The new President of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) has called for Northern Ireland’s councils to be offered access to the £60m Brexit Support Fund, with similar funding being available to local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales.
The new NILGA President is Mid Ulster Councillor Frances Burton, originally from Banbridge. First elected to Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council in 2005, she was elected to the new Mid Ulster District Council in May 2014 and served as Deputy Chair in 2018/19.
Speaking at her inauguration at the NILGA Annual General Meeting, which took place on Friday, June 21 at the Burrendale Hotel, Newcastle, Councillor Frances Burton said that councils in Northern Ireland must have access to the Brexit Support Fund, which is worth around £60m.
In January, the Secretary of State for Housing, Local Government and Communities, and former NI Secretary of State, James Brokenshire MP, announced the Brexit Support Fund for councils in England, who will get £56.5m – between £35k - £210K each - to help them deal with Brexit. Additional funds will be given to areas that face the immediate impact, for example, areas with ports.
£10million will be kept aside to respond to costs that only surface after the UK has left the EU. This support fund is not available to councils in Northern Ireland, despite Northern Ireland’s unique situation as the only part of the UK with a land border with the European Union, together with the fact that regulatory services delivered by councils on matters such as environmental health and food hygiene certification are consistent with councils in Great Britain.
Local councils are also limited by the types of powers that have been devolved to them. Most notably, urban regeneration powers have still not been devolved from Stormont to local government despite plans to do so.
Councillor Burton has called for greater powers with resources to be devolved to councils, so they can deliver community-based services like preventative health, a review of the councillor’s code of conduct and the setting up of an independent panel to explore the expansion of devolution below Stormont.
Speaking at the NILGA AGM, Councillor Burton, the new President of NILGA said: “NILGA was, is, and will be driven, not by party politics or opposing ideologies, but by a desire to make real and concrete changes that will benefit everyone in our communities.
“NILGA has a proud history of constructively bringing forward proposals, solutions and consultation responses on matters as complex and important as waste management, business rates and Brexit. I intend to continue that work because local government has an important role to play in dealing with the difficult problems facing Northern Ireland.
“In order to reach our full potential, local government must be provided with greater neighbourhood powers and more funding, to give us the capacity to provide services targeted locally to those who need them most. There must be a full review and strengthening of council powers and in the immediate term, councils, working in conjunction with Government departments, should receive appropriate Brexit readiness resources and investment to help prepare businesses and communities for the future. It is vital that devolved and local government collaborates through a joined-up approach to deliver the best exit preparations across Northern Ireland.
“We’re at the beginning of a new mandate facing a difficult, complex but exciting four years. Northern Ireland has remarkable resources, talented people and incredible potential. Local government has a vital role to play in helping us all to achieve that potential and NILGA will work tirelessly to help ensure we do so.
“There are exciting opportunities ahead for Northern Ireland, including the two city deals in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, however there are also challenges ahead. Northern Ireland’s councils have proven that they are capable of meeting those challenges in a dynamic and collegiate way, for example, clearing the planning backlog since planning powers were devolved in 2014.”
Chief Executive of NILGA Derek McCallan said: “Councillor Burton has been elected as President of NILGA today and I am looking forward to working closely with her and the 11 councils at member and officer level in this four-year term.
“Each of the 462 newly mandated councillors have been elected by their constituents to work together to provide efficient and effective public services, locally. All public services should be more locally designed and focused. As the only democratically elected functioning bodies in Northern Ireland, councils have an important role to play in Northern Ireland.
“I welcome Councillor Burton’s call for Northern Ireland councils to be able to access Brexit Support Funding in the proportionate way that councils in the rest of the UK are able to. Beyond that, it is also important that a review is carried out to strengthen the powers & finances of local government across Northern Ireland, in view of the continued focus on community planning as the 11 engines of sustainable growth in NI now and for future generations.”
Outgoing President of NILGA Cllr Dermot Curran added: “It has been an honour to serve as President of NILGA over the last year. I am proud of how we have sought solutions to difficult problems in a positive and proactive way.
“I am proud of how we brought ideas to deal with the problems facing Northern Ireland and we presented them, to the Secretary of State Karen Bradley, to Brexit Ministers and to the Irish Government. NILGA has continued to make sure that the voice of local government is heard at the very highest level of decision making.
“In the last year, we have seen the agreement for the introduction of two city deals in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry. Local government is at the very heart of these game-changing deals that will revolutionise the Northern Irish economy.
“I have worked closely with all the team at NILGA and I would like to thank them for their efforts over the past year. I leave my role as President in good hands with a talented team and I wish Councillor Burton all the very best.”