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Mervyn Storey under fire after councils' regeneration powers delayed again

By Noel McAdam

Powers for Northern Ireland's super councils to pump new life into their local areas are being delayed - for a second time.

DUP minister Mervyn Storey first postponed the transfer of regeneration powers from Stormont last year; and has now announced putting it off until after Government departments have been reduced from 13 to nine.

But the Social Development Minister has been accused of preparing to drop his planned legislation altogether, which he denies.

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said: "It is a bad move for regeneration, a bad move for decentralisation and a bad move for the public.

"There were no good reasons for the delay and now there's no good reason for the axing of the Bill. This whole process has done nothing but treat councils with disrespect from the start."

Chair of the Ulster Unionist councillors' association Trevor Wilson said: "The reason given by the minister for the delay - that it is due to the restructuring of Assembly departments - is a red herring. The fact is that these powers were due to transfer to local government no matter how many departments remain at Stormont.

"The failure to proceed with this important Bill is both a slap in the face for, and a vote of no confidence in, local councils."

Responsibility for regeneration will allow councils to revamp deteriorating town centres, boosting local economic growth and supporting local community groups.

The councils are also due to be given new responsibilities including planning and off-street car parking, but the power shift requires legislation that will now have to await the next Assembly term.

The transfer was initially postponed for a year to allow more time for legislation, but now next year's date will not be met either.

Mr Storey rejected the claim he had disrespected local government and insisted he intended to press ahead with the transfer of powers.

"I totally refute the allegation that the whole process of transferring regeneration powers to the new councils has been disrespectful. My staff and I have had full and constructive engagement with all councils," he said.

Mr Storey made the initial delay announcement last year shortly after replacing Nelson McCausland as minister, but said almost £31m had been invested in neighbourhood renewal schemes in 2014/15. "I am still fully committed to the Executive's reform of local government programme and its transfer of key powers and responsibilities from central Government to councils," he said.

"The fundamental aim of the reform programme remains the same, to transform local government, putting decision-making on local matters in the hands of locally elected representatives."

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