Review of Public Administration

Part of Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 am on 5th December 2006.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 3:30 am, 5th December 2006

I wish to declare that I am a member of Ards Borough Council and have been for 22 years. It is one of the Province’s premier boroughs, and I am happy to be a member of its council.

Strenfird is aa’ plase o’ ooutstaunin beuty. Aa’ plase wi’ aai guid vebrant histry. An tha airdes an its blaiwicks celebrait this yeer its fivour hunner yeer in stiel. Tha airdes is woarked herd tae let tha woarl ken aboot oor pride inoor ain histry. Aboot tha beuty an majesty o’ tha loch: aboot tha cherm o’ oor wee hamelets an villages.

Alang tha coast o’ tha loch an oor pride in haein gerdens that hae bin gein tha staunin as aa woarl heritage sieht.

Am no jist blawin aboot tha mony mony attractions that my borough hiss tae oafer at oany tiem avaw its “aw yeer roon”.

Thees things er sae importan tae tha fowk that leev an woark oan its beutifil shoars. Hooiver pit fort theese facts tae sumyin fae Dundonald or Carryduff an intrest an pride will decrease as they tauk aboot pride in ther district, an whut wud seem laek freenly rivalry in tha normal wae o’ things.

In tha gein oot an sharein o’ funs is foar mare seryus

An tha facts er glaring oot tae see.

If Castlerea an Nor Doon an tha Hael O’ Doon er tae be brocht tha tither. We in Airdes wull loas an impeartin pert in oor ability tae pit fort oor identity.

An whilst we no fer apert accoardin tae tha geography wi dundonald an tha laek. Oor mannerisms an oor style er nae wae tha saem. If it gauns aheed an thees councils er aw jining up. It caun oanly caus annoyance.

As Pro. Carmichael of the Ulster University saes, local givernment hiss’ tae be jist that. Local if it is tae keep oany sense o’ bein accountable tae local needs. By this rekining tha new sivin super councils er aa travesty an mutilation o’ guid local giverment.

Strangford is an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is a place with a vibrant history that celebrated its four-hundredth year in style. Ards Borough Council has strived to let the world know about its pride in local history, about its pride in the sheer beauty and majesty of the lough, about the charm of the small villages along the peninsula and about its pride in having gardens that have been nominated as world heritage sites. I am not merely blowing about the many attractions that my borough has to offer at any time of year — those attractions are particular to the Strangford area and are vastly important to the people who live on the lough’s beautiful shores. However, if those facts are relayed to someone from, for example, Dundonald or Carryduff, that pride will be somewhat dissipated as those people relate their pride in their districts. What may seem normally like friendly rivalry will be more serious in the context of the allocation of funds. The facts are stark.

Prof Paul Carmichael of the University of Ulster said:

“local government must be genuinely local if the system overall is to retain a sense of being responsive to local needs. By this reckoning, the new seven ‘super councils’ are a travesty of genuine local government.”

It is at best unlikely and at worst impossible that a city council could understand the needs of a rural area and vice versa. The system devised simply does not take into account the sense of affinity that is needed to ensure a successful local government regime. One need only sit in on any council meeting to see the diversity of opinions with regard to allocations of funding. We have all experienced that and can imagine the difficulties that the proposed amalgamations would cause.

Communities are being thrown together geographic-ally, as the areas have little in common to link them. Given that no names could be found to unify the districts — as the Local Government Boundary Commissioner, Dick Mackenzie, admitted — it is abundantly clear that the seven-council model suffers from a complete lack of local identity.

Members may have read a recent ‘Belfast Telegraph’ questionnaire, which invited readers to suggest names for the seven new councils. One of the more amusing responses was that they should be named after the Seven Dwarfs because the Seven Dwarfs have as much affinity with the seven proposed council areas as anybody else.

There is no question that a more streamlined system of local government is needed in Northern Ireland. However, the seven-council model is clearly not the best way forward, and should not be taken beyond the consultation process. The fact that four of the five main parties agree that it is not the best way forward for the Province is proof of that.

The vast majority of elected representatives are opposed to the seven-council proposal. A majority of the 1,400 people surveyed across the Province by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) came out strongly in favour of an 11- or 15-council system, as opposed to the 113 people who responded to the further consultation document on the seven-council model. Why is that the case? The reason is that there is a widespread and legitimate fear, not only with regard to the loss of local identity, but with regard to the loss of local accountability. A local representative would have little say in the outcome of council meetings because 250,000 voices would have to be represented in each council area. Compare that with Scotland, where the quota is 100,000 for each council. In Wales, to which the Secretary of State is keen to compare us, only 1,500 votes are required to achieve election to a council. However, 5,500 votes would be required to gain a seat on one of the seven super-councils.

People in the fishing village of Portavogie can have quite legitimate fears that their needs will be overlooked in favour of the needs of those living in Dundonald on the outskirts of Belfast. If Northern Ireland were to be divided into 11 council areas, that would give added scope for true power sharing, genuine local democracy and lower-level accountability. The seven super-councils would be too remote and would not be sufficiently representative of local communities.

The loss of accountability and local identity would be a major problem. The seven-council model would impose sectarian divides and split the Province into the nationalist west and the so-called unionist east, with Belfast in the middle, pulled between the two. It is surprising that a Government that have urged us to break down dividing walls, to integrate more fully and to pull down the barriers between us are now, to all intents and purposes, formalising those very divisions.

The formation of seven super-councils will polarise political opinions and agendas, whereas the 11-council option would diminish somewhat the impact of the North/South and east-west divide. If we are to believe that the way forward is by living in peace together — and I hope that that is the aspiration of many, if not all, in this Chamber — this polarisation is a poor substitute and a very bad idea.

What is it hoped to achieve by that kind of segregation, other than to throw a bone to Sinn Féin? That party has the greatest desire to segregate and to polarise in the hope of steering the population towards its agenda. The intention to strengthen segregation goes against every-thing that Government urge us to achieve here and raises serious questions about what is behind this move and about what the Government have in store for us.

We should consider the impact on health and social services, and the education boards. In those areas, identity will also be lost, so we must look at the whole picture to see how it might develop.

The Assembly should insist that the Secretary of State do away with the implementation of the seven-super-council arrangement and have the 11-council model in its place. The Assembly must back that proposal because it represents the views of the majority of the people in the Province.

The wishes and ultimate well-being of the electorate are paramount: research conducted by the University of Ulster, and the wishes of my constituents, state that the majority of people want more than seven councils — they want 11 councils. The ultimate well-being of our people lies in the Assembly’s ability to carry out a full needs assessment of the boroughs and con-sequently to implement the best possible solution.

Lord Rooker, the Minister with responsibility for the review of public administration, set out the criteria for the creation of the super-councils. He stated:

“local government must … be at the heart of local services, locally delivered, operating at a size and scale that will allow a council to stretch itself in terms of the services it delivers now and into the future.”

The criteria are worthwhile, but if the seven-council plan is implemented, it will not fulfil them, no matter what way one looks at it. It is up to the Assembly and its Members to find a satisfactory solution. Most — if not all — people think that the solution is the 11-council plan, which would streamline vastly without losing identity and accountability.

The problem must be solved at a local level and not by those who have a different idea of what is needed by the people of Northern Ireland. Members must insist that they are given the power to carry out what they have been elected to do. It is the wish of the majority of elected representatives and of the people of the Province. I urge everyone to support the motion.