27 February 2006

Taskforce set for councils cull

Belfast Telegraph

By Noel McAdam
27 February 2006

A taskforce is being appointed to drive forward the reduction of Northern Ireland's 26 councils to seven - in the face of widespread political opposition, it emerged today.

Despite anger from the DUP, SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance parties, the Government has reiterated the decisions are not up for reconsideration.

In a blunt letter to council chiefs, Lord Rooker said: "I want to emphasise that the Review of Public Administration decisions are final and not open to renegotiation."

But he argued it is essential local government works with the taskforce to ensure the new councils framework is in place for the next local authority elections in 2009.

The three-pronged initiative will draw up the details of how cutting the councils - and modernising - local government will be carried out over the next three years.

It involves a political panel which will be chaired by Direct Rule Minister Lord Rooker and a working group headed up by Department of Environment Permanent Secretary, Stephen Peover.

The overall task force may also involve the appointment of a number of independent experts.

And the third element of the radical initiative is areas which have been identified as essential.

They include the relationship with central government, shared services and community planning.

Lord Rooker said all the evidence over the three-year consultation and research period before last November's announcement pointed to seven councils as the optimum model "particularly for service delivery and targeting inequality and social need".

"This model was supported by 62% of respondents, who expressed a preference for one of the options for local government in the Review consultation document published in March (last year)," he added.

The Minister said he wanted to consult closely with the various political parties in Northern Ireland on the details of the changes required.

"I am conscious of the scale of the challenge that lies ahead within a limited timeframe and it is important that we work together, particularly through the local government taskforce, to effect the new arrangements in time for the new councils to come into operation by 2009," Lord Rooker said.

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