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Sinn Fein and DUP do deal to slash the number of district councils in half by 2015

By Noel McAdam

The DUP and Sinn Fein have finally delivered a draft Programme for Government including a deal which should see elections for 11 new councils in 2014.

First Minister Peter Robinson confirmed yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph report that ministers have been urged to come up with detailed departmental proposals showing more “ambition and imagination” for a new Programme for Government (PfG).

As this newspaper had revealed, a draft document was unveiled at yesterday’s Stormont Executive meeting. Mr Robinson and acting Deputy First Minister John O’Dowd indicated a new PfG document could now be finalised within weeks.

They also confirmed that following a deal between their parties they will now send a paper to the SDLP Environment Minister Alex Attwood outlining their plan for local government, with Mr Robinson cautioning against any expectation of early savings arising from the new agreement — reached in principle 18 months ago — to revamp the current 26 local authorities into 11.

But Mr Attwood last night said: “Ministerial responsibility under the law falls to me. I will look at the understanding which Peter and John have reached. They have not gone into detail with me, and as minister I will make the judgment on the model for local government, including numbers, and the right way we can go about getting it organised.”

The Belfast Telegraph understands the DUP/Sinn Fein deal envisages elections to the 11 new councils in 2014, but with the present 26, which were re-elected in May this year, continuing until 2015.

This would mean the new authorities — which have been calculated as saving more than £420m over the next 25 years — will exist in ‘shadow’ form for a year.

“We have reached agreement based around the 11 council model and should see some power going to local government. With a reduced number of councils that should provide us with economies of scale in the long-term,” Mr Robinson said.

“This puts to rest an issue that has dogged us for a very long time, but there will be some costs attached to the earlier part of this.”

Mr O’Dowd, standing in for Martin McGuinness who is running in the Irish Presidential elections, said the arrangement between the two parties would provide more effective local administration with councils that could serve their respective communities better.

On the Programme for Government issue, ministers have been asked to review their goals and targets. Yesterday’s paper will also be sent to Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott and SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie, after which the First and Deputy First Ministers’ Office will look at all the responses “fairly quickly thereafter”, said Mr Robinson.

But the finalisation of a PfG — after heavy criticism from the smaller parties in the Assembly this week — will now take place without a final decision on the reduction of corporation tax, on which a verdict is not expected until early November.

Meanwhile, progress was also reported at yesterday’s meeting on the issue of an independent inquiry being set up to investigate whether children were mistreated in Catholic institutions in Northern Ireland. Details are not being unveiled until Junior Ministers Jonathan Bell and Martina Anderson have met with victims and survivors groups. A special Executive meeting on the issue has been pencilled in for next week.

Ministers also agreed to a consultation document on the Social Investment Fund, announced earlier this year, aimed at hard-pressed interface communities. Around £80m has been earmarked over a four-year period.

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