'Poorer' councils to fight £18m grant cut in Northern Ireland
Fears are growing that an £18 million Stormont grant that helps poorer councils maintain vital services is facing drastic cuts and will eventually be axed.
The cutbacks could lead to community centres, swimming pools and leisure centres closing, once councillor has said.
Senior officers in the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council are so worried that they are planning to join forces with other less well-off councils to campaign for the grant's protection.
The £18.3m rates support grant (RSG) has already been cut by £732,000 due to budgetary pressures at Stormont.
Ulster Unionist councillor Richard Holmes said that the political limbo caused by the failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein to reach a deal was harming communities.
"While Arlene and Michelle sit on their hands in Stormont comparing the size of their mandates, councils are seeing their rate support grants cut. This is having a real impact on households and council services," he said.
"If the RSG is significantly cut, or even abolished, less well-off councils across Northern Ireland will be facing tough choices."
The UUP councillor said that many plans to improve local services may have to be shelved.
"Our council is currently considering redevelopment plans for the ageing Coleraine leisure centre and also developing facilities in Ballycastle, which doesn't even have a swimming pool.
"Those proposals may well have to be abandoned if the RSG is cut further," he added.
The RSG is an essential source of funding for poorer councils. It bridges the gap between their rates income and the money they need to maintain an equal level of service with wealthier councils.
Causeway Coast and Glens has already lost £32,000 of its RSG. But council chiefs fear that far greater cuts lie ahead with the entire £18m grant, which assists seven councils across Northern Ireland, possibly being abolished.
In an internal document seen by this newspaper, a senior council officer says: "There is serious concern that this grant will be reduced further in subsequent years and potentially removed in entirety.
"Even with the original £18.3m of rates support grant, less wealthy councils still need to raise a higher rates poundage to maintain parity of service provision with more wealthy councils..."
Those who rely on it apart from Causeway Coast and Glens (£2.4m) are Derry and Strabane (£3.9m); Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon (£3.7m); Mid-Ulster (£3m); Newry, Mourne and Down (£2.6m); Fermanagh and Omagh (£1.5m), and Mid and East Antrim (£1.2m). In their proposal, senior Causeway Coast council officers say: "It is vital that the rates support grant is restored to its original level of £18.3m and should be ring-fenced and protected from further cuts in future years.
"It is considered that these arguments must be raised with central government as a matter of priority. In addition, there are a number of other less wealthy councils who receive significant rates support grants, who have been significantly affected by these cuts, and also face significant financial risk should further cuts be applied."
Forming "a joint delegation with other affected councils" to meet Stormont officials is suggested in the document.
Mr Holmes said he fully supported councils joining forces to fight the cuts.
"The jungle-like state of our hedgerows and pavements are a stark reminder of the failure of the two big parties to even keep the grass cut," he said.
"Do we need to see rat-infested rubbish piled up in the streets before they will address the real needs of this country?"
A Department for Communities spokeswoman last night said it "has to operate within an indicative budget".
"In line with the department's 4% budget reduction for 2017/18, councils were notified that their rates support grant allocations had been reduced by 4% from £18.3m in 2016/17 to £17,568,000 in 2017/18.
"A similar reduction of 4% in budgets for 2017/18 was also applied across public bodies financed by the Department."