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New super councils to play key role in the governance of Northern Ireland

By Noel McAdam

The recently-formed super councils are set to have a say in the blueprint for governing Northern Ireland, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Stormont ministers are considering a new share-out of responsibilities between regional and local government.

And it could mean the 11 amalgamated councils contributing to the overall Programme for Government (PfG) for Northern Ireland for the first time.

The proposal is contained in the minutes of the body which links the Assembly and Executive with town halls across the province.

The body, which includes ministers, agreed in principle that councils could become partners in the next PfG which will be drawn up following the next Assembly election.

A range of responsibilities are already being devolved to the councils which went live in April - including the regeneration of their areas - but they want an even larger role in future.

The councils' umbrella body, the NI Local Government Association (Nilga) also argues Stormont and local level administration would be better dovetailed to deliver the PfG. The so-called 'partnership panel' - linking the Assembly and local government - has met four times so far and minutes have been seen by the Belfast Telegraph.

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, whose portfolio includes local government, told this newspaper: "It is vital that all parts of government, central and local, work together to achieve better outcomes."

At the most recent meeting, also attended by DUP ministers Michelle McIlveen and Mervyn Storey, Sinn Fein minister Jennifer McCann and Alliance Justice Minister David Ford, it was agreed councils should work on a "sector-wide initiative" by January of next year, ahead of the anticipated Assembly elections, following which a new PfG will be drawn up.

The outline agreement is recorded in the minutes as: "Local government determined as a formal partner in the next Programme for Government." New president of Nilga, Carla Lockhart, said: "The partnership panel brings local and central government's political leadership together to plan and develop key policies and initiatives.

"It was therefore good to have a discussion around the initial framework for the next Programme for Government.

"Effectively, the present Programme mentioned the reform and transformation of local councils but did not focus on the working together element. This time we believe it should be different.

"Nilga and the 11 new local authorities will, by January next year, draw up a programme for local government, giving our sector a clear, democratic and corporate role in civic society and the wider economy."

SDLP minister Durkan, who chairs the panel which is to meet again by October, told the Belfast Telegraph: "I believe it is vital that all parts of government, central and local, work together to achieve better outcomes for all our people and that councils need to be alert to the relevance of the PfG links between local government and departments."

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