28 October 2005

Hain to unveil radical plan for ulster's public services

Belfast Telegraph

Councils and quangos face axe

By Chris Thornton
28 October 2005

The biggest shake-up of public services in Northern Ireland is due to be unveiled next month.

As part of Secretary of State Peter Hain's drive to push through "tough decisions" about Northern Ireland's future, the Government is preparing to publish proposals from the Review of Public Administration (RPA).

In mid-November the review is expected to recommend a dramatic cut in the number of councils in Northern Ireland, reducing the current 26 down to six or seven.

Scores of local councillors will find their seats have been swallowed up by the changes.

The regional boards that look after health and education are expected to be centralised, and other quangos also face the axe.

The reforms will be revealed more than three years after the review was set up to peel off Northern Ireland's layers of government.

The Assembly at Stormont was suspended soon after it was established and since then Direct Rule Ministers to finish the review - saying they wanted a local administration to have an input in the final say.

But Mr Hain indicated last month that he is no longer willing to leave big decisions stuck on hold.

So after announcing what is thought to be Northern Ireland's biggest ever rise in the regional rate - 19% - Mr Hain is ready to introduce controversial cuts to local government.

Ministers and officials acknowledge that they are happy for the moves to be seen as a direct challenge to the parties to get back into a power-sharing Executive.

Last month Mr Hain described the review's proposals as "the most radical, cost saving changes in structures for local authorities, health and education and other areas of government".

He added: "These reforms will be ambitious. They will challenge the status quo. They will disrupt power bases and vested interests. They will lead to a radical shift of resources from the back room to the frontline."

The impact of the RPA's changes are due to be discussed at a conference for town managers and council chief executives next week.

Stephen Kingon, managing partner of conference sponsors PricewaterhouseCoopers, said local government executives and ratepayers should not underestimate the magnitude of change the RPA will require.

"This reform agenda has already been described as one of the biggest change management programmes in Europe," he said.

"Everyone, from political parties and elected representatives to council staff and ratepayers will be affected by these changes."

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