Local Government Reform needs fundamental rethink

Local Government Reform is before the Assembly this autumn, with the objective of elections to new Councils some time in 2014.

The whole thing is seriously, seriously flawed.

Firstly, financially, there is the outrageous reality that at least 200 million will be spent to save, er, 200 million… perhaps.

Secondly, politically and even worse, there is the sheer democratic subversion of it all.

There is the outrageous nonsense of “paying off” Councillors – Councillors who have already received an annual allowance for every year they served, by the way (all the while there is doubt over whether local government staff will receive the pensions to which they were always entitled) – in order to subvert the democratic process by “encouraging” (with ratepayers’ money) people with experience (which may actually be useful) not to stand.

Then, of course, there are the new boundaries – an utter shambles. To begin with, there is no reason for 11 Councils when no real powers are being transferred to them – 26 Councils, based around our market towns, was really quite an effective form of local government given the geographic and political realities of Northern Ireland. Then, even if you were to move to 11 Councils, randomly merging the existing Councils makes no sense at all – the result will simply be 2-4 sets of civic centres, 2-4 sets of binmen payment systems, 2-4 different means of waste disposal, just managed centrally by a single set of Councillors (invariably requiring new, expensive Council chambers in order to fit them all in). It’s a nonsense!

It gets worse. The new Councils are being drawn in such a way that the advantage of the existing system – which gives Belfast a natural commuter belt (in Carrickfergus, Newtownabbey, Lisburn, Castlereagh and North Down) and thus a “Metropolitan Area” – will be lost altogether. With Carrickfergus mixed with predominantly rural Larne, Newtownabbey with predominantly rural Antrim, and North Down with the rural Ards Peninsula, Belfast loses its natural hinterland and is condemned to the status of an average provincial city (think Stoke, not Liverpool; Augsburg, not Frankfurt).

Worst of all, there is an incredibly obvious way to draw 11 Councils, if you really must…

AC: Antrim, Newtownabbey and that part of Lisburn City Council’s rural area in County Antrim could be combined into Antrim-Clandeboye Council (the baronies of Toome Upper, Antrim, Masserene, inner Belfast Lower) population around 194,000.

AG: Ballymena, Ballymoney, Carrickfergus, Larne, Moyle and that part of Coleraine in County Antrim could be combined into Antrim-Glens/Route Council (the baronies of Toome Lower, Kilconway, Dunluce, Cary, Glenarm, outer Belfast Lower and Carrickfergus) population around 173,000.

AR: Armagh City and District Council, the large part of Craigavon (in Armagh) and that part of Newry & Mourne in Armagh could simply form Armagh County Council, population around 159,000.

BC: That part of the current Belfast City Council which is in County Down plus the similar part of the Lisburn Urban Area and the current Castlereagh Borough Council plus the Holywood section of North Down could be combined into Belfast-Clandeboye Council (the urban parts of the barony of Castlereagh) population around 195,000 – naturally, this would for most purposes be combined with Belfast-Lagan.

BL: That part of the current Belfast City Council which is in County Antrim plus the similar part of the Lisburn Urban Area could be combined into Belfast-Lagan Council (the barony of Belfast Upper) population around 225,000 – naturally, this would for most purposes be combined with Belfast-Clandeboye (thus 420,000).

CS: Limavady, Magherafelt, a small part of Cookstown (in Londonderry), most of Coleraine (in Londonderry) and a rural part of Derry City Council could be combined into Coleraine-Sperrins Council (the baronies of Keenaght, Loughinsholin, NE Liberties, Coleraine/Firnacreeve and eastern Tyrkeeran) population around 140,500 – see also Foyle.

DC: Ards, the Bangor section of North Down and the northern part of Down District could be combined into Down-Clandeboye Council (the rural part of the barony of Castlereagh including Ards) population around 183,000.

DI: Banbridge, the southern part of Down District, that part of Newry & Mourne which is in County Down and a small section of rural Lisburn and Craigavon (in Down) could be combined into Down-Iveagh Council (the baronies of Iveagh, Kinelarty, Dufferin and Lecale) population around 191,500.

FE: Fermanagh District Council could simply become Fermanagh County Council, population 63,100 – some services may usefully be shared with Tyrone.

FC: Derry City Council could simply become Foyle Council, perhaps with boundaries moved inwards slightly to cover the urban area, population around 93,000 – for some purposes, this would be combined with Coleraine-Sperrins (thus 237,500).

TY: Omagh, Dungannon, Strabane and most of Cookstown (in Tyrone) could simply become Tyrone County Council, population around 166,500 – sharing some services with Fermanagh.

The advantages are obvious:

– a new start for each Council area, not just a “merger” of the “same old”;

– absolute historical and cultural legitimacy;

– avoidance of unwieldy or controversial names; and

– best of all, the clarity of a Belfast-Clandeboye Metropolitan Area (with legitimate historical boundaries based on medieval Clandeboye) with a population of 800,000 – a size worth doing business with!

How many would be “Orange” and “Green”? I really don’t care – and nor should any of us.

Map adapted from Paul at WikiTravel, with thanks.


9 thoughts on “Local Government Reform needs fundamental rethink

  1. Why on earth would you think of splitting Belfast down the Lagan? Just to make up an 11th council?

    • Yes. 11 Councils weren’t my idea!

