am looking at that matter. As I have indicated in response to questions for oral answer on the Floor of the Chamber, beyond the ongoing issues about waste procurement and the three procurement groups, it is a matter that I remain highly vigilant about. The proposal to enter into 25-year waste procurement contracts, the cost burden that would arise for councils, and the management of all that is, in my view, an issue of very high risk that needs to be managed very actively. I assure the House that it is being managed very actively on an ongoing basis. The issue of a single waste authority has been raised as part of the wider thinking on the management of the procurement strategy. I have raised it at the waste board as an option that needs to be looked at further this year as we decide on the deliverability and affordability when it comes to three waste procurement groups.
I want to acknowledge Mr Dallat again. There are many people in the Chamber and many others who have retired from politics who do not have the years of service that John Dallat has. He has spent 33 years in a council and 14 in the Assembly. It is hard to believe that it has been 14 years in the Assembly — it seems longer. [Laughter.] I am sure that the Speaker thinks that it has been long enough.
Mr Dallat made a point that I have heard before — I am managing the 11-council model, but I will step back slightly from my ministerial role — about 100,000 nationalists being under unionist influence. I am sure that there will be a lot of unionists under nationalist influence as well. People need to consider the impact of those sorts of figures moving to a council that may have a particular political pedigree.
Mr Dallat rightly acknowledged the contribution of the Speaker in his years of service on Derry City Council, during which he showed a high level of independence of thought and action. It because of the actions of Willie Hay and the many other Willie Hays up in Derry that Mr Dallat can make the comment — he is right to make it — that in 2013 Derry will reach out to the world. Derry/Londonderry UK City of Culture is that moment when Derry, already well established across the world, will raise its game and reach out to the world. That is a very eloquent turn of phrase, but I think that it captures the issues around Derry.
I make the point that, in the wilderness years, when there was not this Chamber and when atrocity was being visited on the citizens of this part of Ireland, it was the SDLP, at times aided and abetted by others but at other times nearly alone, that argued for partnership and accommodation and a sharing of political office. Although it is very welcome that everybody has now come on to that pitch, it was the SDLP that defined that type of politics. I want to acknowledge that, because it is timely and appropriate to do so.
John Dallat was Mayor of Coleraine; I was never Mayor of Belfast. It is not something that I regret, but there is a great candidate for Mayor of Belfast. In the fullness of time, I hope that my brother, Tim Attwood, who is a long-serving member of Belfast City Council, will have that great honour bestowed on him. I welcome the arrangement on Belfast City Council, but it is clearly not the arrangement on other councils. It is a very small number, but it is not the arrangement on those councils that there is a sharing of political office between political traditions.
Because of the recent publicity visited on some decisions made in one or two councils around the North, I want to confirm that I am taking legal advice on the actions of councils on which the principles of power sharing, equality and political accommodation have, on the face of it, been compromised. I will look at bringing into the legislative time frame earlier new standards for governance and ethical behaviour in councils so that those might be in place prior to 2015. If there are other ways in which I can intervene to exhort or compel councils to live up to the standards of partnership that this Chamber in many instances — not in all — lives up to, I will look at them.
Mr Molloy referred, without attributing blame, to delays and to the fact that this debate was belated. I will not revisit all of that, but I can confirm that, on the far side of today, if it is the will of the Assembly to endorse my recommendation on the boundaries, I will write to the Secretary of State forthwith and invite him to fulfil his statutory function, which is to appoint a DEA commissioner — there is none at the moment — who would then take forward the work on district electoral areas and produce a report with recommendations. That report would then be published and subject to inquiry. On the far side of that, law would be passed by the Westminster Parliament giving effect to all that.
I also acknowledge the point that Mr Molloy and others made that there is an enduring issue about central government giving up more powers to local government. So far, there does not appear to be anything on the table that was on the table previously. I regret that. I think that this once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity for local government reorganisation should see Ministers and government grasp the nettle of transferring functions that should be legitimately in the hands of local councils and councillors. However, I have to say that there have been some more positive signals, maybe even beyond the Assembly questions that my colleague Mrs Kelly referred to, that one or two Ministers may be more inclined to transfer more functions on the far side of RPA. I would like to encourage that.
