Local Government Reform

Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 24th May 2010.

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Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP 2:30 pm, 24th May 2010

4. asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what discussions they have had with the Minister of the Environment regarding the local government reform process. (AQO 1273/10)

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

Last week, along with the deputy First Minister, I met the Minister of the Environment and agreed that certain matters should be explored in greater detail. We expect to meet again shortly.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Given the collapse of local government reform and the fact that we do not have the ESA, will the First Minister tell us how many more of the Executive’s key policies are expected to fail? In addition, how much has been invested in local government reform, and will he estimate how many millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have been wasted?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I am surprised to hear the Member being so critical of his party colleagues, who, after all, introduced the policy, even though they did so at an Ulster Unionist Party conference, which seemed to be a strange place for the Minister to make his statement. However, having accepted that the Ulster Unionist Party policy is moving forward, I would not be as critical as him about how it is proceeding.

We recognise that, in this day and age of politics, we should attempt to get the highest level of consensus possible on moving forward. In this case, that does not mean just getting consensus in the Executive and the Assembly. Because this relates to local government, it requires consensus among those who are in local government. In this case, the Minister’s proposals were rejected in some key aspects and, therefore, he entered into dialogue with local government.

The purpose behind the reduction in the number of councils was to gain efficiencies. Therefore, if the policy does not gain efficiencies, it is not worth proceeding with. Local government was asked whether it could produce proposals that would bring forward the same savings as the Minister’s proposals. It believed that it could, and it has now been asked to have those proposals identified and tested. The Minister is anxious to have those checks carried out so that he can be sure that we do not invest the more than £100 million that it would be necessary to invest in order to effect around £438 million of savings. It would be very silly of the Minister to proceed to spend the money before he was absolutely certain that he was going to get the stated efficiencies.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45 pm, 24th May 2010

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister clarify whether the elections to local councils will proceed on the 26-council model? Like Mr Basil McCrea, the SDLP has major concerns about the millions of pounds that have been squandered on RPA to date.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

It may well be that the Ulster Unionist Party’s Minister squandered money on RPA. I have not looked particularly at the detail of it. However, the present Minister is ensuring not only that we make efficiencies but that we do it in such a way that those efficiencies are brought to the fore as quickly as possible. That is particularly important given the climate within which we have to work. Simply having 11 councils rather than 26 is not the only way to make efficiencies. Members might want to wait a few weeks, because the policy will have to be considered by the Executive, but it is possible to have some of the transitional benefits of the efficiencies that are being considered by local government under the 26-council model, just as it would be under the 11-council model.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá ceist agam don Aire. Does the First Minister believe that the recommendations of the Boundaries Commissioner should be respected by the Environment Minister and be free from party political or partisan constituency considerations?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

They certainly should be free from party political consideration. That is essential. The Minister must always act in a capacity that raises him above that level, and, therefore, the Minister must come to the issue with clean hands. However, the law gives a role for the Assembly to determine whether it accepts the results of the Boundaries Commissioner’s work, and it has the power to change it on foot of a recommendation from the Minister, supported by the Executive. That is what the law requires, and the law must be carried out impartially without any party political considerations.

Photo of Séan Neeson Séan Neeson Alliance

Has the First Minister discussed with the Environment Minister any possible conflict of interest, bearing in mind that the Department of the Environment is in control of local government and the Minister continues to be a councillor on Lisburn City Council?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

We need to look at the ministerial roles of a number of Ministers from different parties where there would be a similar conflict. That is one reason why my party has indicated that all Ministers will be standing down from local government. The Member will have noticed that some of my party colleagues have already started that process.