At the time of writing the reorganisation of local government in Northern Ireland has almost ground to a standstill as it has been swallowed up in the stalemate created by the wider political dealings taking place amongst the main parties in the Assembly.
I have been chairing the Local Government Reform Joint Forum in Northern Ireland in recent months, which is the body tasked with negotiating employment matters between the employers and staff side associated with the on-going reorganisation process.
D-day for reorganisation is supposed to be May 2011. Unfortunately for all concerned, the finalisation of the legislation through the Northern Ireland Assembly has become wrapped up in the current high profile debate about the devolution of policing powers. The resulting impasse has brought the complex timetable on issues such as statutory consultation on boundaries to the very brink of impossibility. The latest rumours are of a delay until 2015.
The reorganisation has been mooted since 2002. Subsequent Review of Public Administration recommendations that have been negotiated back and forth concluded that the current 26 District Councils will be replaced by 11 new authorities, which will incorporate some additional functions transferred from other agencies.
With this in mind, local government has set off with some fervour to put plans in place to ensure not only a seamless transition come vesting day, but also that modern systems and processes are in place from the outset of the new authority’s existence. Transition committees have been formed and change managers are in post to help build the necessary infrastructure.
The Local Government Reform Joint Forum I have been involved in has discussed vacancy control procedures, local negotiation forum arrangements, staff transfer schemes, systems for filling of posts and severance schemes. It has made exceptional progress due to the understanding and respect shown to each others’ positions at both sides of the table.
Unfortunately, at a time when the new councils should be starting the appointment process for chief executives who can then develop governance and organisational structures, systems and processes, a desired corporate culture, organisational identity and council branding, the full process is wading in treacle due to circumstances beyond local government’s control.
Who knows what effect this will have on staff morale. But a further delay to a process that has been ongoing for almost a decade is surely unthinkable. However, with every passing day the timescale to effect that seamless transition becomes ever shorter and the one thing that anyone who has been involved in reorganisations in England, Scotland and Wales knows is that time is of the essence.
The grains of sand are slipping through this particular hourglass at an alarming rate.