Councils across Northern Ireland are on a collision course with Executive Minister Alex Attwood ahead of local government’s biggest shake-up in 40 years.
Their umbrella body has warned it will oppose plans to amalgamate the current 26 into 11 new authorities unless a wider review includes the role of Stormont and restructuring of government departments.
But the environment minister said councils must not set down “pre-conditions” or new hurdles.
“Council leaders must acknowledge that the point of no return has long passed,” said Mr Attwood.
Sean McPeake, chair of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), argued however that concerns are growing, less than 18 months before elections are due to the 11 bigger councils , which will then operate in ‘shadow’ form for a year.
He sounded alarm bells as councils begin to prepare rates estimates for the next financial year, from April, earlier than usual, amid fears that ‘convergence’ of the councils could push up the rates in some areas.
The local government legislation which is to underpin the major changes has already been delayed. It is now due to be introduced in the Assembly early in the new year.
And the Executive still has to take a decision on the transfer of new powers to the re-vamped councils.
Mr McPeake said: “Many remain sceptical about the reform programme, in regard to key timetable slippages, and also due to further requests to build in large financial contingencies in our rates estimates.
“Do we even have the legal ability to borrow for all of this, let alone the capacity?’’ he asked.
“The workforce of the 26 councils simply cannot engage fully in this process until they are clear in their roles, able to budget and plan unambiguously and are treated like professional, equal partners.”
Mr McPeake also contended it is now time to deliver change not just in local government, but in the Assembly
“A whole system review is preferable to messing around in the margins and avoiding customer-focused, substantial change. NILGA will oppose any council reform which doesn’t see wider reform too.
“It’s the sum of the parts, after all.’’
Mr Attwood said he agreed that ratepayers and taxpayers should be no worse off as a result of public service transformation.
But he added: “The contention by Sean McPeake/ NILGA that council reform will be opposed ‘without wider reform’ appears to be laying down a pre-condition. Council reform is needed. Wider reform may be needed. But the one cannot wait on the other.
“I hope NILGA and Sean are not creating new hurdles to delay or put in doubt the continuing need to move forward decisively on council reform.”
The SDLP minister, whose environment portfolio includes local government, has had bids for additional funding rebuffed by Executive colleagues in the last year, but has submitted another for the January spending round. Mr Attwood said he had no doubt councils have the power to borrow money to finance the reforms.
“There is no doubt that councils have both the power and the capacity to do so. So let there be no new doubts about reform or council powers to borrow,’’ he said. “People need to get on with the work, ensure reform is done and done right in the interest of ratepayers.”
Story so far
Executive Minister Alex Attwood is pushing ahead with the merger of the current 26 councils into 11 — even though he personally backs a reduction to 15. The 15 model is also supported by Ulster Unionists but DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance ministers joined forces to agree on 11, with elections due to take place in May 2014. Work on the detail of the amalgamations is building, however, with many issues still to be worked out. Mr Attwood also instituted a review of the estimated costs of the mergers, which are expected to bring longterm savings.
Too late for turning, so get on with the job
By Alex Attwood
Local government is undertaking a massive structural change. The reform programme is bearing down on us and we all need to shape up and get the job done.
Council leaders must acknowledge that the point of no return has long passed.
I accept that local government reform does need clear and precise support and I am providing that through the political and implementation structures that I have set up and in my discussions with the Executive to obtain funding for transition costs and rates convergence. Therefore, clear signs from me that reform is going forward are no longer needed.
I am managing the process and refining the timetable with the Department, where necessary. There is time to adjust timescales in order to carry out further work. For example, I have decided to slightly delay the introduction of the Local Government (Reorganisation) Bill into the Assembly until early 2013 to enable further engagement with the local government sector on complex finance and human resource issues. However, I am content that those areas of the programme under my control are progressing on schedule.
I know that uncertainty breeds anxiety for all the people affected by reform as well as getting in the way of proper business planning. For me the case for creating certainty is therefore a compelling one and I have taken great pains to emphasise it repeatedly while engaging Executive colleagues on the package of functions to transfer with staff to the new councils.
I recently put a further paper to the Executive urging them to make a clear decision soon and to transfer as strong a package as possible. At this stage it is anticipated that urban regeneration and local economic development will be part of the package.
Alex Attwood is Environment Minister whose responsibilities include local government