      But also, here’s my working:
      > You don’t want any single Council to be vastly bigger than all the others, because it limits what can reasonably be devolved to local level and it means that other Councils will just copy it.
      > You *do* want a large Belfast.
      > So you can’t just bring in the boundaries of the existing City Council to around 200,000 (leaving aside the fact you just couldn’t sensibly draw such boundaries)
      > So you create a central Belfast Council which is a little over twice the size of all the others (large Belfast) but then you run into the other problem
      > So you split it – but then, of course, you have to determine how to split it
      > Frankly, the traditional county boundary is as good as any (otherwise you end up back with “Dunmurry”-style Orange versus Green arguments; also, you just can’t do Inner versus Outer in any way which isn’t at least as ludicrous)
      > You then deliberately provide two further councils to the north and south, of roughly the same size, to provide a “Metropolitan Area”

      Ok, you have a pretty weird boundary (but frankly no more weird than the current one or the one under the current proposals), but you have significant additional benefits:
      – if you wish, strictly local matters on household issues (bins, burials etc) can be done in partnership between BC and BL;
      – broader strategic issues (waste disposal, planning etc) could be carried out by a “Metropolitan Partnership” including AC and DC (after all, a lot of people who live in AC or DC actually work in BC or BL – the current system removes their say over what happens where they spend most of their waking life); and
      – certain cultural (say, sporting) and legal (court location etc) issues could still be dealt with on a county-by county basis (BL/AC/AG; BC/DC/DI; also CS/FC).

      In other words, it gives you all kinds of options as to exactly what powers you devolve and what type of partnerships you use to deliver them.

      Is it ideal? What is?! Is it better than what is there currently or what is proposed? Undoubtedly, even if I say so myself…

      • > You don’t want any single Council to be vastly bigger than all the others, because it limits what can reasonably be devolved to local level and it means that other Councils will just copy it.
        > You *do* want a large Belfast.

        Well, these are mutually incompatible in an 11-council model, full stop. But if I were to give up one of those principles, it would be that all councils should be a similar size. So long as one is not ten times as big as the rest, what harm a little variation?

        I’d have a single Belfast and a single Lisburn instead of splitting them both down the middle and joining them into gerrymanders. Chopping up Belfast just so that it isn’t bigger than the other councils, but then saying it can put itself back together again under certain circumstances, strikes me as an exercise in superficiality.

      • By the way, quickly, if I *could* find a way of splitting Lisburn from Belfast without it turning into a Sectarian-fest, I would probably leave the Lisburn Urban Area out altogether (the majority of its 71,000 residents going to AC, and a minority to DC), and replace it with the Newtownabbey Urban Area (62,000). That said, in theory you would still be putting Bridge Street into one council and the Island Centre into another – which is a bit bizarre!

      • You can quite easily split Lisburn from Belfast at McKinstry Road. There is a distinct gap of at least two fields between the Lisburn and Dunmurry urban areas.

        Again, why split Lisburn down the Lagan? County boundaries have been changed many times to remove anomalies – this would be just one more.

  2. Jack says:

    You’re right that having local councils based strongly on the traditional counties (outside Belfast) is perfectly logical, not least because no-one could dispute the location of the boundaries. I don’t know why this has not gained more traction instead of the current poor proposals.

    • That’s a really strange one, Jack, isn’t it?

      I would say your average person in Tyrone – from whatever background – would have some sense of allegiance to Tyrone. But to “Fermanagh and West Tyrone”?!

      And this is very, very important, by the way. Civic pride is something which is grossly underestimated as a driver of good things (and lack of it as a driver of bad).

      And, as you can see, the Councils I have drawn are not hugely different in size from those proposed anyway.

  3. Jack says:

    Your are correct indeed about Fermanagh and Tyrone for example as distinct local identities- there is no doubt that civic pride as a virtue could prospectively be utilised by people to make their areas better. Since almost knows everyone which county they are from, it would appear a sensible non-contentious place to start. The fact that phone numbers and licence plates are still largely based on counties as well demonstrates their enduring ‘administrative’ relevance too. I may be wrong in this but aren’t they still in use in many places in England (as well as across the border obviously). You would have to fear that the Assembly would prefer to force this issue through to prevent further embarrassment, rather than examine them again on this basis.

    • Jack – England has also re-organized its counties almost out of existence, although for rather better reasons (essentially the increasing urbanization of what is, in fact, the most densely populated country of any size in Europe).

      In Ireland we do have a particular affinity to counties – which is odd, because they are Tudor innovations! But nevertheless, most of them hint at earlier fiefdoms too – Fermanagh was Maguire territory, Tyrone O’Neill, Londonderry (for the most part) O’Kane, Armagh ecclesiastical and so on.

      I have even split Down between the Maginnises (largely) and the Clandeboye O’Neills; and Antrim between the Macdonnells of the Glens/MacQuillans of the Route on one hand and again the Clandeboye O’Neills on the other.

      This links the territories to their Gaelic and Norman past, while providing an alignment with, as you say, licence plates, GAA counties and Orange divisions.

      But oh no, supposedly I’m supposed to be loyal to “Banbridge, Craigavon and Armagh”…

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