Belfast Telegraph

New councils to strike rates even before they take control

By Noel McAdam

Northern Ireland's 11 new 'super councils' are to strike the next rates before they even take control of local government, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

And a rates rebate system is to be set in place to help cushion individual ratepayers from increases in their bills.

Stormont ministers have suggested the rises should not be above inflation – but rebates will be given in areas where they are higher.

The disclosures came as the Assembly yesterday debated the legislation which will underpin the new merged structures.

The debate, which continues today, puts the Local Government Bill on track to receive Royal Assent before the council elections on May 22.

But as the Belfast Telegraph revealed last year, the existing 26 authorities from which the 11 new ones will be drawn will continue for another year, with the replacement authorities operating in "shadow form".

During that period the newly-elected councillors have two main tasks – to set the budgets for the new authorities and to strike a rate – four months before they go 'live'.

Stormont has set aside £30m to help smooth the transition of rates "convergence" and a senior source said there would be "winners" – council areas where the rates decrease – as well as "losers" who would qualify for rebates.

Councils strike district rates by February 15 every year by to meet the costs of local services such as leisure and recreational, economic development and environmental services – to which the regional rate set by the Executive is then added.

The first section of the legislation yesterday dealt with a new clause requiring councils "so far as is reasonably practicable" to make audio recordings of all main council meetings – excluding committee or subcommittee meetings – that are open to the public.

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, whose portfolio includes local government, said: "Such an approach can assist in providing clarity on the discussions at a council meeting and help to support the new ethical standards framework by removing doubt over comments made by members in respect of other members."

Anna Lo, chair of the committee monitoring local government, said: "It is of concern that too many of our councils operate in a way that is not open and transparent to local residents. Too often, councils seem to be convinced it is better to keep decisions quiet and avoid too much fuss."

NI21 leader Basil McCrea said that unless there were particular reasons for council business being held behind closed doors, it should be conducted in open session.

TUV leader Jim Allister said part of the problem with the legislation is that it anticipates a lot of the real decisions will be made in an executive committee – not by, or in, the council at all.

Ms Lo said: "We intend the audio recording to take place only in public meetings of the council. That is to avoid people saying, 'I said that' or 'I did not say that'."

FACTFILE

Northern Ireland's 11 new council districts will be:

Belfast City; North Down and Ards; Antrim and Newtownabbey; Lisburn City and Castlereagh; Newry City, Mourne and Down; Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon; Mid and East Antrim District; Causeway Coast and Glens; Derry City and Strabane; Mid-Ulster; and Fermanagh and Omagh

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