Hain outlines creation of NI super-councils

24 Nov 05
Government plans to replace Northern Ireland's 26 district councils with seven 'super-councils' have been attacked by local parties for reinforcing sectarian divisions.

25 November 2005

Government plans to replace Northern Ireland's 26 district councils by seven 'super-councils' were immediately attacked by local parties for reinforcing sectarian divisions.

The reform, announced by secretary of state Peter Hain and his ministers on November 22, would result in three green - nationalist dominated - councils in the west and three orange – unionist-dominated – councils in the east, with only Belfast having a balance of power, the critics claimed.

David Ford, leader of the cross-community Alliance party, said it 'amounts to repartition'. He added: 'The government is behaving as if the only party that matters is Sinn Fein.'

But former Belfast mayor Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein rejected the claim. He pointed out that the new councils would have to abide by equality legislation to ensure minority communities were not discriminated against.

In a wide-ranging cut-back of the public sector, education and health bodies will be abolished and many functions fulfilled by quangos are to be handed over to the new councils.

Announcing the outcome of the three-year Review of Public Administration undertaken in the Province, Hain said: 'For a place the size of Northern Ireland, 5,400 square miles with a population of 1.7 million people, we are both over-governed and over-administered.

'Public expenditure per head is nearly one third higher than in the UK overall. But public spending is not matched in many areas by the levels of performance such spending should achieve.'

Hain added that the four guiding principles underpinning the future structure were subsidiarity; equality and good relations; common boundaries across various parts of the public sector; and strong local government. His 'vision' for the future was the 'greatest single challenge to the public sector here for over 30 years'.

He said the reforms would save £200m annually, which could be reinvested in Northern Ireland's public services.

The new councils will each cover a population between 185,000 and 280,000 and consist of a maximum of 50 councillors. New powers to be given to the councils include a broad responsibility for community planning, under which they will be expected to tackle poverty, improve the environment and build community relations and sustainable communities.

Other powers allocated to councils include planning, local roads management, economic development, tourism promotion, regeneration and European programmes.

Northern Ireland's health service will also be comprehensively reorganised, with a reduced central Department of Health, the replacement of four regional health boards by a single strategic authority and the replacement of 18 health trusts by five trusts. The 15 local health and social care groups will be scrapped, with their functions, and some of those of the regional boards, passing to seven local commissioning bodies.

Health Minister Shaun Woodward said the current organisation of health and social services was 'too cumbersome, too bureaucratic, and inefficient'.

A single Northern Ireland Education Authority will replace the existing five regional education and library boards. Youth services will be provided by the Education Authority, with the involvement of the new councils.

Education minister Angela Smith said it was the government's aim to provide better and more streamlined services. 'The existing structure is unwieldy, with five boards and numerous support bodies,' she said. 'It is also a costly system with much duplication.'

A further announcement regarding the province's quangos will be made in March, with many existing bodies likely to be abolished and some of their responsibilities passed to local government.


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