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New probe into cost of cutting local councils from 26 to 11

By Noel McAdam

Environment Minister Alex Attwood is to order a new probe into the cost of re-organising local government — even though the Executive has already agreed on the way forward.

The minister favours squeezing the present 26 councils into 15, but is faced with having to implement the Executive’s decision to form 11.

Yet in an apparent further challenge to First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, the SDLP minister is set to initiate a new ‘economic appraisal’ of the reforms — just two years after the last official estimate.

He said a new appraisal was necessary in the short-term because the realities of the long-delayed shake-up are “so complex, difficult and multi-layered”.

Mr Attwood said he “regretted” the decision the Executive has taken and admitted the argument “might escalate as people see the scale of what has to happen” at council level.

“I have told them (Robinson and McGuinness) I will continue to hold to my position (on 15) because it is good government and good politics and my obligation as minister is to give the best advice I can,” he added.

The council’s umbrella body, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (Nilga), confirmed being told about the new probe ahead of Mr Attwood’s appearance last week before the Stormont committee which monitors his department.

At the meeting Mr Attwood said proposals drawn up by the councils themselves could save £570m over the next 25 years — significantly higher than the Executive’s projected savings to the public over the same period of £420m.

A Nilga statement said DoE officials had informed it “that a new economic appraisal would be required”.

It added: “The last economic appraisal for local government reform was undertaken in 2009. On the basis that this appraisal is now out of date, an up to date appraisal will be carried out to establish the costs of local government reform.”

Mr Attwood also argued shifting to 15 rather than 11 would prove “less disruptive” and suggested people have still to “get their minds round” the scale of the change and issues including council assets and liabilities and personnel changes.

DUP MLA Peter Weir, a former Nilga president, said Mr Atwood is “fully aware that certainty already exists in relation to the number of councils in the new local government scenario”.

“The Executive decided, conclusively, on November 16, that there will be 11 councils. Therefore the matter has been decided and one way or other there will be 11 councils regardless of what the minister might have hoped for.”background

The First Ministers are at apparent loggerheads over a massive shake-up of Northern Ireland’s councils with Environment Minister Alex Attwood. With Alliance support, the DUP and Sinn Fein secured Executive agreement on a revamp to form 11 councils from the current 26, but Mr Attwood, who must implement the plan, favours 15. There have been conflicting claims over how much the local government re-organisation will cost — and eventually save — taxpayers.

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