I thought that there was a useful comment on whether, as part of the review of arm’s-length bodies, besides potentially taking back into government that which should be taken back, there is an opportunity to transfer to councils some quangos’ functions that would be better part of the life of councils going forward. I had not heard that point before, but I thought that it was useful.
I concur that there is an ongoing argument about whether, while it is proposed that councils should have the power of well-being, they should not also have a power of general competence. There is a tension between central government heretofore being reluctant to potentially transfer powers that might be transferred and the argument that central government would give to local government the power of general competence. If we are going to give the power of general competence, let us also give more significant powers to local councils. The Member was right to raise the issue of the power of well-being as opposed to general competence. That is an issue that I continue to consider and take forward.
There was a contradiction in what Mr Molloy said in that, on the one hand, he rightly asserted the primacy of democratic interest, but, on the other hand, he said that it was the responsibility of chief executives to lead. The democratic interest should prevail. The political interest should prevail. Chief executives and other council staff should accommodate that and enable that to happen. In as much as that means they should lead, they should do so. However, that is and should always be subject to the wishes of the council and the democratic interest, because that is where good authority comes from.
Mr Kinahan said that my heart was not in what I was proposing. I would not put it that way. Clearly, I have a conviction that 11 is not the right number, but I have a commitment to manage 11 going forward. This is how I would put it: my conviction might be otherwise, but my commitment is to 11 councils. I would like to assure people again that that is my job as a Minister. As a Minister, your job is to put into practice the decisions of government. Otherwise, you should not be in government. That is where my mind is settled at the moment.
Mr Kinahan was quite right to talk about the ratepayer interest. This is all about the ratepayer interest. Ultimately, central and local government politicians are the servants of the citizens and the community. He also rightly raised the Scottish borrowing structures, which are different from those here. They have created the Scottish Futures Trust, and that has proven to be a way of drawing down tens of millions of pounds that otherwise they might not be able to draw down. That works its way through councils, housing and many other aspects of public policy. There is something in the Scottish model that may have application in local government reform and in general.
The comments of Mr Hazzard made me realise that he has still a lot to learn. He made the comment — it was scripted, not off the top of his head — that the comments made by other parties, and I think he was referring to my colleagues behind me, were little more than protecting their own interests. It seems to me — [Interruption.] That is probably some Sinn Féin apparatchik ringing up to brief Fra on what the rebuttal to that point should be.[Interruption.] I missed that point, but I noted that only one party laughed, so I am sure that it was not that good a joke. [Laughter.]
All the time, whatever the issue, the standard reply from Sinn Féin to a contrary view is that it is about other parties protecting their interests. I draw the conclusion that that reveals the thinking in Sinn Féin. When it claims about others that their political position is to protect their interests, it reveals that too often, too much, too regularly the mindset of Sinn Féin is about protecting its own position. In visiting upon others that claim, it makes a statement about itself. A standard issue of reducing nearly all politics to that level is not dignified, respectful or credible. Sinn Féin might want to think about that.
Why did the SDLP endorse 11? I have to be careful. I am the Minister of the Environment, and I recommended to my party that it should adopt the 15 model, having previously argued for 11. It was a situation in which you had to try to break the political stalemate. The credibility of politics and the institutions would have been compromised by that stalemate. In those circumstances, the compromise of 11 was the politically better option. It was not that it was the only option, but, in circumstances of stalemate, when the issue was not being moved across the line and when people, the media and others were rightly critical of government for failing to address it, you make choices and you go to 11.
When I went in to DOE and interrogated the information — maybe I have a more privileged position because I have that inside track — it was transparent to me that 15 was a better model. After the failure of even the 11 compromise in the previous mandate, could we not step back for a moment and think about the 15-council model? Could we not say that the game had changed because the councils, last August, after the elections in May, brought forward proposals for savings of £570 million over 25 years through sharing and collaboration? In those circumstances, given that we had failed to get even to the compromise of 11, was it not timely, to get the thing moving forward, to step back for a moment, look at the consequences of the proposals and ask whether there were some deeper issues that we needed to get our heads round in terms of local identity and character? In those circumstances, was it not appropriate to look at that?
