Doubts over future of 11-council plan

ENVIRONMENT Minister Edwin Poots – who is set to present a paper on the future of Northern Ireland's district councils to the Executive on Thursday – has denied that the 11-council blueprint has been officially scrapped.

But in an interview with the News Letter, Mr Poots refused to confirm that the plan, on which 9 million has been spent, would go ahead.

"You'll have to wait and see," he stressed.

"I can't tell anyone before presenting the paper, but there are so many angles and options to be considered, especially from the financial point of view.

"There is the re-branding of any proposed new councils and all their vehicles, the staffing issues and boundary issues. In this time of economic difficulties, everything is in the melting pot and the decision will be taken by the Executive after I present my paper."

At best, the proposed new councils will miss the original deadline of May 2011, and the local elections next year will be to the existing 26 bodies.

At worst, the 11 new councils will never materialise.

Councillors across the Province are sceptical that the Review of Public Administration (RPA) will ever be enacted.

The News Letter contacted members of seven councils – from Newry and Mourne to Coleraine – and the verdict was unanimous that the new councils are unlikely to happen.

Ulster Unionist deputy leader Danny Kennedy, a councillor in Newry and Mourne – which was planned to merge with South Down – said: "The Executive simply can't agree on this one, as is the norm.

"I'm convinced that the 9 million in setting it up so far has been wasted. We've had very positive talks with South Down and were looking forward to the merger. I doubt, though, if it will ever happen."

In Craigavon – due to be merged with Banbridge and Armagh – Arnold Hatch, vice-president of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), said: "The Executive is simply holding itself up to ridicule.

"This 9 million is just the tip of the iceberg when you consider the time and manpower the 26 councils – all of them – have put in trying to effect the changes."

The UUP councillor added: "The whole structure of government is collapsing around the Executive's head.

"They have made a mess of everything – the Maze site, education, the failure to deal with water charges. They'll have to scrap RPA due to shortage of funds brought about by their own ineptitude."

Allan Ewart, a council and party colleague of Mr Poots and the DUP mayor of Lisburn City Council, which is due to merge with Castlereagh under RPA, said: "We need to know what's happening. It really is time for the Executive to make a decision and I would ask the minister to move."

However, he did admit that the boundaries of the proposed Lisburn-Castlereagh tie-up were a problem, with objections to parts of Dunmurry and Castlereagh going into Belfast.

"The Castlereagh council offices and Forestside – a valuable source of rates – would be lost to the new council," he said.

“We don’t want that to happen.”

TUV Antrim councillor Mel Lucas (due to link with Newtownabbey), said: “Like everything else this Executive touches, it will be a failure, which is a pity as Antrim and Newtownabbey were looking forward to working together. No surprise really.”

In Larne (supposed to be partnered with Ballymena and Carrick), Alliance’s John Mathews – president of NILGA – said: “The dogs in the street know the super councils are going to be scrapped.

“I’ve been working on RPA for eight years – with three Direct Rule ministers and two from the Assembly – and feel badly let down. Hopefully, the existing councils will be given extra powers.

“They’ll make a better job of them than the inept Executive.”

In Ballymena, the sole Sinn Fein member, Monica Digney, said: “The whole thing was a damp squib from the start – far too ambitious and too difficult to achieve.

“The Conservative Government is also slashing the budget and I doubt if any projected savings would justify RPA. Still, the talks we had improved relationships with our two prospective partners – Larne and Carrick.”

On the North Coast, the SDLP’s John Dallat (formerly of Coleraine Borough Council) said: “It’s just as well it’s dying on its feet.

“It was a massive form of gerrymandering and I’m surprised that Sinn Fein fell for it in the first place. We were supposed to merge with Moyle, Limavady and Ballymoney which was much too ungainly.

“Let’s hope it withers on the vine.”