Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Stormont will hand over more powers to new super-councils

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After years of delay, the Executive has at last confirmed that councillors will be handed new powers currently held by Stormont.

Once the current 26 councils are shrunk to 11, the new local authorities will take over responsibility for local planning, housing repairs and demolition.

The future shape of local government has finally emerged following agreement between Executive ministers about the package of functions which will switch to town halls in two years.

It marks the final go-ahead for the biggest shake-up of councils in 40 years in an ambitious move to merge public bodies and enhance their powers at the same time.

Environment Minister Alex Attwood (below) told MLAs the project – designed to save the public purse an estimated £400m over the next 25 years – is now "well past the point of no return".

He told the Assembly: "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get this done, get it done right and done on time."

The new functions also include:

• Urban regeneration.

• Neighbourhood renewal.

• Off-street parking (apart from park and ride).

• Small-scale tourism development.

• Local business development and advice.

• Authority to draw up lists of architectural or historical buildings.

Despite misgivings among many councillors – who fear the task is too huge to complete within the timetable set out – Mr Attwood said the plan to have the 11 new councils ready to go by April 2015 is in place. But the package of powers is less than originally envisaged when the Executive first drew up firm proposals in 2008.

As a result, Mr Attwood announced a review of council functions, with a view to adding more to the package, in April 2016, exactly a year after the new councils go 'live'.

Alliance MLA Anna Lo, chair of the Stormont committee monitoring the proposals, said there was a lack of detail in the announcement and questioned whether the transfer could be carried out in time. The DUP's Simon Hamilton said, however, it represented a unique opportunity for councils to shape their own areas.

Sinn Fein's Phil Flanagan questioned whether the package would prove strong enough for the new councils to make a difference on the ground.

Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott asked whether Mr Attwood had a plan put in place to ensure that local ratepayers do not end up paying the price in higher rates bills to pay for the transfer of functions.

The Environment Minister said he had no doubt arguments among councillors would endure but he had detected a "sea change" in attitudes to the reforms in recent months.

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