The most disturbing — if that is the right word — moment in the debate was the comments made by Mr Flanagan about 11 and the essential reply from Mr Copeland about 15. Mr Copeland’s comments showed intuition and a sense of where people are, their sense of place, character and identity. He spoke about the people whom he knows and represents in East Belfast. What did Mr Flanagan say earlier in the debate in that regard? He said — Hansard can check this — that the purpose of RPA was about inefficiency, bureaucracy and cost. Think about the contrast. Mr Copeland spoke about people, communities, identity and a sense of place, community and identity. What did Mr Flanagan talk about? He said that RPA was about inefficiency, bureaucracy and cost. He is the technocrat, and Mr Copeland is the politician. Mr Flanagan is the person who reduces things down.
I will, in a second. This approach reduces politics simply to a matter of inefficiency, bureaucracy and cost. If you follow the logic of Mr Flanagan’s position, what is the point of having county borders or GAA club games or townland names? What is the point of having that which gives character to our sense of being people of this island if you reduce RPA to simply a matter of inefficiency, bureaucracy and cost? The purpose of RPA was to do what was right for the citizens of this part of this island. Yes, it was about making things better — better services, better value and lower costs — but that was always subject to the interests of citizens and communities and their sense of themselves and their future. The contrast between the technocrat and the politician — maybe Mr Copeland does not like the word “politician”, because he brings a different flavour to politics from many politicians, including me, and I want to recognise that — was quite remarkable and stunning.
Give you a chance? I will give you all the chances that you want to work out your argument. It is not going to be a very good one. [Laughter.]
Mr Flanagan was up and down like the proverbial so-and-so before lunch, and now, after lunch, he is as quiet as a dormouse. I wonder why.
Yes, sorry, Mr Speaker, I apologise. I am just pointing out that those were the words used by Members in the House. In the words that were used, a view, a mentality and an attitude were revealed, and that tells a big tale. I want Mr Flanagan and others to go back to the people of Fermanagh and tell them that RPA is all about inefficiency, bureaucracy and costs and is not about the very issues that Mr Copeland so eloquently and powerfully spoke about. I will give way when Mr Flanagan wants me to give way.
Phil Flanagan (Sinn Féin)
I thank the Minister for giving way. I, too, welcome Mr Copeland’s comments. There is a view being put forward that people take their cultural identity from their local council, but that is not the case. People take their cultural identity from organisations such as the GAA or, as Mr Byrne from West Tyrone said, the Orange Order or other organisations. People do not take their cultural identity from local councils. Mr Attwood talked about 100,000 nationalists being transferred into unionist councils. [Interruption.]
Phil Flanagan (Sinn Féin)
How do nationalists in Castlereagh, if any really exist, take their cultural identity from Castlereagh Borough Council? You have those anomalies right across the North. People do not take their cultural identity from their council. It is much wider than that.
I find it amazing to see that Mr McDonnell has actually joined us in the Chamber. It is great to see him coming back from Britain to this Chamber to say that Sinn Féin is out of touch with voters in Fermanagh. The SDLP has been reduced to three councillors in Fermanagh. It does not have a single MLA. It is the party that is out of touch with what is going on in Fermanagh.
This issue is to do with finance and the potential increase in rates in Fermanagh. The people of Fermanagh are not concerned about the loss of their cultural identity. People in Fermanagh are proud to be from Fermanagh, and the amalgamation of Fermanagh and Omagh district councils will not impact one bit on the cultural identity of Fermanagh people.
Can I just reply, Mr Speaker, to the latter points? No argument was made by me that local identity, character and culture were singularly expressed through the local council or the number of local councils in the North of Ireland, but surely it is the obligation of politicians with regard to political institutions to give expression and shape to local identity and character.
