This year brought with it the biggest shake-up in local government in decades, as Northern Ireland’s 11 new super councils came into force. With Mid and East Antrim Borough Council now well-established, the Times asked Mayor Councillor Billy Ashe for his assessment of the local authority’s performance to date, as well as what to expect in 2016.
1. Eight months into the new council era, is amalgamation working?
Local government reform has been a success for Mid and East Antrim. We have delivered a smooth transition and worked hard to ensure the new powers that we have translate into positive changes in our local communities. All the elected members are very focused on this. The new community planning powers enable us to work together with many partners, and I believe this will lay solid foundations for the future and all the challenges it will bring.
The announcement of job losses across the borough will be tough for many people, but we are working on ways to ease the blow, particularly through the jobs task force, which has received the full support of three Executive ministers. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Council to move this and many other things forward in 2016.
2. What are the benefits of the bigger council?
A bigger council allows for better service quality and business efficiency. This will benefit ratepayers by maximizing the strengths across our Borough – be that encouraging investment, growing our tourism potential or strengthening our community volunteers. As a borough, we have a key strategic location in Northern Ireland, but at the same time we can support and encourage local identities and local strengths.
3. What are Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s achievements to date?
Thanks to the hard work of elected members and officers, we have delivered a smooth transition. But more than that, we have achieved a lot in the first eight months. Some achievements which stand out to me include the public realm improvements in Larne and Ballymena being underway; the Gobbins cliff path opening to international attention and Carnfunnock Country Park winning Ni4Kids Magazine Best Family Visitor Attraction (large).
We have also made over 400 planning decisions with a 95 per cent approval rate. We have supported businesses to grow and respond to economic challenges. And we have welcomed tens of thousands to the borough for Armed Forces Day, the Tall Ships in Carrickfergus and the NI Golf Open at Galgorm Castle.
All this at the same time as 700 staff across various locations and all the relevant IT and finance systems were being merged. It is a good start and there is a lot more to do. But we have a vision for the economic, social and environmental progress in the borough and it is our job to deliver on it.
4. How will the closure of big firms like JTI, Michelin and B&Q Ballymena affect rates?
We are in the process of setting rates for the next year and elected members are undertaking a series of workshops to best address these challenges. We are aware of the impact these job losses will have on the community, and it is our priority to be efficient and effective with every penny of rate payer money that we spend. We already know that there will be approximately a 2.1 per cent reduction in both the rates received and the DoE rate granting if these premises are no longer used for industrial purposes.
5. Can the council offset the rates presently being paid in rates by these companies?
The loss of the 2.1 per cent is a significant impact for Council. This is in a climate of other income reductions to council from sources including central government. Regeneration funding is also under pressure. All of this is being taken into account as we set the budget and rates for the next financial year.
6. Antrim/Newtownabbey council has already pledged there will be no increase in the district rate in 2015/16. Can MEA do the same?
Mid and East Antrim is currently working extensively with officers and elected members in line with the corporate plan to produce a budget to allow for the delivery of council’s capital projects and services. This will continue throughout January 2016 as the legal requirement is to have the rate set by February 15, 2016. Council is mindful of the pressures that exist for household and business ratepayers and has set direction that the rate increase will be no higher than last year’s rate increase of 1.5 per cent.
7. What is the council’s role in helping to create new jobs to replace those being lost?
As a Council, one of our key priorities is economic development and, under local government reform, some of the functions which were delivered by Invest NI have now transferred to us, specifically those involving responsibility for Enterprise Awareness, Start Up Activity and Social Entrepreneurship.
Our officers are working hard to develop an integrated economic development strategy which will steer the economic development activity of the council over the next few years. Small businesses and micro-enterprises are at the heart of the Northern Ireland economy and Council, in partnership with many other organisations, is responsible for ensuring that the right support and mechanisms are in place to ensure greater levels of business start-up, development, growth and export activity.
We also recognise that growing the tourism proposition will play a role in this going forward and plan to launch our economic and tourism strategies early in the next financial year.
This combined approach, working together with organisations such as Invest NI, education authorities, enterprise agencies and community organisations, will seek to ensure that Mid & East Antrim will ultimately benefit from economic growth and new job creation.
8. Do you believe people have a sense of belonging to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, or will that take time?
In my role as Mayor I have attended a lot of events and meetings right across the borough. I have been delighted at the energy and engagement of people and community groups with the new area. Of course the individual characters of our towns and the charm of our villages will never go away – and nor should they. We can retain our identity whilst benefitting from all the strengths and powers of our new Council.
In January we will see the first residents’ magazine, Mid and East Antrim Connections, being delivered to every household in the borough. This will help residents identify with the vibrancy and beauty of the area and its dramatic and diverse history.