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Northern Ireland councils in debt to tune of £500m as some ratepayers face raft of cuts to services

Northern Ireland's local councils are more than £500m in debt, it can be revealed.

More than half ­- six of the 11 - have arrears of £50m or more.

The figures emerged after one council, Causeway Coast and Glens, this week announced a range of cost-cutting proposals after it announced that the authority was £68.7m in the red.

Analysis of each of the 11 councils' finances, taken from accounts for the 2018/19 financial year, shows that every one was in debt as of last April.

It is common for councils to manage a level of debt, but there have been warnings they need to be mindful of the long-term consequences of mismanaged finances.

On Thursday Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council voted through a domestic rate increase of 7.65% to help tackle its bill, which now stands at £68.7m.

The council also announced a series of cuts to services, including the Portrush airshow losing its £240,000 grant support and the closure of Waterworld, while car parking charges are also set to be introduced at locations across the borough.

It is also considering moving bin collections from fortnightly to monthly, saving around £400,000.

Analysis by this newspaper reveals that, in total, our local councils were £527m in debt last April.

The council with the highest debt was Ards and North Down Borough Council, where borrowings reached £78.9m.

The total amount of debt for each council, from highest to lowest, as of last April was:

  • Ards and North Down Borough Council: £78.9m
  • Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council: £71.1m
  • Newry, Mourne and Down District Council: £69.8m
  • Belfast City Council: £62.9m
  • Mid and East Antrim Borough Council: £62.8m
  • Derry City and Strabane District Council: £50.2m
  • Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council: £49.7m
  • Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council: £40.7m
  • Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council: £27m
  • Fermanagh and Omagh District Council: £7.2m
  • Mid Ulster District Council: £6.4m

Independent councillor Padraig McShane said councils needed to manage their debt carefully.

"I would encourage other councils to ensure their debt is manageable and they're not crucifying ratepayers," he said.

DUP councillor Philip Anderson, who sits on Causeway Coast and Glens Council, said one of the big lessons other councils can take from his authority's monetary problems is to avoid keeping the rates low to please the electorate.

"It's not always a good idea," he said. "Without blaming the councillors that were there in the past, the chief executive at that time said that he could cover the 0% rate so it's something that has to be looked at.

"That has to be taken into consideration as the council has not been put under stress to try and provide that 0% rate."

He added that the bill has come about because of the debts inherited from the four legacy councils that now make up Causeway Coast and Glens, but a "strategic and sensible plan" was needed to get the debt down.

SDLP councillor Helena Dallat O'Driscoll raised concerns over the council's monetary reserves, which she says have been depleted by 52% in two years.

"We are being advised that our only option is to build them back up," she said.

"They are, at present, effectively useless and we will be in this worryingly precarious position for years to come."

Ms Dallat-O'Driscoll said that all councils must put together a 10 year masterplan to include visionary projects that will enhance council areas and attract investors and visitors.

"This financial crisis isn't just about the image of the council it is about the added debt burden now imposed upon the ratepayer for no good reason other than mismanagement," she added.

The Northern Ireland Local Government Association said council debts, reserves and incomes are vital matters for each council, who are "ultimately responsible to their electorate". It said they were subject to rigorous auditing processes.

"Many measures are in place and further measures being explored to consolidate debt, to reduce borrowing and payback and to maximise the benefit of councils being 'AAA' rated bodies balanced against investing in communities in a transparent and accountable way," a spokesperson said.

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