Two separate local government systems are to operate in parallel in Northern Ireland after the next council elections.
Despite the election creating 11 new authorities — due in May 2014 — the present 26 councils will continue to be responsible for delivering services, such as bin deliveries, for nearly another year. And in the interim the new 11 amalgamated councils will operate in ‘shadow’ form — though still being expected to take major decisions including setting new rates for their respective areas.
Ulster Unionist MLA Basil McCrea said: “It is a recipe for disaster. There is no clear agreement on how all of this is going to work.
“It is by no means clear who is going to be taking the lead during this intervening period. The general public is not aware of the impact all of this will have on them — it has become too complicated for almost anyone to understand — but the changes which are coming in local government are profound.”
Confirmation of the dual system comes as an order setting up the boundaries of the merged councils is due to be laid in the Assembly. It will then be debated by Stormont’s environment committee before new legislation is brought in to underpin the new councils. A Bill is expected to begin its passage in the autumn.
In a letter to local government chiefs — seen by the Belfast Telegraph — Environment Minister Alex Attwood confirms his proposal that from June 2014, following the election, the new elected councils will operate in shadow form.
Dozens of councillors are likely to be members of both the old and the new councils, although the overall number of local representatives is to be reduced. The new Belfast authority is to have 60 members, and the other 10 councils will have 40 councillors apiece.
That is a total of 460 councillors compared to the current 582.
In his letter, Mr Attwood said the new shadow councils “will be expected to make key decisions on the shape of the new councils, particularly on the appointment of senior staff, the striking of rates and development of business and financial plans.”
As revealed by this newspaper, the SDLP minister ordered that transition committees, axed by his DUP predecessor Edwin Poots, should be resurrected to oversee the town hall overhaul, and the costs borne by the new councils, who may have no alternative but to put up rates.
After elections in two years time the 11 new councils are to be:
- Armagh/Banbridge and Craigavon
- Causeway Coast and Glens
- Mid/East Antrim
- Mid Ulster
- Newry, Mourne and Down
- North Down/Ards