Belfast Telegraph

Super councils in fresh glitch over appointment of top jobs

BY NOEL MCADAM

The appointment of chief executives to Northern Ireland's new 'super councils' is facing further delay, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

And fears are growing that some of the 11 local authorities could be elected next year without chief officers in place.

Council bodies who had expected to appoint chief executives for the 11 councils by December have now been told that interviews will not even start until January at the earliest.

The reason is a consultation just launched by the Local Government Staff Commission into the procedures for the appointments to the £60,000-plus posts.

But both the commission and the Stormont department which is steering the shrinkage of the province's current 26 councils into 11 are confident the timetable can be kept on track. However, the appointment of senior officers is one issue on which the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) has been urgently asking the Department of the Environment for advice.

NILGA's senior officers are meeting today to discuss the likely impact of the new consultation exercise – which is only one potential hurdle over which they are sounding alarm bells.

Other issues include financial guidance for the new statutory bodies, which are overseeing the transition between the present 26 and the new councils, and setting up a formal Political Partnership Panel between Stormont and local government.

Ahead of today's meeting, NILGA president Sean McPeake  said: "There is so much to be done in a short space of time and deadlines seem to be slipping all the time. I don't want to be over-critical but there is a growing concern that we are going to end up rushing to the finish line, and it is those of us in local government who will have to pick up the pieces."

Representatives from the 11 transition committees also plan a special summit meeting next week to examine the key issues and assess "the best way forward".

Staff commission chief executive Adrian Kerr said the consultation exercise is important to ensure appointments comply with codes of employment and best practice. But a proposal that the appointments of council chiefs must be ratified by a two-thirds majority of the committees has caused concern.

"We have been moving in the direction of smaller panels in recent years and this flies in the face of that and what we regard as good practice," Mr Kerr said.

A statement from the department said the consultation document focused on "a limited number of specific areas" and has been factored into the agreed timeline for the recruitment process.

Explaining the rationale behind the two-thirds majority proposal, department permanent secretary Ian Maye said: "The department felt that there was a need, in the absence of the new arrangements for governance to be brought forward in the Local Government Bill and, in the absence of those protections, to build in some additional protection by way of a higher level of majority required."

FACTFILE

Elections to Northern Ireland's 11 new councils are due to take place next May.

They are:

* Belfast

* Antrim/Newtownabbey

* Armagh/Banbridge and Craigavon

* Causeway Coast and Glens Borough of Ballymoney, the Borough of Coleraine, the Borough of Limavady and District of Moyle

* Derry/Strabane

* Fermanagh/Omagh

* Lisburn/Castlereagh

* Mid/East Antrim

* Mid Ulster – Magherafelt, Cookstown, and Dungannon/South Tyrone

* Newry, Mourne and Down

* North Down/Ards.

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