More devolution within Northern Ireland is an argument for local government across the UK
On the face of it, the argument for a transfer of powers from Stormont to Northern Ireland’s 11 local authorities is straightforward. The powers and budgets of the NI councils are tiny compared with those in Scotland and Wales. Even if social care and education remain with Stormont, the full transfer of neighbourhood services – from highways and transportation to cultural services, environment and planning – would nearly double what councils would do. The key argument for devolution is that identification of priorities and decisions about what to do about them belong locally.
Our report on devolution within NI, for the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, goes through the evidence and examines the devolution arguments. Its main point beyond the more obvious ones is that councils should not just see devolution as being about bigger budgets and executive authority to match. This leads in two directions.
The first is that councils should also seek to exercise scrutiny over areas of spending, for example aspects of social care and public health, which remain the responsibility of Stormont or its agencies. The Local Governance Review taking place in Scotland is a model which could be followed to see how this form of devolution might unfold in NI. To play this scrutiny role, councils must identify the outcomes they want these public services to deliver.
Why, though, should the outcomes identified by councils be seen as preferable to those identified by the agencies who are responsible for delivering them?
The answer in principle is that what the councils bring which the agencies cannot is democratic legitimacy. The challenge for councils is to show this is not just an empty formula. One way of putting the argument for devolution, whether for the exercise of executive power or scrutiny, is that councils embody a certain “local wisdom”.
Local wisdom, though, cannot be applied selectively: councils may embody this wisdom but its lies beyond, in the local community, including its voluntary, third sector and business groups. Local councils occupy a commanding position but if they are to exercise power upwards, they must channel their local communities and civil society groups. That in turn means being open to scrutiny by them too.
To sum all this up: the argument for devolution cannot just be a power-grab which boils down to a demand for “devolution to us but no further!”.
There is, however, another audience who need to pay attention to NI councils’ much diminished role. NI councils are responsible for under four percent of public spending, compared with 27 per cent for Scottish and Welsh councils. At the same time, Stormont’s 88 per cent share of total public spending is more than double that of the Scottish and Welsh governments. Taken together, the very low level of devolution within NI together with the very high level of devolution from the UK government to NI shows just how centralised Northern Ireland is.
The report uses this as a point of departure to argue for more devolution within NI. But given the shrinking powers and budgets of English local government, the shrunken state of NI local government could also be an end point towards which England (with Wales and Scotland a few years in its wake) could be heading. More devolution in Northern Ireland is a cause in which local government across the UK has an interest.