Almost 200 Northern Ireland councillors are set to sign up for ‘golden handshake’ packages worth up to £30,000, the local government minister has revealed.
More than a third of the current total of 582 councillors could quit as the present 26 authorities are amalgamated into 11 new ‘super’ councils by May of next year.
Environment Minister Alex Attwood has told Executive colleagues he has ‘factored in’ a take-up rate of 75% of councillors who are eligible for the scheme — but his bid for cash has been turned down for the third time.
And he has now clashed with Finance Minister Sammy Wilson who accused him of asking for enough money in the event that all 582 representatives stand down.
Accusing Attwood of making an “excessive” and “flawed” bid, Mr Wilson told MLAs the case put to the Executive “assumed that every councillor would take the retirement money, which, of course, will not be the case”.
“It was also assumed that every councillor on the new shadow councils would be a brand new councillor, which, of course, would not be the case.”
Mr Attwood told the Belfast Telegraph, however, that the DUP minister was “wrong” and he had factored in a take-up rate of 75 %, based on the long service of many individual councillors. Full details of the package are expected to emerge in the next few months but the minister has set a maximum remuneration cap of £30,000. Councillors who are also MLAs or MPs are exempt.
Councillors will have to have served a minimum of three terms to apply for the scheme but many elected representatives have been in office since the 1980s.
Mr Attwood — who favours a shift to 15 councils but has agreed to implement the 11 model — said last year it had been envisaged there would be a dramatic reduction in the number of councillors on the new councils justifying a broad severance provision.
But Mr Wilson argued the councils will make “substantial savings” as a result of the mergers under the review of public administration and should therefore finance the costs themselves.
The finance minister said his message to councils was “don’t be looking to the Executive for a bailout” and that town hall bosses should be considering taking loans if need be.
But Mr Attwood insisted that ratepayers and councils cannot and should not be asked to cover all the costs — and that the short-term impact could be sizeable hikes in rates bills in the next few years.
“It is flawed to assume that the councils can pay the full costs of transition now against savings later without a direct impact on rates in the short term,” he said.
Story so far
The push is on to end double-jobbing — so that by the time of the local government election next year MLAs will not also be able to serve as councillors, and vice-versa. Executive Minister Alex Attwood last year set a cap on remuneration of £30,000 and may be dropped further. But councillors who at present are also MLAs or MPs will not be eligible.