When the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated, Denis Haughey, a man of great eloquence, said something that was beyond politics. It was an argument of the soul and spirit. He said that the nationalist community in the North wished to share in the life of the rest of the island. I have not heard a more eloquent expression of what it means within nationalism or of its intuition and wish to be part of the rest of Ireland. He did not express that in terms of political institutions; those were to come. He expressed it in terms that political institutions have to give shape and meaning to the will of the people of the North, particularly the nationalist people, to share in the life of the island. Institutions gave expression to political inclinations, intuition and identity. It is the job of politicians to shape that, including when it comes to local councils. If you have a local council that is spread very large and wide, Fermanagh people — a proud, resilient people — will not lose their identity; nonetheless, you will have an institution of political life that may not best serve their political needs and wider identity. That is the point, and I think it is a self-evident one.
When it comes to SDLP representation, it was not you, Mr Flanagan, it was your colleague behind you, Mr McCann, who, as normal when it gets down to these sorts of issues, relied on the democratic will in order to justify the position being adopted by Sinn Féin and its position vis-à-vis the SDLP. I am an Irish democrat. I accept that. We would not be having these debates today, because the issue of local government reorganisation would have been dealt with generations ago, if Irish democracy had not been compromised during the years of terror and state violence. We would be in a much more advanced place, and our people would have had so many more of their needs answered if our history had not been traumatised by that.
Fra McCann (Sinn Féin)
Yes, it is indeed. What I am trying to do is to make the point that the only reason that SDLP Members are arguing for the 15 councils is to protect their council base, which is diminishing in front of their eyes.
William Hay (DUP)
I say to the Minister and the whole House that, as Members will know, I have been very patient. All sides of the House have had a contribution to make to the debate. I say this to Members and to the Minister: let us get back to the motion. I am really trying to get the House out of Fermanagh, if I can do that. I have found it very difficult. [Laughter.] However, I urge the Minister and Members to come back to the motion.
Phil Flanagan (Sinn Féin)
It is just a quick point. The Minister said that there is the potential that, if Fermanagh and Omagh merge, some decisions may well be taken that are not in the best interests of Fermanagh people. That is fine. He is entitled to that opinion. Many people share that opinion. It is possible that that may happen, but, ultimately, it will be a decision for the newly elected councillors of that council to take. There is an opportunity with RPA for a benefit in economies of scale and greater savings for councils, but that can also be translated into much improved community services and delivery of community services, where people are actually out on the ground in rural areas, such as Fermanagh, that have been neglected historically.
Mr Speaker, if I could now move on.
One other comment that I want to make in respect of Mr Flanagan’s contribution is about the argument that weaved through his commentary that I had not stepped up to the plate, there needed to be significant funding from the centre and so on and so forth. Let me deal with those issues. My colleague Mrs Kelly put some people firmly in their place when she pointed out that Members in the House, including myself at the Executive level, voted against last year’s Budget. Others voted in favour of last year’s Budget, and that vote prevailed. However, when they raised their hands to vote in favour of that Budget, they voted in favour of no budgetary cover for anything around RPA. So when people say that the argument has been taken to the Executive about budgetary support for RPA, let them explain to people how, on a critical issue such as this, they raised their hands in March last year to vote for a Budget that did not give a penny of cover in budgetary terms to anything to do with RPA. Let them explain that. People have been saying that the arguments about budgetary cover will be turned against me, but let them explain why they raised their hands and did not vote for any budgetary line for RPA. I do not think that there is an answer to that. They raised their hands to not give a penny to RPA because there was not a penny of cover in the Budget at that stage.
If I rushed into the Executive and said that I now wanted £50 million for RPA, what would Sammy Wilson and DFP say to me? What would all my ministerial colleagues say to me? They would say, “Where is your business case? Do you want us to give you money for your troubles?”. That is not politics or responsible government, and Ministers in government and in power cannot say, “Give me £50 million for my trouble”. To make an argument for money, especially in the times that we live in, you need to have a business case. That is why, on the far side of a decision being taken about the 11-council model, the business case is now being worked up, and we will see where that business case will take us.
