Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Wednesday, 25 March 2009
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt
Councillor Tim Attwood )
Councillor Jonathan Bell ) Northern Ireland Local Government Association
Dr Ken Bishop )
The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):
I understand that Ken is presenting on behalf of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association.
Dr Ken Bishop (Northern Ireland Local Government Association):
Yes, Chairperson. I will introduce my colleagues to you. With me is Councillor Jonathan Bell, chairperson of the European working group, and Councillor Tim Attwood, the deputy chairperson of the same group. Perhaps I can start by handing over to Councillor Bell.
You are all very welcome indeed. By way of information, the evidence session is being recorded by Hansard, and we envisage that you will make a short presentation before making yourselves available for questions. We anticipate the session lasting approximately 20 to 25 minutes, although the timescale does not always apply.
Councillor Jonathan Bell (Northern Ireland Local Government Association):
Thank you, Chairman and members, for the opportunity to make a presentation on the consideration of European issues. The Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) has become a key delivery partner in many areas of European Union policy. In many ways, local government turns that policy into delivery. Most recently, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association was asked to give the reply speech at the first European Union summit of central Government and local government, at which I replied to Sir Kim Darroch, the UK’s permanent representative to the European Union. The key areas that that summit looked at were climate change, radicalisation and the economic recession. The main point to come out of that was the willingness of the European representatives to work with local government in Northern Ireland. That is something that we want to build upon in order to develop our success in that area.
Currently, council capacity is limited by lack of opportunity in European affairs on how best to deliver fuller local-level benefits. NILGA believes that the delivery of European Union policy would be greatly enhanced if there was a closer working relationship between regional and local government that would be directed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. We want to work as effectively as we possibly can in order to ensure that the local level is fully understood and incorporated in the development of European Union policies at the earliest possible opportunity. Local government has had great support from the Commission’s office in Northern Ireland, the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels and the UK representation here.
The importance of Northern Ireland’s local government having a stronger and more effective presence in Europe was, in many ways, echoed in the Commission’s Northern Ireland Taskforce Report of April 2008. We welcomed many aspects of the Barroso Report and the Commission’s continuing support for the region. However, as we are all aware, we are in a global economic slowdown, and the focus is now on regional recovery and competitiveness. In particular, we wish to focus on the Commission’s future plans for territorial cohesion and economic recovery. NILGA believes that the concept of territorial cohesion has an important role to play in shaping future European Union priorities and associated funding.
I will hand over to Councillor Tim Attwood, who will put some more meat on that skeleton.
Councillor Tim Attwood (Northern Ireland Local Government Association):
It is important to emphasise that over 50% of regulation implemented at local level has its origins in EU policy. NILGA welcomes the opportunity to work with the Assembly, the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), the Department of the Environment (DOE) and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) on the EU credit crunch alleviation packages — measures to address the wider financial crisis, such as the European regional development fund (ERDF); new opportunities in social housing to promote energy efficiency and the use of renewable energies; broadband funds for rural areas; and additional funds for strategic energy-related projects.
We welcome the opportunity to support the Executive in the delivery of a local government EU-level strategy on the economic slowdown and internal market rules, including lowering VAT on council services. As Jonathan said, it is immensely important that local government has an enhanced role through the Executive in Brussels. We must network and lobby more widely in the EU because there are so many policies and laws that affect everyone on a day-to-day basis in the North, especially in local authorities. We wish to see a better and stronger partnership between NILGA, the Executive, Departments and this Committee, so that we can discuss the best way forward locally and regionally in tackling issues on behalf of citizens.
We feel that the failure to address the current level of under-representation in European and international affairs significantly disadvantages Northern Ireland local authorities. NILGA representatives visited Brussels in December and heard a useful presentation from the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive. Again, its role could be enhanced; it is represented in the Executive’s ministerial team in Brussels. During that visit, NILGA representatives also met representatives of the Welsh Local Government Association. It only has three staff, but its impact, through networking, contacts and lobbying, has been huge. It has been able to work with other EU regions that are similar to Wales in order to minimise the loss of Objective 1 status.
There is a need to examine policy, lobbying and networking so that the role of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive can be enhanced, or the role of NILGA could be enhanced, working with the Executive office, to ensure that we are at that table. As EU funds are exhausted, we will have to work much harder to create better relationships across the regions so that Northern Ireland gets the maximum benefit of the EU.
