Senior local government sources are warning a dramatic shake-up of Northern Ireland’s councils will not go ahead next year.
Some council officers have been advised to make a “working assumption” the plan to reduce the current 26 authorities to 11 will not happen as planned next year.
The next election in the province next May is increasingly likely to be held on the basis of the present 26 councils.
If so, it will be the most serious blow to the almost decade-old review of public administration (RPA), already hit by repeated delays to the new Education and Skills Authority.
Senior staff in some councils expecting to retire in the next few months as the top positions on the new merged authorities are squeezed are being asked to stay on, on a month-by-month basis.
And a document circulating in the new authority to be formed by the Craigavon, Banbridge and Armagh councils refers to the “strong possibility that RPA will be delayed until 2015”.
The paper concludes: “... it is more realistic to proceed with the assumption of a four or five-year postponement.”
The Department of the Environment, which is overseeing the revamp, said it had “no knowledge” of the document. But a spokeswoman for Craigavon council confirmed its existence while downplaying its significance.
At the heart of the delay is a dispute over council boundaries, with DoE Minister Edwin Poots opposed to Boundary Commission proposals for Dunmurry to go into the new Belfast authority, which Sinn Fein supports.
Despite talks also involving Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein since the Hillsborough Agreement in February, a resolution has not been achieved and the Northern Ireland Office, which has overall responsibility for elections, has warned time is running out.
However, a senior source told the Belfast Telegraph: “Without decisions from Stormont the elections to the proposed 11 councils in May 2011 cannot take place.
“The basis for those elections — namely the delineation of the local government District Electoral Areas (DEAs) — cannot go ahead until the NI Executive approves the district and ward boundaries for the proposed 11 councils.
“The DEAs are an amalgamation of five, six or seven wards. Those wards are based on the |recommendations of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner as approved by the Executive and the Assembly — with or without modification.
“The Executive have not yet agreed the district or ward boundaries.
“Until the districts and wards are approved by the Executive/Assembly the DEAs cannot be delineated. Until the DEAs are in place elections to the 11 council model cannot take place. The default position is elections to the existing 26 councils.” Mr Poot’s department declined to comment last night.
But the meetings between the parties were described as “a constructive stock taking exercise” and a statement added: “More are to follow. The detail of these discussions is confidential.”