I need to have a business case to make an argument for money, if that is what I am inclined to do. To do other than that is reckless, bad government, bad politics and a silly way to look for money, because you could end up spending that money in a silly way. Irrespective of that and of the fact that parties in this room put their hands up for a Budget that had no budgetary cover for RPA, I will still ask for money, because there is a good argument coming from the councils to give some money at this time without prejudice and independent of what might happen in the future. That is the better course of action, and any other course of action would mean that not a penny will be provided for RPA. I will build up, if I can, an argument of authority to try to help RPA.
If I am prepared to do that, are other people, as I asked in my earlier contribution, prepared to look again at some of the spending commitments in the Budget that they put their hands up for? Money is not being spent, there is duplication of effort, no structures are in place to appraise or manage money and, by the end of this year, a penny will still not have been spent on the social investment fund. If you are to challenge me, as you are entitled to do, to account for how money might be secured for RPA, others have the responsibility to question the wisdom of how we have decided to spend some money, including the social investment fund.
I note Ross Hussey’s sympathy in his thorough and thoughtful contribution. He said that he genuinely feels sorry for me and that other parties might point their joint finger in my direction. That does not concern me one iota. I believe that I am taking forward the RPA initiative in a responsible manner. I am not being reckless or throwing figures at the Executive and saying, “Give me your money. Stand and deliver”. That is, essentially, what some people in the Chamber are saying.
So, to go back to some of the comments that have been made, I think that that is a position of leadership, and the evidence backs that up.
Dolores Kelly’s contribution was interrupted —
William Hay (DUP)
Order. I think that the Minister is in full flow and is maybe only getting started, so I do not want to interrupt him, but I ask the House to take its ease for about three minutes. Let us suspend for about three minutes.
The sitting was suspended at 6.00 pm and resumed at 6.04 pm.
I am going to be.
Dolores Kelly gave way to Mr Flanagan, and, in my view, his intervention was one of the most bizarre that I have heard in the Chamber. He asked whether, if I am not going to be Minister for much longer, I should be taking this forward or whether I should leave it to a future Minister. Think about that principle. Sammy Wilson might not be Finance Minister for that much longer, or Mr Poots might not be Health Minister for that much longer. The DUP’s stated ambition is to rotate its Ministries — I see a Member who may be the beneficiary of a rotation — and it said that it supports rotation and that Ministers might be moved some time in the next phase of politics. If that is the principle, and given all those points, I trust that Mr McGuinness, Mr Flanagan or his party are writing to Mr Robinson or the DUP to flag that up and to say that surely their Finance Minister, Health Minister and others should not be taking any decisions and that somebody should come along subsequently and make those decisions. That is the logic of that argument. If the argument is that I might not be Minister for much longer and that, therefore, somebody else in my party should be taking responsibility for this matter, the same argument applies to Sammy Wilson, Edwin Poots and to any other DUP Ministers whose ministerial lifetime might not be as long as they hoped. That is how bizarre that point is, and it demonstrates how good government, good politics and good decision-making are misunderstood. That someone would deploy the argument, on the Floor of a political Chamber, in a parliament in this part of Ireland, that because you might not be the Minister for ever and a day, you should not make decisions, is so preposterous, ludicrous and reflective of living in some other world —
Phil Flanagan (Sinn Féin)
The Minister just received a vote of confidence from the board, and I think that that is very disturbing for anybody in his position.
To take him back to my point, I was not implying that he abdicates responsibility and allows a future Minister to take it forward. I was suggesting an alternative Minister. I will leave that in his head and see how it stews for the next 10 minutes.
That was not clear from your comments. In fact, far from it. The Hansard report will show that when Mr Flanagan rose to his feet, he explicitly asked whether, given that I might not be a Minister in the future, I was the right person to take this forward, and he asked what the consequences of that would be. I notice that Mr Flanagan looked behind him; maybe it was to get a bit of advice from some apparatchik about how to reply to my point. The point is valid. The Hansard report will confirm it, and no amount of dissembling by Mr Flanagan will take away from the fact that he made a ludicrous point and that he knows he made a ludicrous point.
