Devolution within Northern Ireland
Commissioned by: The Northern Ireland Local Government Association
This report examines evidence for an extension of the responsibilities of local government in Northern Ireland (NI) through devolution from Stormont. Its context is a drive towards greater power for cities and regions across the UK, the absence of a functioning Assembly, the proposed Augmentation Review as specified in the NI Local Government Act (2014) and the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. ‘Devolution’ includes the transfer to councils of direct responsibility for services and the scrutiny by councils of matters which remain the direct responsibility of NI Executive or its agencies.
The main findings are:
- Councils were responsible for under four per cent (£738m) of public spending in NI in 2015/16, compared with 27 per cent in Scotland and Wales. The NI Executive’s 88 per cent share of total public spending was more than double that of the Scottish and Welsh Governments.
- Neighbourhood services are the main candidates for devolution of direct responsibility to councils. They cover highways and transport, cultural and related services, environment and regulation and planning and development. At present, councils are responsible for under half of them. If they took them all, they would be responsible for six to seven per cent of total NI public spending.
- A review of the arguments for devolution in England shows that what is key is local deliberation and decision-making about problems, priorities and solutions. Councils contain this local wisdom, but its source lies in the local community, including voluntary, third sector and business groups.
- Councils could also exercise scrutiny over areas of spending, for example aspects of social care and public health, which remain the responsibility of the Executive or its agencies. Scotland’s Local Governance Review is a model which could be adopted to examine this approach in NI.
- To play this role, councils must be focused on outcomes and be willing to act as enablers as well as doers. What the councils bring which the agencies cannot is democratic legitimacy and the possibility of public engagement in the reform and delivery of services.
Whilst the lead must rest with NILGA and the councils, devolution within NI also requires initiatives by the Secretary of State, MLAs, the NI Executive and even the NI Affairs Committee (NIAC) in Westminster. As they wrestle with public service reform, NI agencies should consider what full involvement by and through councils could offer. Community, voluntary and business groups need to be engaged in identifying the different, better outcomes they want from public service provision in NI.