Belfast Telegraph

Ease ratepayers' burden plea after £20m Belfast City Hall surplus cash pot revealed

By Adrian Rutherford

Councils across Northern Ireland are sitting on stockpiles of cash now totalling more than £85m it can be revealed.

In some cases their reserves have tripled over the past four years.

Belfast City Council, Northern Ireland's biggest local authority, is sitting on a £20m cash pile, newly released figures show.

Its general fund reserve at the end of the 2012/13 financial year was £20,614,051, having jumped from £6,215,384 in 2010.

It has prompted calls for councils to consider using some of their surplus finances to subsidise a cut in rates.

Ulster Unionist MLA Michael Copeland said he would like to see some of the extra cash used to help hard-pressed ratepayers.

"Some councils do appear to be accruing vastly increased reserves over a period of time when ratepayers have endured the terrible effects of a recession," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Certainly, anything that leads to a reduction in the rates burden for businesses, and more particularly citizens who are very hard pressed, has to be considered."

Mr Copeland, a former Castlereagh councillor, acknowledged there may be sound reasons for councils holding on to extra cash.

"There may well be some logical reasons for this situation but the jump in Belfast from £6m to £20m seems to be extraordinary," he added.

"It's very hard to predict financial requirements in terms of future spend.

"However, councils should not charge more than they need to discharge the services which they provide."

Under the Prudential Code, introduced after the Local Government Finance Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, councils must ensure their budgets include sufficient reserves to cover unidentified risks.

The Northern Ireland Local Government Association (Nilga), the umbrella body for councils here, said councils were being prudent.

Its president, Arnold Hatch, said: "Each council is required under the Prudential Code to maintain a level of reserves.

"There could be a requirement to pay for redundancies or back pay negotiated centrally by trade unions.

"If there is a shortfall from central Government with the transfer of functions to the new councils, that money could well be required.

"I don't see councils hoarding money. If they were hoarding over the required amount under the Prudential Code then the local government auditor would be looking at it."

Details of councils' cash reserves for the last four years were released by Environment Minister Mark H Durkan following an Assembly question from Mr Copeland. In the most recent year, ending March 31, 2013, the 26 councils held surplus funds totalling £85,960,491.

That total has risen 63% from the 2009/10 total of £52,422,244.

In the last year, 22 of the 26 councils had cash surpluses running to more than £1m, with Belfast having the highest reserves.

There are 81,026 ratepayers in the Belfast City Council area, meaning its £20,614,051 reserve is equivalent to around £250 per person.

Lisburn City Council's cash pile sits at £10,059,123, having risen from £4,096,368 four years earlier.

The third highest surplus – some £7,264,119 – is held by Craigavon Borough Council.

Moyle District Council – Northern Ireland's smallest local authority – also has the smallest cash reserve, totalling just over £757,000.

While some councils' reserves have jumped significantly, eight of the 26 local authorities saw their cash piles fall between 2010 and 2013.

Belfast Telegraph


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