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Minister: time to rethink plans for councils shake-up

By Noel McAdam

Stormont ministers are set for a new confrontation over the future of local government — with millions of pounds of public purse savings at stake.

The potential latest spat comes after Environment Minister Alex Attwood said the plans to reshape the current 26 councils into 11 should be re-examined.

He has suggested there is a strong case for reducing the present number of authorities to 15.

Mr Attwood’s call flies in the face of a deal between the two largest Executive parties — the DUP and Sinn Fein — which fell through last year, but is designed to achieve £420m in savings over 25 years.

SDLP minister Attwood argues there are two main reasons for “stepping back”; the reduction of the 18 Westminster constituencies to 16 and the councils’ own initiative aimed at achieving savings through greater sharing — the Improvement, Collaboration and Efficiency (ICE) programme.

He denied his suggestion ahead of tomorrow’s Executive meeting will stir up new confusion.

First Minister Peter Robinson and acting Deputy First Minister John O’Dowd announced a fortnight ago their two parties had hammered out an agreement which would see elections to 11 new ‘shadow’ councils in 2014.

Mr Attwood told the Belfast Telegraph: “This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to reconfigure local government. Ratepayers and the public will not forgive us if we get this wrong.”

The DUP’s Peter Weir described Mr Attwood’s approach as “deeply disappointing”.

“The issue should not be used as a political football and kicked as and when leadership elections are taking place.

“I would urge Mr Attwood to stop stalling or the Executive will have to consider other ways of bringing this reform forward.”

Story so far

Elections to 11 new councils — formed from the present 26 — are expected in May 2014. This the result of a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein announced a fortnight ago, after a more than two-year stalemate. Now the minister who will have to implement the shake-up, the SDLP’s Alex Attwood, has said the 11-council model should be re-examined.

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