In conclusion, there are three key areas that we wish to develop. First; the policy role, and the concept of working together; secondly, to get the best deal out of the money that is available and have an input into the higher policy level on how the money is used. Finally, we want to build relationships with the European Union accession states, particularly in areas where we have considerable expertise, such as in structural funds. We see a role in being able to share that good practice.
Thank you for your presentation. You told us that you want to be involved and feel that you should be involved directly with the European office of the Northern Ireland operation centre. Clearly there is history there, which goes back to the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe. It was created by local government, and others had not thought of it. Therefore, there is a precedent for it. Would NILGA be prepared to pay its way and to contribute to the service to its members? Benefits could be accrued by Northern Ireland, not only for local government, but for the Assembly. Is that a fair assumption?
Dr Bishop will discuss the exact financial detail, but the Northern Ireland Local Government Association is already paying quite heavily into services that it is not receiving with regard to representation on the Committee of the Regions.
It is important to ensure that we get value for money from the services that we receive from Europe. One of the areas that we have been highlighting is the need to ensure that we have every opportunity available to us to represent the region and the sector in Europe, and the most direct way that we are involved in that is through the Committee of the Regions.
As the Committee may be aware, we have four representatives from the region on the Committee of the Regions. As they are part of the UK delegation, NILGA puts a set amount of money into the financial support of our representatives to enable them to go to Europe to represent us. However, there is concern around the feedback mechanisms from responses to that Committee attendance and around levels of attendance at those meetings. We want to encourage the representatives on those seats to look again at how they can report back to the local government sector on what they are doing to support the region.
It is important to note that we are involved in supporting members who sit on structural funds monitoring committees. My primary role is to support members by providing information, assistance and research, and we have provided those services to members who sit on structural funds monitoring groups. If we were given enhanced capability, we would like to develop more policy engagement. Therefore, we feel that we do not really have enough clout in that area, but it is an area in which we need to get more involved, hopefully with the assistance of the Executive.
Members feel that there is no use complaining about EU policies and directives when we see the train coming along the track. We need to have some kind of early warning system in place where we can pick up those policies at an early stage, work in co-operation with the regional level and prepare a regional response, because those policies have an impact on people’s lives, and people tend to forget that.
We pay the Local Government Association (LGA) for it to provide briefing papers for the Committee of the Regions and other bodies. It is a fair question. We are paying significantly into it at the moment, and it is top-sliced, as it goes along from Northern Ireland local government.
I, too, extend a warm welcome to you. How can the Northern Ireland Executive best consult with local government on European issues, and I am thinking specifically post-RPA?
I think that the best, most constructive way that the Executive can consult on European issues is to have a clear forum, and look again at the methods of communication. Currently, I feel that the European schemes and initiatives are being conferred on Departments as they happen, but that is not filtering down to local government.
We also need to have the ability to sit down with the regional decision-makers from the Departments and talk about what is coming up on the agenda; how we can input into the process of responses through consultations; and how we can best benefit from the feeding up of the information from the ground.
We are very conscious that a lot of EU policies have direct input on the ground and are delivered by local government, so it makes sense that local government should be involved in that discussion and inclusion process, and consultations coming from the region.
Earlier, NILGA was involved in a central local partnership with the central Government in Westminster. The LGA and the Westminster parliamentarians had an agreement that all services and policies that were going to be delivered at a local level would first be delegated to that local level.
The central local partnership took that forward: there were representations of both bodies, both on the Executive and post-RPA. There will be significantly enhanced powers from councillors. One suggestion is that we have some form of central local partnership, that that which is going to be delivered by the Executive is delivered by the Executive, and that which is to be delivered locally, but comes through the Executive, will filter through a channel there to agree how we can take things forward together more productively.
The LGA has a checklist, which states that policies that are to be delivered at local government level will automatically be put down to local government level, as that is the area in which they will be taken forward.
There may be an area where there could be a combined working partnership. I do not think that there is any advantage in local government going outside the Executive; they have to work together. Europe, when it delegates policies down, expects the two to be worked out together.
Councillor T Attwood:
It would probably be worthwhile having a meeting between NILGA executives and others to see how that relationship could be worked out, because as RPA takes place, there will be a more strategic view from local government into Europe and into the Executive. An early meeting of all the key players on how we roll that out in a few years would be helpful.
Thank you. Something has struck me in that quite a proportion of members of this Committee are probably members of NILGA, wearing their hats as local district councillors. It might be important to register that fact and have it recorded. I sit on Newry and Mourne District Council, Jim Shannon on Ards —
I was going to say that, but you have said it for me.
