A senior figure in local government has played down fears that the new ‘super councils’ will be wide open to planning corruption.
Last year the News Letter revealed that when the 11 new councils – which from next year will replace the current 26 councils – are given control of most planning decisions councillors will not have to declare whether an applicant is a major donor to their party.
That situation will be unique in the UK.
In February, Assembly Speaker Willie Hay stopped Green Party MLA Steven Agnew from asking a question in the Assembly about the issue during discussion of a planning statement.
The Local Government Bill, which sets out the powers which the new councils will have, is today expected to pass its final Assembly hurdle. It is now too late to change the bill.
Derek McCallan, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), which represents councillors across Northern Ireland, said that he was not overly concerned by the issue.
When asked by the News Letter if he saw potential for planning corruption, he said: “I don’t, but you’d expect me to say that. But I don’t because of the very, very clear and enforceable codes of conduct and ethical standards [for councillors] ... I look forward to a situation where planning and the application and governance of planning is identical to the planning regimes in neighbouring jurisdictions.”
However, planning in the rest of the UK operates in a system where politicians have to declare the identity of their major donors. The Province is exempt because of alleged security fears for the safety of donors.
When asked what there was to stop a councillor from doing favours for a developer if nobody can prove that they have given funds to their party, he said: “Because I’m expectant that any individual who stands for election adheres fully to the seven principles of serving public life. I can’t comment on those who would wish to avoid that sort of thing; I’ve no direct experience of it.”
He stressed that most councillors are conscientious public servants and said that the new planning powers had the potential to enhance communities.
Mr McCallan admitted that the issue of which flag should fly from the new council headquarters was “a contentious issue” but that he did not have concerns about the new councils getting bogged down in rows over the issue.
He said the reform process would test councils and government departments “to be a little bit more integrated than they currently are”.
He said that the changes would not have any major immediate impact on the services provided by the new councils: “It’s not going to be really obvious on April 5 2015 (when the new councils take control) what the changes are; it’s going to be incremental change.”
However, he said that over time the new larger councils should be able to save costs on the services they provide.
Rates rises no certain: NILGA
Ratepayers in Fermanagh and Castlereagh are in line to receive the biggest increases in their rates bills as a result of RPA.
Fermanagh, which is joining Omagh, and Castlereagh, which is being split between Belfast and Lisburn, both have significantly lower rates than the areas with which they are merging.
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton yesterday confirmed that Stormont will provide £30 million to cushion the biggest increases, so bills will not soar overnight, but the scale of the differences in those areas means that some people will gain and others will lose as a result of the process.
Derek McCallan, pictured, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), said that “those most acutely affected will be given support for a period of time to bridge that difference”.
However, he added: “Ultimately, the rates bill is going to be determined year on year by the priorities of the new councils so it’s not a given that there will be rates rises.”