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Ratepayers shouldn’t foot bill for council reform: Poots

Environment Minister Edwin Poots has said ratepayers should not have to pay the £118m costs of downsizing local government in Northern Ireland from 26 councils to 11.

An economic report on council-cutting as part of the Review of Public Administration (RPA) came up with the £118m figure, which would accumulate over the five years from 2011 when the number of councils will be cut.

But Mr Poots said Northern Ireland would make savings of £438m over the following 25 years, with the ‘break-even point’ to come in 2016/7.

Speaking ahead of a speech to the Assembly, Mr Poots said the PricewaterhouseCooopers report, which is to be put to consultation, was “fairly robust” and had pitched costs at the highest level and savings at the lowest level.

“Obviously there is a cost to the public purse by producing this but there is also a saving to the public purse.”

He said central government or local government could provide the costs up front but that the most viable option would lie “in between” by local government borrowing the funds from central government.

But he denied rates would go up.

“Ultimately, they will go down. But it would be particularly unacceptable for ratepayers to have huge rate rises as a consequence of all of this,” he said.

The report, which was published yesterday, also suggests ‘alternative funding mechanisms’, including a workplace parking levy, charging for some services and business rates supplement.

Mr Poots told the Assembly he wanted to scotch rumours that the reform would not be going ahead because of cost, and said he was “absolutely committed” to reform in May 2011.

“I want to demonstrate that if we make the right political choices on the detailed design of new local government, that proceeding with local government reform makes absolute sense in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and value for money,” he added.

Recommendations in the economic appraisal by PricewaterhouseCoopers include a single waste disposal authority and a business services centre handling corporate functions such as personnel for all 11 councils.

SDLP assembly member Dolores Kelly, chair of the environment committee, said: “Ratepayers should not have to foot the bill for costs associated with RPA and we want to know how central government plans to do this without passing on the cost to the public.”

John Matthews, president of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, said: “We are delighted that the Minister has agreed to take time for a full stakeholder engagement process and not rush these decisions through.”

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