Stormont Minister Edwin Poots has been accused of trying to deliberately thwart the shake-up of local government — and to blame councils for the collapse.
As Town Hall anger grows over councils being asked to stump up the full £118m cost of shrinking the current 26 authorities to 11, the head of the local government umbrella body said it amounted to an “exit strategy” by the minister.
His attack came as council chiefs prepared to meet today to draw up a response to Mr Poots’ demand — although his letter still has to be discussed in most council chambers.
Chief executives are meeting with the five main political parties represented on the NI Local Government Association (NILGA) and members of the Strategic Leadership Board on local government.
The president of NILGA, John Matthews, said: “The minister is being deliberately provocative. It defies imagination. He is asking the councils to do something, knowing they will have to say ‘no’ so he can say the whole project cannot go ahead — and blame the councils. It is an exit strategy.
“And I believe it is over the boundaries dispute. The minister just did not want Dunmurry to go into Belfast. A lot of good work has been done over recent months and it is all being jeopardised because the minsiter is being deliberately obstructive.”
However, Mr Poots responded that the £118m estimated costs over five years for the Local Government Reform Programme have only been known since October of 2009, when consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers issued their economic appraisal, which concluded a corresponding £438m of savings could be made over 25 years.
In a statement released to the Belfast Telegraph, he said: “That will accrue solely to councils.
“Local government disagreed with the final report and were asked by me to demonstrate that equivalent figures could be produced through efficiencies and collaboration. Local government have yet to finalise their work on this.
“Whatever the resultant set of projected costs and savings, local government have already done a lot of constructive work and could examine a range of funding mechanisms, for instance, through loans, which should potentially result in no impact on ratepayers, while councils would still accrue the savings projected.”
Mr Matthews’ attack came as all parties represented on NILGA prepared to meet today along with council chief executives and representatives of the local government Strategic Leadership Board (SLB).
It is likely to prepare a definitive response to Mr Poot’s letter, which will probably be made public, although further meetings are planned later this week.
As the Belfast Telegraph revealed last month, senior officials working on the already long-delayed Review of Public Administration (RPA) believed the current timetable — for reducing the present 26 councils to 11, with elections (already delayed by the Northern Ireland Office for a year) scheduled for May of next year — is no longer feasible.
But, despite an urgent request from new NIO minister Hugo Swire for a decision by the end of May, the Executive last Thursday put off a final decision and asked Mr Poots to find out whether councils can find the full monies themselves.
Local government chiefs to prepare response
Local government chiefs meet today to decide whether councils could find the £118m asked for by Executive Minister Edwin Poots to fund reforms.
But they do not have the authority to reach a collective decision, since the present 26 councils have not had time to discuss the “bolt from the blue” request.
Mr Poots’ letter came on a Bank Holiday weekend, so many councils’ regular Monday meetings were off.
Instead a number of them, including Mr Poots’ own council in Lisburn, are agreeing special sessions within the next couple of days.
But for many councils, issues first go on the agenda of key committees before being ratified later at a full council meeting. After several months of negotiations on how the project might be funded, Mr Poots has given councils just a week to respond following last Thursday’s Executive meeting.