Mr Beggs made a lot of comments. I have to say that I had not heard the narrative that he outlined about the configuration of councils in east Antrim. It was an interesting argument. I have to concede that I had not heard the scale of that argument before. It was a well-made case for the configuration of local government boundaries in that part of Northern Ireland. However, I have to say to the Member that I do not argue against the principle of RPA. I do not argue that the 26-council model should not be reduced. I do not argue that the 30 or so housing associations should not be reduced to a dozen or so. I believe in radical reform of public policy moving forward. That has served us well in the past, and it will serve us well in the future. In my view, the fact that radical reform of public policy is not part of the political narrative shows that the Government are not measuring up to all their responsibilities or to the needs of citizens.
I endorse the principle of seed funding. That is why I went to the Executive during June monitoring to look for advance moneys to do particular dedicated work — £2·3 million, which is quite moderate in the scale of things, to enable councils, through seed funding, to move forward on change management, sharing and collaboration.
Mr Byrne made the argument about Omagh and Strabane in particular and, again, articulated the issue of coterminosity and that the better approach was for seven or 15 councils, if that was the principle against which we judge these matters, rather than 11. But we are where we are. I say for the umpteenth time, as I have said privately to the Executive, that I will manage this decision and I will not slow down, sideline or derail it, because I believe in the principle of radical reform. If the model is for 11 councils, despite its flaws in my view, it is my political responsibility to take that forward. If others want to prevail on others to change their mind, that is for them and for another day. For the purpose of this debate and moving this issue forward, that is where things will reside.
I commented on Mr Copeland’s speech, which showed a great intuition and sense of things. He understands that you do not reduce identity and local loyalty through inefficiency, bureaucracy and cost, and that to do so is hostile to our sense of what makes us this part of the island of Ireland — a wonderful and great people, confirmed through the years of great turbulence over the days of conflict.
Mr Allister nearly replied to the debate by saying that not a single cogent reason was advanced as to why we were going with 11 councils. Others can draw their own conclusions about that. He raised two points with me. I do like to answer Mr Allister if I am capable of doing so. One point was about the setting of rates in 2015 and the other was about the ban on double-jobbing. The answer, Mr Allister, on the setting of rates in 2015 is that the intention is, subject to the Secretary of State’s agreement, that the next local government elections will be held in 2014. The — apologies; I cannot quite read the writing. Those elected in 2014 in cabinet is the name given to the group of senior members from..." class="glossary">shadow format will take full responsibility and control in April 2015. The councils, acting in cabinet is the name given to the group of senior members from..." class="glossary">shadow form from 2014 to April 2015, will be responsible for making decisions on and setting the rates for the new councils. The new rates will take account of the new councils.
In respect of the question about MLAs and councillors, I stand to be corrected because I am speaking from memory, but the decision of the Executive was that the ban on double-jobbing would be in law and in force in 2015. The consequence of that, which is what Mr Allister was getting at, is that, in theory, people could stand for election in 2014, when the ban on double-jobbing is not in force, serve for a year, and then, if there is a policy of substitution to the councils, those who are also MLAs could step down in 2015. That is my understanding of the intent of the Executive’s decision. However, that has yet to be shaped in law, and, consequently, given that the issue has been raised with me by a number of people, the final shape of the law and the final character of what happens in 2014 may yet be revisited. I do not want to put it any stronger than that. In any case, given the profile of the double-jobbing issue, and given that MLAs who are councillors have already had their allowances cut substantially since April and will be at further financial disadvantage as of July, and given the direction of travel generally on double-jobbing, I would like to think that local people will be given the opportunity to vote for candidates who are going to be councillors only come 2014, and that logic and common sense will prevail.
