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Northern Ireland's cash-hit super councils issue alert over funding cuts

By Noel McAdam

Northern Ireland's new super councils have warned further financial black holes are opening up less than two months after they began operating.

On top of existing Stormont spending cuts, the 11 amalgamated authorities complain they are also suffering reductions in grants for waste management, clean air and emergency planning.

They also warn inadequate funding is being provided to cover planning consultancy, grass cutting and grants to community and arts groups.

And there is still more to come, with proposed funding for their new urban regeneration functions falling by more than £12m.

The council umbrella body, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), is demanding meetings with new Finance Minister Arlene Foster, Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill and Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey.

And it is asking for a stocktake with the Assembly committee that oversees local government after the first 100 days of the new regime, towards the end of June

"Reform of councils should not penalise councils," a NILGA statement said.

"It is far better to anticipate rather than react to budgetary spending rounds and other financial planning constraints."

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, whose department oversees local government, responded: "As everyone knows, during consultation on the budget 2015/16 proposals, I pressed the Finance Minister for grants to councils to be protected, but this request was not supported in the Executive.

"That is one of the reasons I voted against the final budget, because of the disproportionate impacts on the DoE's budget compared to all other departments and because of the major impacts this would have on the many organisations that we had previously supported over many years.

However, and unfortunately, the major budget cuts to the DoE were agreed by a majority in the Executive and supported by other parties in the Assembly. Looking ahead, I will seek to secure some supplementary funding through in year monitoring rounds, and I hope I can secure support in the Assembly on this."

The quarterly spending round in which unspent cash from departments is reallocated to others has been thrown into chaos due to stalemate over welfare reform.

Key pieces of local government reform legislation have also still to be finalised by the Assembly.

NILGA said: "Councils have - unsurprisingly - defined areas where they are suffering from reduced funding in the post-reform era. Some were known before rates were struck, for instance the swingeing cut of over £2.8m from the Rate Support Grant to less wealthy council districts.

"It was also known that transferred funding for maintenance of off-street car parks was going to be inadequate, despite the poor condition of some parks and the Executive's pledges to ensure that functions transferring were fit for purpose, properly resourced and rates neutral at the point of transfer."

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