Local government in Northern Ireland
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Northern Ireland is divided into 26 districts for local government purposes. The councils do not carry out the same range of functions as those in the rest of the United Kingdom, e.g. they have no responsibility for education, for road building or for housing (though they do nominate members to the advisory Northern Ireland Housing Council). Their functions do include waste and recycling services, leisure and community services, building control and local economic and cultural development. They are not planning authorities, but are consulted on some planning applications. Collection of rates is handled by the Land & Property Services agency.
The council of the districts are variously styled 'District Council', 'Borough Council', 'City Council' and 'City and District Council' - see the articles for the full name. Under the Review of Public Administration (RPA) the number of councils is due to be reduced to 11 in 2011.
The current pattern of local government in Northern Ireland, with 26 councils, was established in 1973 by the Local Government (Boundaries) Act (Northern Ireland) 1971 and the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 to replace the previous system established by the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898. The system is based on the recommendations of the Macrory Report, of June 1970, which presupposed the continued existence of the Government of Northern Ireland to act as a regional-level authority.
Councillors are elected for a four-year term of office under the single transferable vote (STV) system. Elections were last held in May 2005. In order to qualify for election, a councillor candidate must be:
In addition, he or she must either:
- be a local elector for the district, or
- have, during the whole of the 12-month period prior to the election, either owned or occupied land in the district, or else resided or worked in the district.
For local government purposes, Northern Ireland was previously divided into six administrative counties and two county boroughs, with various rural districts and urban districts in the counties. This system, with the abolition of rural districts, remains the model for local government in the Republic of Ireland. See: List of rural and urban districts in Northern Ireland for more details.
The districts are combined for various purposes.
There are currently five Education and Library Boards (ELBs) in Northern Ireland. As part of the Review of Public Administration process, the library functions of the ELBs were taken over by a new body, the Northern Ireland Library Authority (branded Libraries NI) in April 2009. The education and skills functions will be centralised into a single Education and Skills Authority in April 2010.
The boards are as follows:
There were four Health and Social Services Boards which were replaced by a single Health and Social Care Board in April 2009.
The former Health and Social Services Boards were as follows:
In the Eurostat Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics (NUTS), Northern Ireland is divided into five parts at level 3
Local government reform
Compared to unitary authorities in England, the Northern Ireland districts have small populations (average population of about 65,000).
The district structure and the structure of other areas of public services in Northern Ireland were reviewed by the Review of Public Administration. On 22 November 2005 Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced proposals to reduce the number of councils to seven.
The new authorities were to have a number of new powers in such areas as planning, local roads functions, regeneration, and fostering community relations, which were to be transferred from the existing joint boards and other bodies, that are much closer in size to the proposed local authorities. Legislation was to be introduced to prevent serving councillors also being Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (the so-called dual mandate that was also recently abolished in the Republic).
Initial reaction from Northern Ireland's political parties, except for Sinn Féin, was hostile, emphasising the reduction in local representation and frequently expressing a fear that the province would be carved up on sectarian lines. Three councils would have had substantial Protestant majorities, while three would have had Catholic majorities, with Belfast very nearly equally balanced. Former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy, criticised the proposals as too severe.
The Local Government (Boundaries) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 was made on 9 May 2006 providing for the appointment of a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to recommend the boundaries and names of the seven districts and the to divide the districts into wards. Dick Mackenzie was appointed as Commissioner on 1 July 2006.
The commissioner announced his provisional recommendations on 7 November 2006:
An eight week public consultation period on the proposals, during which members of the public could make written submissions, ended on 5 January 2007. Public hearings conducted by assistant commissioners were held in January and February 2007. The assistant commissioners issued reports on the results of the hearings, and the commissioner published revised recommendations on 30 March 2007. There were only minor changes to the original scheme. The most controversial aspects of the proposed reform were the names of the new districts.
In June 2007, following the restoration of a power-sharing Executive, it became clear that the plan to create seven "super-councils" was to be reviewed, if not abandoned. In July, Arlene Foster, Minister for the Environment in the Executive, announced a review. A committee was established which it is hoped will report by the end of 2007. The new review is likely to mean that the present structure will continue unchanged until 2011.
On 13 March 2008 the Executive agreed on proposals brought forward by Environment Minister Arlene Foster to create 11 new councils instead of the original 7. The 2 UUP ministers voted against the proposals as their party favoured 15 councils, however the proposals passed by 7 votes to 2. The areas of the eleven new councils will consist of combinations of existing districts as follows:
On 25 April 2008, Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced that the scheduled 2009 district council elections were to be postponed until the introduction of the eleven new councils in 2011.
The names of the new districts were announced on 17 September 2008 with revised names recommended on 27 February 2009.
A legal framework for the creation of the 11 new District Councils was put into place with the passing of the Local Government (Boundaries) Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 by the Northern Ireland Assembly in May 2008. This act also repeals the Local Government (Boundaries) Act (Northern Ireland) 1971 which established the current 26 districts.