The 1st April 2015 saw a major reform of the local government in Northern Ireland. The Local Government Reform brought together the existing, 26 councils of Northern Ireland, merging them together to form 11 new super councils. This move was designed to render the local government more economic and efficient. However, from looking at the pay roll of councillors now sitting on the new super councils this would not appear to be the case.
Strabane District Council has undergone the reform, along with the rest of Northern Ireland on April 1st and merged with Derry City Council to become Derry City and Strabane District Council. Some powers and responsibilities have been devolved from the Northern Ireland Executive. The 11 super councils have undertaken the responsibility of local planning functions, off-street parking and local economic development. These responsibilities have been devolved with the credit that local councils know what their own area needs and what economic and planning developments would suit the area and best serve the people.
Chief Executive of Derry City and Strabane District Council, John Kelpie at a recent meeting in Castlederg, explained that, 620 staff were employed by the previous Derry City Council and 220 by Strabane District Council, totalling 840 staff. The public were lead to believe that there would be reductions in staffing but Mr Kelpie went on further to expand: “With the challenges that we have locally, I would estimate that we would need between three and a half to four thousand people to do what we’re trying to achieve.” This counteracts one of the missions of the super councils and suggests that the force with which they wish to attack issues in the community, along with improving life in the local government for the businesses and people of the area, this volume of personnel would be required.
It is also noteworthy that councillors under the new reform, are being given a £5,000 pay rise, much to the dismay of many people in the local community. Strabane councillors were previously being paid £9,835 per annum under the Strabane District Council ruling. Now, under the new reform councillors have a set wage of £14,200. Therefore the estimated economic saving in the reducing of councillor numbers is surely counteracted by the increase in councillor pay. If the super councils are attempting to save money by combining resources and as a result, redundancies being issued to staff of the previous set-up, why is an increase in wages coming to the fore?
Furthermore, councillors who chair a committee within the council are entitled to an additional £8,050 per annum justified as a ‘Special Responsibility Allowance’. This controversial increase in wages is challenged alternatively by Councillor Patsy Kelly, SDLP. He voiced his concerns that despite the increase in wages it is still insufficient to cover the amount of hours councillors spend at meetings and attending constituency issues. He concluded by saying that councillors are working below minimum wage per hour.
On the other hand, Jarlath McNulty, former councillor of Strabane District Council, now a community worker said: “There are many people working every single day from our community who would like to have a secure job for four years and receive a starting income of £14,200 a year”. The question still stands as to whether the new council arrangements will truly deliver on improved efficiency and economics.
The new mayor of the Derry City and Strabane District Council, Elisha McCallion set unemployment as top of her priorities in taking up her role. The most recent unemployment rate (Dec. 14 – April 15) for Derry/Londonderry and Strabane currently runs at 6%, an increase of 0.2% from the previous quarter. A re-direction of funds to address unemployment issues would be deemed preferable to increasing councillor salaries.
Another cost passed onto the people of Northern Ireland under the Local Government Reform is the increase in rate bills. Although the council will benefit from the reform, it is evident that it all comes at a cost to the people of Northern Ireland.
The following councillors make up the new Derry City and Strabane District Council –
You can find out more about the new reform of councils on Ni Direct.