Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Will Ruane freeze out councillors?

Northern Ireland councillors could lose out on decades of input and control of schools and colleges, it has been confirmed.

For Education Minister Caitriona Ruane may decide the province's new single education authority, which is to replace the Area Boards, will not include councillors.

A Department of Education spokesman said no decision is imminent but it will have to be made in the coming months with the authority due to be up and running by this time next year.

At present more than 70 councillors are represented on the Belfast, North East, Southern, South East and Western Education Boards. The South Eastern Board has been stood down now for almost two years.

Local councillors have had representation on the Boards, as well as school and college governors, since the early 1970s under the McCrory reforms.

Ms Ruane is considering whether youth services, provided by the five Boards, should shift under council control.

The Minister is attempting to weigh up the arguments for increased control of youth services against the advantage of remaining within the general education service, the spokesman added.

The latest potential losses and gains in terms of future functions for councillors are continuing to emerge as their umbrella organisation, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), said it was disappointed by the "limited" extent of the transfer of powers.

Nonetheless, NILGA said it did not underestimate the challenges which lie ahead in shrinking the present 26 local councils to 11, to be operational by 2011.

And the organisation also warned it will be "imperative" to ensure that local Government staff are fully informed about the potential implications for them.

Legislation to establish the Education and Skills Authority as a regional body, responsible to the Minister and Assembly, is being drafted.

Environment Minister Arlene Foster, whose portfolio includes local Government, said Ms Ruane "is currently considering whether or not to provide for reserved places on the Board of the Authority for elected members of district councils".

One issue is that the 11 councils, whose precise areas will be subject to a new Boundaries Commission, will not cover the same areas as the new education and health bodies under the review of public administration.

NILGA, meanwhile, said: "Now that decisions have finally been made, [our] members can now proceed with the significant task of modernising the local Government sector.

"There will be a need throughout the process for significant co-operation between councils and between local and central Government..."

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