Alderman Stephen Moutray, Craigavon Borough Council.
Mr I McCrea:
I was a member of NILGA, but I no longer am.
If the council that you are attached to is affiliated to NILGA, we will record it as a precaution.
Mr I McCrea:
I am a Councillor in Cookstown District Council.
I am a Councillor on Castlereagh Borough Council.
I am the only member who does not sit on a local council.
I am a Councillor on Omagh District Council.
I am a Torrent Councillor on Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council.
Chairman, as you have declared my interest, I was going to ask you to ask my questions for me. Can you ask number one?
I would not have time to ask all your questions.
It is nice to have you here, gentlemen, and to make contact with you again. Location-wise, Northern Ireland, as we know, sits on the periphery of Europe. How best, in your opinion, should we place our efforts to ensure that our voice is heard? What contacts should we make?
Secondly, we have had evidence sessions with officials from the Republic of Ireland and Wales. Those sessions, and sessions with our Scottish counterparts, have shown that they have been able to gain a fairly large amount of financial help. Maybe their status is slightly different, and I accept that: it is in relation to Wales and the Republic of Ireland, and that is probably changing.
What advice can you give the Committee to ensure that the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the people of the Province, can take advantage of the financial incentives and help that comes through Europe?
Councillor T Attwood:
One thing, Jim, I think, is that you need to create goodwill. Jonathan already mentioned sharing experience, and that is one way in which to do that. There are succession states, which now have access to structural funds, and so on. Obviously, we have a huge amount of experience in managing, delivering and monitoring structural funds. Through the workings of the Assembly, we have a huge amount of experience, for example, in partnership government and positive changes in policing. A variety of those succession states are coming out of conflict zones or divided societies. Northern Ireland can create a body of goodwill by sharing its expertise and experience, and that will stand us in good stead in future years. If we show goodwill to those new states, which, in some respects, we are now competing with for funds, we can all help each other.
In Brussels, we met the Welsh Local Government Association, which gave us some examples of how it is working with similar regions to find common ground and to lobby the EU, even though the national Governments are lobbying on their behalf. One example is that through the Committee of the Regions, the Welsh Local Government Association put in a £1 billion bid for regional broadband. That came through the Welsh Local Government Association, so you can see the value of building networks and relationships.
It is not a question of the Northern Ireland Office doing that; it has its own role, one which it does well. However, you have to be ahead of the game when it comes to networking and lobbying. Coming back to the Chairman’s point, if you compare the former Northern Ireland organisation in Europe — the Northern Ireland Centre for Europe — with what the Northern Ireland Office is doing now, there may be lessons to be learned. We may need to go back to some of the things that were done well when the Centre for Europe was in place.
There are a couple of issues around what we can do in the area of funding. At the moment, the number one issue on everyone’s lips is the economic recovery plan, and what the place of local government, and us as a region, will be within Europe’s recovery initiatives. We would welcome the opportunity to work with the Assembly — with DFP, DOE, and DETI — on the credit crunch alleviation packages. Currently, the main thing is the discussion in Europe regarding the European regional development fund and the changes to its policy around match-funding commitments, opportunities in social housing, broadband, and additional funds for energy-related projects. That is one area in which it would be practical to start.
I think that it would benefit the region to look at how Europe delivers EU structural funds to the region. There are a number of issues around that. We need to lobby the Commission to simplify the programme measures, to focus on structural funds that meet our needs, to speed up regional payments and to review the EU’s financial engineering schemes that could support our region’s recovery.
In particular, if you will indulge me, there are areas in which we can look at removing obstacles, such as excess bureaucracy; there are too many regulations coming from the Commission, which are not understood. Lack of transparency on co-financing schemes is another area; there are few opportunities for exchange of experience between project promoters. Finally, there is an issue around inadequate arrangements for interregional co-operation. We are saying that there are opportunities for us to work in partnership and there are proper steps that we can take. However, we need to sit down and talk. That is one of the main themes coming through at the moment.
We have highlighted some of the issues, which, as a region, it would be of benefit to look at. For example, the current EU budget review and its measures to address the impact of the economic crisis; the adaptation of energy and climate change policy and the agreement for new targets on the use of renewable energy; regional policy, including our region’s response to the Green Paper on territorial cohesion and the emerging transnational region status; proposals on the revision of the Lisbon strategy on growth and jobs; the implementation of the common agricultural policy (CAP) heath check.
