Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Power to the councils: how Stormont plans handover

Ministers link up with bodies in bid to monitor transfer of functions

A new 'partnership panel' is to be set up linking Stormont ministers directly with the 11 new councils being elected this week.

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan will attend with other ministers on an 'ad-hoc' basis along with representatives from all of the new 11 super councils.

At present the plan is for it to meet every six months but Mr Durkan – whose portfolio includes local government – hopes it will be more often.

The panel will help oversee and monitor the transfer of a range of functions from the Assembly to the new merged authorities.

But Alliance's Anna Lo, who chairs the Assembly committee overseeing local government, has voiced concern that the panel will mirror the present Executive dominated by the DUP and Sinn Fein and resulting in stalemate. "Given that each council is allowed to send its own representative, it is quite likely that the panel will be dominated by the two major parties," she said.

And Colum Eastwood from Mr Durkan's party, the SDLP, said there are fears among some in local government that the panel will become a "talking shop".

Mr Durkan insisted, however: "The panel is not a decision-making body, but under my chairmanship I intend that it will have a very productive role and not just be a talking shop".

The minister stressed its members must "embrace an approach based on openness, truth and honesty, with shared goals and values.

They "must move from parochial thinking on operations and create a foundation for strategic thinking on a regional basis".

"We also need collective thinking and practical input around the table, otherwise transformation projects like community planning will simply not work."

And he told Mrs Lo in the Assembly that all five Executive parties, also including Ulster Unionists, were likely to be represented on the panel.

But he also added that he did not want to pre-determine how each council will decide to appoint their representatives for the panel.

The SDLP sought to give reassurances that the new councils would not end up passing on an estimated £33m in transition costs to ratepayers.

Mr Durkan said: "Over recent months, senior local government officers have undertaken a detailed financial assessment for costs that are unavoidable and are not covered by the £47.8 million funding package provided by the Executive.

"A total upper limit for those costs likely to be incurred during the transition period, excluding the Executive funding package, has been estimated at £33m over the 2014-18 period."

He also added: "Naturally, the final costs will be dependent on decisions that are for the new councils to make, including their structure, how best to manage their assets and estate, and how quickly they can start to realise further savings through joint working.

"I ask that local government considers the impact of the choices it makes on ratepayers, and I encourage councils to be ambitious in their approach to joint working."

But Ulster Unionist MLA Sandra Overend said the figures were "quite concerning" and asked if the minister accepted "that many councils simply do not have the reserves or the room to pay for those costs without passing them on to their residents via an increase in rates?"

Mr Durkan replied: "It is a concern that has been raised with me by representatives of local government – though not all representatives of local government, I might add – over the past number of months.

"It is anticipated and, indeed, fully expected that the reform of local government will yield huge savings, including to local government.

"However, I point to the fact that, through the Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, we have sought and gained permission from the Treasury that those costs can now be capitalised.

"Therefore, that should facilitate and make easy any borrowing that local government might need in order to meet the costs."

We're set to elect fewer councillors with more responsibilities 

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