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New NI minister to grapple with council reform

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Northern Ireland’s councils are set to reopen the province’s long-running dispute over powers for local government following the appointment of Alex Attwood as environment minister

Mr Attwood, of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, was nominated for the role in a share out of ministerial posts among parties in the new Northern Ireland Assembly, which was elected on 5 May along with the 26 councils.

Those were the first council elections since 2005, as they were twice delayed while politicians wrestled unsuccessfully with local government reform.

Northern Ireland council’s powers are heavily circumscribed and largely confined to environmental issues and consumer protection.

A plan to shrink their number to 11 but to give these powers akin to English districts was scrapped last year by the then minister Edwin Poots (DUP) following disputes over costs and the degree of devolution.

Derek McCallan, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), said securing wider powers for councils was not a matter of party political controversy but depended on the costs involved.

“We wish to explore reform with the new minister and there is certainly support for that in both local government and the assembly.

“There is an acceptance that councils should have more powers but we do not want them to transfer with a high cost to councils, the money must come with them.”

Mr McCallan said LGA wanted to settle the principle of gaining more powers and then negotiate over how many council there should be and their boundaries.

Election for the 26 councils saw none of them left under single party control.

Across the province, the Democratic Unionist Party secured 175 seats, followed by Sinn Fein on 138 and the Ulster Unionist Party on 100. There were 87 seats for the Social Democratic and Labour Party, 44 for the Alliance Party, and 40 for other candidates.

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