17 March 2006

Super councils may get key role in public housing

Belfast Telegraph

NIHE role may be reduced in major revamp

By Noel McAdam
17 March 2006

A major revamp of the Housing Executive was being signalled last night as the Government shifts more powers to Northern Ireland's seven new 'super' councils.

The Executive may lose a number of key functions which would then be carried out by elected councillors instead.

According to well-placed sources, the councils could be given control over the Executive's grants system, its fuel efficiency programme and environmental health schemes.

And the re-organisation may also involve a new co-ordination role for the Department of Social Development.

But the further reduction of Housing Executive responsibilities will almost certainly mean "significant" job losses, sources claimed.

Direct Rule Ministers will make the announcement next week as part of the latest stage of the shake-up of public administration in Northern Ireland.

Senior Housing Executive officials were last night said to be "extremely concerned" about the operational changes.

"There is an air of gloom," one source said. "A positive spin will be put on all this," one departmental source said, "but it arguably amounts to a dismantling of the Executive".

The Executive has an annual budget of around £545m and a staff of almost 3,200 across Northern Ireland. But initial consultations by the review of public administration team showed almost no support for any change to the Executive.

There was "widespread recognition" that the Executive "has been successful and has developed and operated a fair system for housing allocation".

A year ago, however, the review team said the options for the Executive were either the status quo or the transfer of responsibility to the new larger councils with the Department of Social Development "taking on an enhanced policy and co-ordinating role".

But in November, when Secretary of State Peter Hain announced cutting the present 26 councils to seven, there was no specific mention of the new authorities having any input into housing. A spokesperson for the team said: "We cannot respond to rumours. Everyone is just going to have to wait and see."

The Housing Executive verdict will come as part of a raft of Government decisions on the province's plethora of quangos.

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