Belfast Telegraph

Rates rise fear if costly Stormont projects passed to new councils

By Noel McAdam

Fears are growing that the transfer of powers from Stormont to the 11 super councils next year could mean costly projects being foisted onto the new local authorities – meaning a hike in rates.

Now the leaders of the super councils are demanding urgent meetings with Stormont ministers in a bid to avoid carrying the can for projects transferred from Stormont.

The councils' umbrella organisation fears the Executive may attempt to transfer spending costs to town halls in the run-up to the 11 new authorities taking over next April.

The executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) insists that functions being transferred to the councils from the Assembly are supposed to be done on a "cost-neutral" basis.

But now they fear that, for example, the Department for Social Development (DSD) could cut back on town centre renewal schemes, including some already under way.

This would leave councils to find funding, perhaps through borrowing, for their completion. And they are poised to warn Finance Minister Simon Hamilton that the new councils do not want to be forced to instigate rates increases.

NILGA is asking for meetings as soon as possible with the Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, as well as Mr Hamilton and Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland.

And they have added Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy and Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill to their list. NILGA president Arnold Hatch said: "There is a need for a lot more joined-up thinking by the departments.

"At the moment they are not really at the match.

"If ministers have existing contracts, then in our view they have to honour them and not leave local councils to pick up the tab.

"Stormont ministers could force this on councils at the stroke of a pen, which is what we are very concerned about.

"Ministers need to be realistic and accept that the transfer of functions was always to be done on a cost-neutral and fit-for-purpose basis.

"We want to meet all relevant ministers to see if this can be cleared up."

There was no response from Mr McCausland's department.

Mr Durkan replied: "The Executive agreed to transfer functions that were moving to local government on a rates neutral basis at point of transfer.

"My view is that budgets transferring should be equivalent to the costs incurred by central Government in carrying out those functions, and that this area of central Government spend should be protected from the cuts currently being experienced by central Government.

"I am aware that other ministers have different views.

"I will continue to work with my Executive colleagues on this issue," he added.

Background

All 11 new super councils –whose members were elected in May – are now operating in shadow mode.

The 26 they were formed from are currently completing their final year.

The new councils are concerned that they would be handed the reins of expensive projects when their responsibilities increase.

This in turn could result in higher rates being charged to the public.

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