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Eleven new councils start work in Northern Ireland today but already their budgets are slashed

By Noel McAdam

Published 01/04/2015

Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Monday 30th March 2015 - Final Council Meeting Pictured is members of the now old Belfast Council at there final meeting before the merger of the super councils Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Monday 30th March 2015 - Final Council Meeting Pictured is members of the now old Belfast Council at there final meeting before the merger of the super councils Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

The biggest change to local government in decades starts today - but councils have already raised fears they do not have enough cash to carry out their new functions.

The 11 new super councils officially take over from the 26 old ones today, with a range of new powers over planning and local regeneration.

But the newly-merged Town Halls are on a collision course with the Executive as councils claim promises over resources from Stormont are being broken.

Executive ministers facing reductions to Northern Ireland's block grant argue that local government must shoulder its fair share of cutbacks.

As they begin their inaugural meetings over the next few days, the councils say government departments have yet to set budgets for them to take responsibility for facilities such as harbours and car parks.

But the main row centres on an almost £12m shortfall in relation to one of their new powers - spearheading regeneration efforts in their areas.

The umbrella body for councils, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (Nilga) said the new bodies had been promised £68.1m just over a year ago but will now receive just £56.5m - a reduction of more than £11.6m.

Nilga president Dermot Curran said the cut "flew in the face" of the Executive's commitment to ensure the new functions would be properly resourced - and have 'zero' impact on local rates. Two of the new councils - Mid Ulster, and Causeway Coast and Glens, which brings together the former Ballymoney, Coleraine, Limavady and Moyle councils - have had reductions of 25%.

And for three others - Armagh, Craigavon and Banbridge; Mid and East Antrim, and Fermanagh and Omagh - the squeeze amounts to around 20%.

The cash was reduced after powers including urban regeneration and community development were put off for a year as a result of legislative delays in the Assembly.

Mr Curran said: "One consequence is that the DSD (Department for Social Development) minister seeks to transfer considerably less funding to councils when they take on these new powers in over a year's time.

"It is an average cut of 17% and even that masks considerable variations in losses for each new council.

"Regeneration brings economic gain and local investment and ownership - why delay and cut disproportionately something which creates growth and raises taxes? Where's the pro-council, pro-community, pro-investment in this? Nilga is committed to challenging this cut - which flies in the face of the NI Executive's earlier commitment to ensuring that transferring functions are properly resourced, fit-for-purpose and rates-neutral at the point of transfer."

Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey, however, said in letters sent to all 11 new councils that the reality was that the financial landscape had changed.

But in an olive branch gesture, he also offered to absorb any further cuts affecting the councils at his own department.

"Since the indicative allocations were outlined to councils in 2013 and again in 2014, the financial landscape has changed and the department has been faced with a considerable reduction in its budget," he said.

"This is the reality of the situation."

A spokesperson for the minister added that the budgets outlined in December 2013 had been only "indicative".

"The minister appreciates that the reduction to the indicative figures may be disappointing, however he has sought to limit the impact by protecting the transferring budget against further cuts, by directing that any further potential cuts to DSD's overall budget from April 2016 are to be absorbed within the department - a budget that is already facing considerable cuts."

Mr Storey is also involved in a round of meetings with all 11 councils to discuss their allocations and said he hoped they would build "on the strong and effective working relationship he and his officials have built with local government".

What all these changes will mean in practice

Q. How exactly are councils changing?

A. The number of councils has been reduced from 26 to 11 through the amalgamation of neighbouring council areas. The new 11 councils have larger geographical areas and more powers than the old councils, for example to make decisions over planning applications.

Q. Why are councils being reformed?

A. When it was first proposed to cut the number of councils in the Review of Public Administration (RPA) in 2002, it was for just seven councils. However, the process became a political football with many parties hostile to the proposal. Agreement was not secured to reduce the number of councils until 2011. One of the most contentious areas was over deciding the boundaries of the new council areas. Ministers have said reducing the number of councils will not just save money, but will improve services, allow more flexibility in the delivery of local services and will also bring power closer to citizens.

Q. Will there be fewer councillors and what will they be paid?

A. The number of councillors has reduced from 582 to 462, who will get a £4,000 pay rise. They will receive allowances of £14,200 a year, up from £9,835. Councillors who serve in other official positions, including Lord Mayor, deputy Lord Mayor, committee chair or party group leader, will receive additional monies, known as a special responsibility allowance.

Q. Why did we get a letter from PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton about this?

A. The Chief Constable wrote to all households to explain that the PSNI is realigning its own district model to match the 11 super-council boundaries. While some changes take place today, it will take six months for all the changes to be rolled out. The restructuring also reflects the multi-million pound budget cuts the PSNI has had to absorb.

Q. What new powers will the new councils have?

A. The 11 councils will receive new powers from a range of Stormont departments including planning decisions and enforcement, off-street parking, local economic development, local tourism, the authority to spot list a building and to draw up lists of buildings that are of architectural or historic interest.

Q. What else will the councils’ new remit include?

A. Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council will gain control of the Armagh County Museum, and Ards and North Down Council will gain control of Donaghadee Harbour. Some of the other responsibilities now assumed by the councils include over water recreational facilities and local sports.

Q. So what else will change in council chambers?

A. New governance arrangements: for the first time, the sharing out of council positions of responsibility across political parties and independents is enshrined in law. The public will also now have more access to council meetings and documents. There are new ethical standards, including a mandatory code of conduct for councillors. There will be a new performance-improvement regime to deliver high-quality, efficient services, which includes the requirement for councils to report annually on performance. A Partnership Panel will be established comprising Executive ministers, councillors and members of NILGA to discuss matters of mutual interest.

Q. Will councillors be able to ‘double-job’?

A. DUP man Sammy Wilson was at one point a councillor in Belfast, an MLA and an MP. This is no longer legally possible. The legislation for the new councils includes a bar on MLAs, MPs and MEPs from also being councillors.

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