28/05/2010

Council Merger Deadline Is 'Missed'

The Northern Ireland Executive last night failed to kick-off a long-anticipated major overhaul of local government.

While NI Environment Minister Edwin Poots (pictured here) didn't actually shelve a plan to cut the number of local authorities from 26 to 11 in time for elections to be held next May - he did agree to a further two week delay in the necessary decision-making process to get it moving forward.

That's in spite of the NI Minister of State Hugo Swire insisting that a decision by the end of this month was required, so as to allow sufficient time for the local government elections next May.

Now, the DUP Minister is to revise his plans and ask the councils themselves to help fund the reform.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster on Friday morning, Mr Poots said: "I have been tasked to go to local government and identify if they are prepared to pay the £118m that it will cost for the reorganisation, given that the Executive faces around £1bn in cuts in the next five years."

He will then report to fellow ministers at their next round-table meeting at Stormont in two weeks' time.
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The money would only be borrowed from the UK Treasury on condition that local authorities repay the cash when they begin to enjoy the savings he insists will flow from the downsizing of the councils.

It is understood the executive may plan to cover the £20 million rates convergence cost, but local authorities would be expected to carry the £118 million cost.

The Review of Public Administration has been promising historic reform of the health and education sectors, aimed to save the executive more than £400m over 25 years by cutting bureaucracy.

However, it was claimed yesterday that the postponement of the local government reform would have a serious effect on the morale of local government staff.

Also, the BBC has reported that the Northern Ireland Local Government Association boss, John Matthews, said it was going to be "very difficult" to facilitate elections to 11 authorities next year.

The association's President explained: "There has to be legislation go through - it is going to be very difficult and the indecision that there has been has led us into a more difficult decision.

"It is an enormously good opportunity missed."

(BMcC)

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