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Merging our councils will save £320m, says Mark H Durkan

by noel mcadam

The shake-up of Northern Ireland's 26 local authorities into 11 new 'super councils' should save the public purse more than £300m over the next quarter of a century, the Assembly has heard.

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan quoted figures from a report by consultants PriceWaterHouseCoopers which suggested that while the cost of reform would be £118m over the first five years, savings of £438m could be achieved over a 25 year period.

But the SDLP Minister added: "It is not just about cutting costs and doing things more efficiently; local government reform is about doing things better and bringing power closer to people."

Mr Durkan gave a costs breakdown at Question Time yesterday, which included £5.2m for the new councils during their first year in 'shadow' mode.

They will also get £4m to centralise IT systems; £3.5m for councillors' severance pay; £3m for training; £1m for managing reforms and an additional £30m to help cushion rates rises in some areas. In addition, other areas – such as staff severance – will cost a further £33m over the next four years.

Ulster Unionist Michael McGimpsey asked: "Given the large investment that is going into reform, is the Minister confident that, when they are established, councils will have the necessary resources available to them? Will he ensure that normal council business will not suffer?"

Mr Durkan replied: "The reform of local government is not just about doing things differently; it is about doing things better. I assure the Member that I am committed to ensuring that councils are equipped to do things better and to ensuring that my Department and this Assembly are equipped to ensure that councils are doing things better as well."

He confirmed to Sinn Fein's Ian Milne that the new councils will be allowed to borrow, after the issue was raised by the 11 statutory transition committees which are also overseeing the changes.

"I am determined that we do everything that we can to make this as easy as possible for the councils," Mr Durkan added.

And he confirmed to Sinn Fein's Ian Milne that the new councils will be allowed to borrow, after the issue was raised by the 11 statutory transition committees which are also overseeing the changes.

The Assembly also heard that an Invest NI official who wants to stand for election to the new councils has been advised not to.

NI21 leader Basil McCrea said the employee had told his superiors in Invest NI who had warned him it would lead to "all sorts of conflict of interest".

Mr McCrea added: "Surely that is not a good idea, given that his role does not in any way impinge on local government and would be below the threshold of what is proscribed?"

Invest NI said it could not comment on individual cases. It added however, that it expects all members of staff to adhere to the relevant election guidance applicable to the conduct of public servants.

FACTFILE

Merging Northern Ireland's 26 councils into 11 will mean spending:

e £30m on helping cushion rates hikes;

e £33m on staff severance payouts and a services revamp;

e £5.2m to cover the first year of 11 'shadow' councils;

e £4m for IT systems convergence;

e £3.5m for councillors' severance pay.

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