Last week certainly provided much political interest, described by some as momentous – from the live reporting of a senior DUP meeting by some in the media at the beginning of the week, to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly by the end of the week.

Most people will now want to see swift and actual progress from the re-establishment of the political institutions.

Whilst I wish the new Executive well, it mustn’t ever seek to exist on just goodwill alone.

Success will rightly be measured against whether the really important decisions can be taken, and necessary actions implemented.

Locally, some of the many issues people are crying out for leadership on include new public sector pay deals; tackling the real crisis gripping the health service; better education facilities; actual progress with the overdue Enniskillen Southern Bypass; the exploration of a possible Fermanagh rail link; environment improvements, and safeguarding our hugely important local agri-food sector.

We should also not ignore local delivery through Fermanagh and Omagh District Council.

This time of year is normally when the local Council sets the rates for the forthcoming 12 months.

I’ve always been a big believer that some of the most important functions delivered by local government are the services that people see and witness the most – waste management, public facilities, and keeping our county looking its absolute best.

Yet a reasonable balance must be secured between the provision of those services, without being a burden on the local ratepayers, including householders and businesses.

In 2015, Northern Ireland underwent a significant transformation in its local government structure with the implantation of Local Government Reform.

While the reform aimed to streamline and modernise local governance, it simply begs the question: was it a success?

While it is now history, many within our community did not support the amalgamation of local councils.

One of the reasons for the lack of support was the potential significant rates increase that would come from the amalgamation.

We were regularly told by Ministers of the NI Executive, and Members of the NI Assembly, that predicted savings of £570 million to local councils would be secured due to increased efficiency following the amalgamation of councils.

Let us look at the reality of what has happened – instead of savings being made, and rates coming down, domestic rates increased by a staggering 59 per cent in the nine years from 2014/15 to 2023/24.

All the promises and hype of the great progress and financial savings that would be made with the local government reform and amalgamation of councils have been proven false – just as some of us at the time repeatedly warned would be the likely outcome.

It was even more regrettable the Minister that signed off on the new flawed and manipulated council boundaries was herself a local Fermanagh MLA.

While acknowledging the need for the local Council to raise enough funding to maintain public services, I strongly urge it to also strike a balance to ensure that any changes to the rates imposed on residents and businesses remain reasonable.

We must commit to championing the actual interests of ratepayers and advocating for responsible fiscal policies that prioritise the financial well-being of the local community.

With the historic debt from the Omagh legacy council, along with more recent further significant spending on Omagh Leisure Centre, the Strule Arts Centre and The Grange – all on the Omagh side of the Council – and the now planned spend on the Ardhowen Theatre, and Lakeland Forum in Fermanagh, my real fear is that local people and businesses are going to experience an unsustainable and growing rates burden.

The merger of the previous Fermanagh and Omagh councils has brought economic pressures to the forefront.

The region now inherits high levels of debt, magnifying existing financial challenges faced by local businesses and individuals.

The economic landscape is under scrutiny, with residents concerned about the implications for local services and the potential strain on community resources.

Acknowledging the financial hardships faced by constituents, I really think Fermanagh and Omagh District Council must take a decisive stance to stall any further increases in rates during this council term, being mindful of the current financial pressures being faced by the public and businesses.

There are areas of the Council that I believe efficiency measures could be implemented within, without them having a negative impact on the services that people want most.

I am conscious that while the full-time equivalent staff numbers within the Council have marginally reduced this year, there has been an increase of more than 20 per cent in staff numbers employed within the Council in the past ten years, which adds to the Council’s overall costs.

One of the prominent challenges that confront residents in Fermanagh is accessing stable employment opportunities.

While the region boasts natural beauty and a strong sense of community, many residents face difficulties in finding suitable employment options.

Of course, I am mindful of the fact that our Council size is not comparable to larger metropolitan areas.

Instead of competing, we should focus on targeted investments that address the needs and aspirations of our particular community.

Just as with household budgeting, the public sector needs to manage their spending to what is affordable.

It is important to focus on strategic, targeted spending that addresses immediate needs without unduly burdening the community.

As the local Council contemplates past spending along with ambitious major capital builds in the years ahead, it will find itself at the crossroads of ambitious investment and fiscal considerations.

While the prospect of enhanced infrastructure and community facilities is exciting, the community must be keenly aware that major capital projects often come with significant economic costs that may manifest through rates.

The importance of transparent communication from the Council to inform residents and manage their expectations is vital.

There is a need for clear information regarding the financial implications of major projects, ensuring that residents are well-informed about the potential rate adjustments and the overall financial plan.

Accountability and openness in decision-making processes are vital to the wider public.

Residents should be well-informed about potential rate adjustments, funding sources, and the overall financial plan. Clarity builds trust, and fosters a sense of shared responsibility.

It is important to have a conscientious approach to capital spending, which the public will view as a pragmatic, positive, and reasonable response to the current economic challenges faced by Fermanagh and Omagh.

Therefore, the Council must put in place a plan that will only deliver the best value for money, in which the local population are not subjected to continual spiralling rates increases.

Tom Elliott is an Ulster Unionist MLA and former MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Councillor for Erne North.