Northern Ireland

New councils will take time to bed in

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Media captionBelfast City Council will become larger as part of the reform

When voters go to the polls on Thursday, they will not just be heralding a new era in local government.

They will also be enhancing their own ability to influence decision-making, and improving efficiency and accountability.

That is the plan, anyway.

The old 26-council model, with limited powers, is set to give way to 11 new super-councils, with expanded powers, but it is still going to take some time.

In effect, those elected on 22 May, will not be fully fledged councillors in the new system until 1 April, 2015.

The next year will be an interim period to allow the new bodies to bed in.

Henry Bell, historian, said that in effect there would be 37 councils for a one-year period, 11 of which would be in shadow form.

"It is a transitional year," he said, "in which old councils exist, new shadow councils exist with them and they will overlap in many cases, but in the end, the 26 will melt away and we will be down to only 11 councils."

More responsibility

There will be hundreds of councillors too, not just the 462 newly-elected ones, but the ones who still sit on the old councils, and of course some will sit on both.

It was the Troubles that gave birth to the current 26 model in which responsibility was restricted to areas such as bin collection, cemeteries and parks.

But, with peace and then power-sharing, it was decided the system was out-dated and that politicians could handle more responsibility.

That was more than a decade ago and the transformation has taken longer than anyone expected.

Indeed the process has been marked by division, dithering and doubt over how many councils there should be and what they should do.

On top of existing powers, the new super councils will run local planning, in theory to cut out red tape.

They will also get some housing powers and will be able to issue demolition notices if a property is deemed unfit for purpose.

They will decide on off-street parking schemes, and their economic development powers will be enhanced as they oversee start-up business programmes and small-scale tourist initiatives.

'Ignored'

They will look after urban regeneration and community development, a power that Prof Colin Knox describes as perhaps the most significant.

Prof Knox said that central government previously had to consult with local councils, but had no obligation to respond.

Now, due to community planning powers, that is going to change. Government departments often ignored their views. This will not be the case now.

It is, for example, possible that a local councillor could be a community planning partner with the Department of Education or the Housing Executive.

"So, for the first time," said Prof Knox, "those locally-elected representatives could have a significant influence on services such as education, health, housing and policing."

All in all, it is likely your council will have a greater say in your day-to-day life.

Of course, during the transitional year, there will be significant decisions still to be worked out by those new councillors empowered by the voters.

They will have to set rates, and that could be complex in merging two or more old councils.

That is because of the difference in the rates between a high and low-spending council.

Controversial decisions

To cushion the effect, the Department of Finance has created a £30m fund so ratepayers do not get a shock next year.

Other decisions include how the councils will be run.

They could choose a committee system or an executive-style approach where decisions are taken by a small number of councillors nominated by the full plenary.

In this case, controversial decisions could be "recalled" by a weighted majority of councillors.

There will be safeguards to protect minorities.

Business and financial plans are still to be approved and there could be issues around where and when meetings take place, although the first meeting has been set for the new councillors by a transitional committee.

For example, will Lisburn become the headquarters or Castlereagh council when these two merge?

Councils will have to decide if they are boroughs or district councils, whether to have a mayor or council chairman, which chain of office to use, what symbols or branding is best.

Existing councils have their own coat of arms, so there may have to be some compromise for merging councils.

There is the flags issue too, which some believe could threaten the stability of the new councils.