Kieran McCarthy (Alliance)
Thank you, Minister, for giving way. I have sat all day and listened. I was not going to say anything but I have to say something now. I speak as a serving councillor and MLA, and I make no apology for it. I have been a councillor, on Ards Borough Council, for nearly but not quite as long as John Dallat, and I hear what you say. I did not come on to Ards Borough Council for money — as somebody on the other Benches said. I came on it from 1985 to serve my community. I hope that I have served my community. I put myself forward at the recent elections as a prospective local councillor and as an MLA, and I am proud to have got a damn good result. So, I am carrying out what my electorate wants. I will do that. I am not interested in the money at all. I want to just put that on record.
The Member is quite right to put it on record. Given that he has sat here for most of the day, as have I and the Speaker, he will know that I made it clear that I have nothing but the highest respect for local councillors, particularly those who have served for a long time and during the most difficult years of turbulence, threat and terror. I indicated that I hoped that the House will endorse the regulations that will give those who step down from council a relatively small severance package when, all around them council staff will be getting substantial severance packages that they are legally entitled to and that is a necessary requirement of RPA. However, I hope that there will be a public and political understanding of that and that the media will appreciate that people with a record of great service deserve some level of recognition.
I respect the fact that you, Mr McCarthy, and others stood on a certain day and sought a double mandate. I respect that. As an Irish democrat, I respect the fact that the people speak and choose who they elect. However, politicians have to acknowledge that, in general, the public do not understand double-jobbing and would like to see one-person-one-job escalated across all political life. I think that that is the direction of travel to take to respond to the public mood and adopt the right political principle. I think that that is why the Executive endorsed the principle, after parties in the Chamber opposed a Private Member’s Bill on the issue a year ago. That is why, after a short time, the Executive endorsed the principle of abandoning double-jobbing. That does not take away from your integrity or commitment, but it is, I think, recognition of what right practice might be.
I will conclude by slightly changing the shape of the debate. I do so because, as I said, whatever about the politics and details of RPA — important as all of that is — I look to 2015 and the opportunity that it will present. It represents a mighty opportunity and a great challenge, but one that carries some risk. That is because the purpose of this is not just efficiency and the reduction of costs; it is about the need to deliver to our community and our citizens, cities, towns, hamlets and townlands in all parts of the North the government denied to them through no fault of many of the political parties and their leaders over the past 40 years, but because of the circumstances that we faced.
In my view, as I keep saying tirelessly, the next 18 months is the most critical phase for the Government since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. If we shape radical strategy and bold legislative proposals in the next 18 months around the Executive table and in the Assembly, we will reshape the next 20 or 30 years. The Government, including me and involving RPA, have that responsibility and opportunity at the moment. If we can get it right over the next 18 months on RPA, on national parks, on a marine management organisation, on better regulation, on planning reform and all the other interventions from the DOE and other Ministers, we can fundamentally shape our society for the next 20 to 30 years in a way that means that our society will be a lot better. That is what this debate is about.
In moving towards RPA, are we going to get it as big as it should be, as right as it can be, in order to make it a model of local government that is fit for purpose and serves, in a better way, the opportunities going forward? That is what this debate is about. That is why I welcome all the contributions that we have heard. Working through all of that is the challenge that I have set myself. We should set it to ourselves and live up to it.
Mr S Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Bell, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Ms P Bradley, Ms Brown, Mr Clarke, Mrs Cochrane, Mr Craig, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Mr Flanagan, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hazzard, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mr M McGuinness, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr Molloy, Mr Moutray, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr O’Dowd, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Sheehan, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr S Anderson and Ms S Ramsey.
Mr Agnew, Mr Allister, Mr Beggs, Mr Byrne, Mr Copeland, Mr Cree, Mr Dallat, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Mr Elliott, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hussey, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kinahan, Mr McCallister, Mr McClarty, Mr McDevitt, Dr McDonnell, Mr McGimpsey, Mr McGlone, Mrs McKevitt, Mr A Maginness, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mr P Ramsey, Mr Swann.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Byrne and Mr Elliott.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the draft Local Government (Boundaries) Order (Northern Ireland) 2012 be approved.
William Hay (DUP)
I ask the House to take its ease before we move to the next item of business.
(Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)