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£22m set aside to pay off top council workers

By Noel McAdam

More than £22m has been set aside to pay off senior council staff, it can be revealed.

Scores of top-level town hall officials are facing redundancy after Northern Ireland's 26 councils were reduced to 11.

The £22.4m nest egg will fund severance packages for management figures, many with decades of experience in local government.

The total is more than £4m higher than an initial estimate by consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers in 2009 and will be paid by local councils.

However, Mark H Durkan's Department of the Environment (DoE) – which is responsible for local government – said that was an upper limit.

And it will be up to the recently-elected 11 new councils, now operating in shadow form alongside the existing 26, to decide how many officials at senior levels they will get rid of. The long-delayed town hall shake-up, which goes live next April, means only 11 chief executives will be needed rather than the current 26. Through an open competition, the 11 chief executives of the new councils have already been appointed – and seven of them were chief executives in the former 26.

"In these cases, we understand the majority of councils have appointed someone internally to act up to the chief executive post in the legacy council," the DoE said. "These decisions, however, have been operational matters for the councils, rather than the department."

Now staff positions in other senior levels will also be squeezed ahead of the switch-over between the existing structure and its replacement in nine months.

"The number of council staff 'at risk' (is) an issue for the councils to determine," a statement from DoE said.

"However, please note that £22.4m figure is an upper limit."

In most cases the old councils – which the DoE refers to as 'legacy' councils – have appointed staff to act up until the new councils take up the reins in April. The 'at risk' posts are generally senior management positions in the levels immediately below the chief executive.

The umbrella body for councils, the NI Local Government Association (NILGA), says the clear-out of senior officials is an essential part of the councils shake-up.

NILGA president Arnold Hatch said: "The numbers affected in councils will be entirely dependent upon the decisions reached in each council regarding staffing numbers and structures.

"These numbers will only become definitive once those decisions are made in the coming months by the shadow councils and after March 2015 by councils as new, corporate bodies.

"The cost estimates were based on all of the 'at risk' posts identified and these are (generally) senior management positions in the levels immediately below the chief executive, but some of the new positions in the new councils will be filled from existing employees."

A DoE spokesman said: "To establish up to date figures, in November 2013 local government projected costs attached to an officers severance scheme and the total estimate of redundancy/actuarial costs for senior council staff has been updated to £22.4m.

"This has been calculated on the basis of 'at risk' employees in legacy councils with the assumption that the new council structure, below chief executive, will be filled from existing senior staff.

"The redundancy costs are based on the anticipated Local Government Reform Severance Scheme for Local Government Reform agreed in April 2013, and, where applicable, these include employer pension scheme contributions payable on redundancy."

NILGA added: "Councils, as always, will take constructive, corporate decisions – officer severance will be part of such decision taking. Any reform of any part of the public service necessitates up-front costs. Our councils are one of the most efficient parts of the public sector.

"This – like all other legislated for targets to achieve and results to deliver – will be approached accountably and innovatively, with staff, ratepayers and the emerging needs of the community being central to decisions taken."

How the clear out process will work

Q. Who is eligible for this council redundancy scheme?

A. The most senior council staff – chief executives and those just below them.

Q. What sort of posts are going?

A. Senior finance officials, parks and environment managers, economic development, human resources chiefs.

Q. Why are the redundancies necessary?

A. With 15 fewer councils, local government needs 15 fewer chief executives, 15 fewer finance managers, and so on.

Q. Will there be a uniform approach across all 11 new councils?

A. No. Each council can make their own decisions.

Q. When will the redundancies process start?

A. It already has, with seven chief executives from the former 26 council already in post in the 11 new shadow 'super councils'.

Q. Which councils merged to form the new 11?

A. Belfast now includes Dunmurry;

Antrim and Newtownabbey;

Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon;

Ballymoney, Coleraine, Limavady and Moyle become Causeway Coast and Glens;

Derry and Strabane;

Fermanagh and Omagh;

Lisburn and Castlereagh;

Mid and East Antrim;

Mid Ulster;

Newry, Mourne and Down;

North Down and Ards.

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