Environment Minister Meets The Newry, Mourne And Down Statutory Transition Committee
ENVIRONMENT Minister Mark H Durkan has continued his series of meetings with the key council groups driving local government reform.
Last night the Minister took part in the meeting of the Newry, Mourne and Down Statutory Transition Committee (STC) which was held at the Down District Council offices in Downpatrick.
Speaking at the meeting, Minister Durkan said: “The STCs are playing a critical role in helping to drive local government reform and prepare for the new 11 councils which will come into being in shadow form after the elections in May. This reform programme is a partnership between local and central government and yesterday’s meeting provided a beneficial opportunity for us to discuss progress and exchange information.
“Going forward, I will support the changing role of the two existing councils and provide them with a robust and comprehensive legislative and operational framework so that the newly created Newry, Mourne and Down District Council is open for business in April 2015.
“It’s now less than 450 days until that date, and I have been and continue to visit all the STCs to ensure that this critical transition work is moving at a pace towards delivery – delivery of a more effective, efficient, citizen centred and responsive system of local government.”
The Minister noted the progress reprted from the Trasition Committee and addressed issues on topics including the roles and responsibilities of the new councils during the shadow period, rates convergence, community planning and the transfer of the planning functions.
STC Chair, Councillor Michael Ruane said: “We welcome the visit of the Minister. It reinforces the importance of our work in establishing a new Council to serve the people and the communities of Newry, Mourne and Down. We recognise there are a number of important issues still to be resolved, in particular minimising the financial burden upon ratepayers, but we look forward to the Minister outlining how these will be addressed over the coming months.”
STC Vice Chair, Councillor Colin McGrath added: “We are at an extremely crucial stage in our journey – planning for and taking decisions which will enable new arrangements to be secured for the new Council’s establishment and operation. The next 15 months will be a very challenging time for us all but we are determined to make local government reform work for the people of Newry, Mourne and Down.”
The STC’s are responsible for leading convergence between merging councils and undertaking important preparatory work for the new councils that will take over in April 2015. This includes preparing a draft budget and a draft corporate and business plan for the new councils. Each new council will also appoint its Chief Executive.
Minister Durkan’s Full Speech at the Meeting
In addressing the Stuatutory Transition Committee, MInister Durkan explained:
“It is a key priority for me to have these meetings and continue the work of my predecessor, Alex Attwood, who would have last met you as a Voluntary Transition Committee on 30 January 2012.
However, we are now in statutory mode and before I take questions from members, I would like to acknowledge the commitment of elected members and officers in this chamber and provide you with a short update on key reform work areas.
Local Government Bill
As members will know, the Local Government Bill was introduced on 23 September 2013. The Bill is now with the Environment Committee for consideration.
I have extended the deadline of Environment Committee stage to 20th February 2014.
I urge all of you to engage with the Environment Committee and take up the opportunity to influence and shape this major piece of legislation.
There is a collective responsibility on all of us to make sure the Bill is fit for purpose.
Local Government Elections – May 2014
Plans remain on track for elections to the new councils in May 2014.
A Commencement Order has been made in respect of the Local Government (Boundaries) Act to bring the new local government districts into effect, for the purposes of holding elections in May 2014 and to enable the new Councils to operate during the shadow period.
An Order, to set the date of the next local government election for 22 May 2014 and to combine it with the next European Parliamentary election, has also now been made at Westminster.
A Remuneration Panel was established to conduct a review of councillors’ remuneration and to advise on the system and level of allowances appropriate for the new councils.
I have already had a brief discussion about the report of the Remuneration Panel with political parties at a meeting of the Political Reference Group of 2 December 2013.
I have decided to hold a special meeting of the Political Reference Group on 4 February 2014 to further discuss the recommendations that the Panel made in regard to Councillors’ allowances.
I will then be considering the best way forward on this matter.
Provision has been made within the Local Government Bill to put in place a statutory partnership panel to provide a formal mechanism between Executive Departments and local government at a political level.
Plans for forming the Partnership Panel are still at an early stage – I have presented initial proposals to the RTC and the Political Reference Group.
In going forward, I intend to:
* brief the Environment Committee;
* present proposals to the Executive;
* develop draft Terms of Reference and Standing Orders;
* bring more detailed proposals before the RTC for discussion;
* consult with district councils, STCs and the new councils (in shadow form) about appointments to the Panel.
Transfer of Functions
Significant work is ongoing with transferring departments and STCs to enable the smooth transition of the transferring functions and powers to local government.
Deloitte has been appointed (through a tendering process) to undertake a due diligence assessment of the functions and powers to transfer to local government.
It is very important to verify the associated resources in terms of budgets, staff, assets and liabilities transferring on 1 April 2015.
Mr Chairman, in addition to my opening remarks, I would like to comment on the issue of potential rates increases. I know your Council members and the Statutory Transition Committee have raised concerns about this matter in the past. I believe that we all need to work hard to make sure that we can reassure ratepayers that there will be no unwarranted rises in bills.
Local Government Reform offers clear opportunities for the new councils to make significant savings and benefit ratepayers.
The economic appraisal of local government service delivery, published by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) in October 2009 indicated saving of £438 million over twenty five years. The sector’s own ‘ICE Programme’ and ‘Case for Change’ projected savings in the region of £570m for less upfront investment over the same timescale.
I have asked the Finance Working Group to update those figures and to provide a full picture of the costs and benefits of reform in each council. The Group is working closely with the Transition Committees to develop this analysis, and its findings and recommendations will be presented to the Regional Transition Committee shortly.
In relation to the upfront costs, my predecessor secured Executive agreement to provide councils with a reform funding package of £17.8 million over the 2013 to 2015 period, with a commitment to a further £30 million for rates convergence beyond 2015.
The £17.8million package includes:
* £5.2million for new councils in the shadow period;
* £4million for systems convergence;
* £3.5million for councillor severance;
* £3million for capacity building;
* £1million for change management;
* £0.6million for staff induction; and
* £0.5million for winding up existing councils.
The Finance Working Group is also examining the issues around council borrowing to enable councils to capitalise the upfront costs of some of the reform work streams, enabling them to borrow to finance these costs and pay loans back from accrued savings. It is anticipated that the group will bring its recommendations to the committee later this month.
Finally, DFP and DOE continue to work on the design of a transitional rates relief scheme, using the £30m allocated by the Executive. This will protect those ratepayers who would otherwise face sudden and excessive increases as a direct consequence of councils merging or due to other boundary changes. It should, of course, be recognised that some ratepayers will receive an immediate reduction in their rates bills as a consequence of councils merging.
As you can see, together with my Executive Colleagues, I have taken a significant number of steps to ensure that ratepayers do not suffer unwarranted increases in bills. It is now over to you, in councils, to ensure that you grasp the benefits that this reform programme offers to ratepayers and to all citizens.
I will expect to see you all capitalise on the opportunities offered by the reduction in the number of councils and the synergies between existing and transferred functions. The new, modernised and strengthened councils will have the tools and the capacity to improve services, to get rid of duplication, to reduce wastage and to increase collaboration. In the longer term, that can only benefit all of us.