It might also want to look at the need for simplification of state aid rules; the sustainable transport policy and the Green Paper on the review of the TEN-T project; and, to finish off — particularly for local government — there is the issue of recycling and waste, including revision of the WEEE directive and proposals on biodegradable waste.
Those are some examples of the areas that we have identified, and we are keen to work with the Executive to find solutions for them.
Alderman Shannon made the point that we are a peripheral region. Northern Ireland will have to work smarter because we live outside the good days when we had objective 1 funding. We do not have that now: we are living in a different world. However, we must work smarter. To draw on Alderman Shannon’s point, there are opportunities to go into peripheral regional funding. There is specific funding for regions that are on the periphery of Europe, and it is a matter of getting involved with that. We must also use the bodies that already exist.
I also know Alderman Moutray. The council areas are all involved in the east border region. We have seen a traction down of around €15,000 into the Greyabbey equestrian project, which delivered a real benefit similar to the west. It is a matter of using those partnerships to draw down the inter-regional funding and a matter of working smarter. We have lost objective 1 funding, but there are opportunities on the peripheral regions, particularly working alongside Scotland.
Thank you for coming along, and thank you for your presentation. It is good to see colleagues from NILGA.
You said that the European office could be enhanced. Do you see a situation where the Assembly and local government could have combined office facilities — or at least a portion could be developed? At the moment, the Northern Ireland Office is in the European office.
Within the Barroso report, was NILGA able to identify other strategies that could benefit local government with funding that has not been drawn down? We have always been able to look towards the Peace programme and the rural programme. However, the Barroso report points out that there are a number of other channels of funding that have not been tapped into. Have any of those channels been identified?
Councillor T Attwood:
With respect to the first issue, you are talking about a partnership approach with the Northern Ireland Office; I do not think that you are talking about a separate initiative. The NIO would be very open, and there could be a desk there already if the resources were available. Other countries house not only their own executive in one building, but business organisations and local government associations, to maximise the impact for that region of their country. We want to work in partnership with the Northern Ireland Office and enhance that role — especially in lobbying and networking.
European matters differ across councils. Only Belfast City Council and Derry City Council have European officers employed full-time to deal solely with European matters. The rest of the councils rely on the European service provided by NILGA. It is one way of getting past the current situation where, yes, we can use an office when we go over to Brussels, and it will provide us with a desk and access to email, and everything else: it would allow us to have some form of presence whereby we could lead and direct the agenda.
I have one key point — if it is not too cheeky. The Assembly makes the first, and substitute, appointments to the Committee of the Regions. Does NILGA have a role in the substitute appointments — given that the substitutes are there not just to fill in when the main member cannot attend, but that they have a specific role? By all means, the Executive or the political parties can appoint their members via the Assembly to the full place, but would it be an idea for NILGA to have a role in making appointments to the substitute place and to have a local government dedicated person in Europe, serving on the Committee of the Regions?
One of the benefits of having the meeting recorded by Hansard is that that point can be considered.
To follow on from that, I want to make an important point about the Committee of the Regions. Do you know whether there have been any combined meetings of the representatives of the Committee of the Regions, the Conference of European Regional Legislative Assemblies (CALRE) and other structures? Would there be any benefit in MEPs, local government representatives and the Assembly coming together to see how best to get the benefits of European funding? The British Government at Westminster told us that they consulted directly with the Northern Ireland Office on European affairs. Do the British Government consult with NILGA on European affairs?
Through existing structures, NILGA can establish links to various networking groups and workshops across Europe. As far as I am aware, Whitehall does not keep NILGA directly informed about any decisions or regional issues that affect local government. There would be value in working more closely with our MEPs and MLAs. When I am in Brussels to meet the MEPs, I make a point of discussing local government issues with them and briefing them. There is also value in examining some form of informal relationship with Assembly Members, perhaps on a quarterly or bi-quarterly basis, so that Members can meet local government representatives to discuss European strategies, plans and priorities that affect them.
You have highlighted a critical area, but it is an evolving area. When Northern Ireland local government first came together in 2001, I was appointed to the European working group via NILGA. Within 10 days, I was sent over to Elland Road to the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. Peter Hain, the then Minister for Europe, was there, and asked whether I could give him the views of Northern Ireland on the European constitution — before it was amended and became a treaty. There was an expectation at that level —
It is all your fault. [Laughter.]
