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Devolution to NI councils revived

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Local government reform and devolution in Northern Ireland could be back on track after being halted by political disputes last summer.

Environment minister Edwin Poots has told the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (Nilga) that he wanted to progress plans to cut the number of councils from 26 to 11 but to give them greater powers. He has offered to transfer planning to them in advance of any wider reform.

Northern Ireland councils at present have a very limited range of largely environmental and consumer protection responsibilities.

Reform ground to a halt last summer amid disputes over costs, the creation of central purchasing and waste bodies, and disagreements between parties in the Northern Ireland Executive.

Nilga president Evelyne Robinson (DUP) said: “The minister’s intention to launch a consultation paper on the proposals to reorganise and strengthen local democracy is a positive step in the right direction.”

The transfer of planning would see the 26 councils take over development control and local plans, with the Northern Ireland Executive’s strategic planning role split among five local offices, which would work more closely with the councils.

A Nilga spokeswoman said: “We welcome devolution of planning but it has to come with extra money because at present it costs them more to process an application than they receive in fees.”

Mr Poots said: “Although the delivery timetable for local government has not yet been finalised by the executive, I and my department have been working diligently preparing for the next step and this is why I am now reinvigorating the local government and planning reform programmes.”

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