New councils in Northern Ireland are left without key powers by Stormont
A storm over Northern Ireland's new super councils has erupted after it emerged powers to regenerate their local communities are to be delayed by a year.
The 11 authorities, merged from the current 26, are due to go live next April but will not now have the legal authority transferred from Stormont until April 2016.
Responsibility for regeneration will allow councils to boost deteriorating town and village centres and support community groups.
But Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey came under fire yesterday after writing to council chief executives amid fears the Assembly's timetable for transferring functions from Stormont departments to town halls was running into difficulties.
The councils are also due to be given new responsibilities including planning and off-street car parking, but the power shift requires detailed legislation.
Mr Storey insisted he had the support of the Executive for his decision, but was accused of a U-turn and criticised for issuing a statement rather than facing MLAs in the Assembly.
Mr Storey, who replaced Nelson McCausland in a party reshuffle in September, said: "The aim of this fundamental reform programme is to transform local government. It is not just about doing things differently; it is about doing things better."
But he said there had been concerns about the transfer of functions from the Housing Executive given a commitment to review the fitness of the housing stock, and will now bring forward a new Bill. "Unfortunately, the timetable for passage of the Bill through the Assembly means that I cannot be certain that the legislation would become law in time for an April 2015 transfer."
Ulster Unionist MLA Sandra Overend called the decision a "deplorable U-turn" and claimed it was the result of further DUP and Sinn Fein "spats" on the Executive.
"Not only will ratepayers be left paying for these so-called reforms for years to come out of their own pockets, but now local representatives aren't even being given the full list powers as first promised. I fear that this is only the first of major failings to come," she said.
Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said he was shocked by the repeated delays.
"This is not the first time that a major piece of public sector reform has been delayed. For too many issues, it can take months or even years for the DUP and Sinn Fein to finally reach agreement.
"This transfer of functions was meant to form a key part of the overall reform of local government.
"This delay will mean that the new councils will not have some key powers when they assume authority in April 2015.
"We are now into the eighth year of the Assembly; our institutions should have developed enough maturity by now to ensure that major pieces of legislation such as this are debated and agreed upon in a timely manner."