I would love to claim credit for that. We can see that the relationship is changing at the moment. The UK permanent representation is very clear in welcoming our involvement. Recently, we had a European seminar in Belfast that was attended by a key representative of the Commission and Members of Parliament. There has to be some form of integration between the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, which is, effectively, the European LGA, and in which we have a role; the Committee of the Regions; and the Local Government International Bureau and its European affairs group, on which we sit on a quarterly basis alongside representatives of the LGA in England and Wales and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA). However, there is no key body that brings together the Members of the European Parliament and the bodies that I mentioned. That is an area for future development.
You are very welcome, gentlemen; it is good to see you here. I will make a comment rather than ask a question. John Adams and I attend the executive meetings of the Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP UK) from time to time. NILGA is associated with that organisation through the National Association of Regional Employers. There is no doubt that those bodies are doing great deal of work on various pieces of legislation, particularly those that affect local government. Perhaps that needs to be built on.
I am not sure whether Dr Bishop has taken that mantle and is dealing with European matters through CEEP UK. CEEP UK is about to change its name, or has already done so. I cannot remember what the new name is, but it might be worthwhile looking at that issue, because there are good opportunities there to do some work on European matters; perhaps you should mention that to John.
If the Lisbon treaty were ratified, what would the implications be for Northern Ireland?
That is one for you, Ken.
To be honest, there is not a lot of discussion about the ratification of the Lisbon treaty and how it would link into our competitiveness and employment trends in the future.
From talking to other LGAs in Brussels and across the UK, I know that there is a certain level of activity around making sure that the best deal is brokered regarding the Lisbon Treaty. I think that it is up to us to feed into the Lisbon Treaty process. I know that it is part of the economic recovery plan from the commission, and that UKREP has been looking for advice from the regions, and from sectors within the regions, around what measures can be looked at and what policies can be reviewed in order to make us more competitive. We need to engage more with the decision-makers on the Commission in order to lobby whatever our decision on that may be.
I apologise for being late; my previous meeting ran longer than was expected. I read your submission, and I see that it shares a lot of common ground with some of the evidence that we have heard from other groups and organisations. Namely, that there needs to be greater co-operation between ourselves and NILGA.
You said that the Executive need to support the development and delivery of an EU-level local government strategy. In the context of what you said about the European LGAs, have European strategies already been developed for other local governments that could assist in the development of the strategy that you are talking about, particularly around the economic slowdown and the internal market rules? In answering Jim’s question, you mentioned an economic recovery plan, and that is an issue that some MEPs have brought up with us. Given that you have asked for a review of the mechanism of the rules on public procurement, are you having difficulty accessing procurement contracts and the social requirements built into those? Is that the reason why you are experiencing difficulties?
I will answer the first question on the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), and I will ask Ken to talk about the economic and public procurement issues. The European local government associations do work together. They tend to meet every six months and, therefore, that is the only opportunity that they have to influence key policy areas. They will take a key strategic area, such as climate change, and look at what local government can do and at what the co-ordination would be across that specific area. They will not get into the specifics of how member states and their local government associations interact. What a member state can do, through the CEMR, is bring up an issue that is affecting local government and that can be dealt with. However, that issue has to be in a key area that cross-references all the other European issues.
NILGA has been very active in the matter of the economic slowdown. One of the main drives of our current president, Councillor Helen Quigley, is that we address that issue. At a European level, we have been working with LGAs in the UK to try to feed some information on local issues through UKREP and on to a Commission level. We need to develop a greater understanding on the ground of the importance of European issues. I think that sometimes, in councils, Europe is not seen as a priority. Its importance is not at the forefront. However, we have seen that it is important for councils, and for the region, to realise how important European legislation and directives are for local government, and how we then implement those.
That leads me on to your procurement question. Again, there is some anecdotal evidence coming through to suggest that some of the planned changes to procurement practices and requirements may slow down the process. That may affect the awarding of local contracts and so on. Those are issues that we should be involved in and that we need to be involved in. I cannot overestimate the importance of getting in quickly and having our voice heard as soon as possible on those important issues.
Are you saying that what is coming through will slow down the procurement process, as opposed to assisting it?
Well, that is anecdotal. People are saying that the legislation can be cumbersome and slow, and that there can be some confusion as to what it means and what it does not mean.
As Jonathan said, we are just coming up to speed with what is going on. However, the message coming through is that we need to engage more quickly.
That completes the question and answer session. Thank you very much indeed for your presentation and for the answers that you provided. It may well be that the Committee will ask you to submit some additional information, and if there is anything else that you wish to submit, we are very happy to receive it.