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NI local govt reform gets under way

Words: Roger Milne
Northern Ireland polling station

Northern Ireland's 11 new councils have begun operating in shadow form before taking over the reigns of local decision-making on 1 April next year.

The 11 new districts - elected in last week's local elections - are being created under substantial local government reform that will see Northern Ireland's current 26 councils cut by more than half. The new authorities will receive a range of fresh powers when they take over from the existing local government structure, including control over all but the most significant planning decisions.
These new councils will initially operate in shadow form alongside the current 26 councils until they take over on 1 April next year.
Environment minister Mark H. Durkan said: “Operating in shadow form allows the new councils time to make essential preparations. This is a very important part of the programme to ensure that on 1 April 2015 the new councils hit the ground running.
“Preparations during this period include approving business and financial plans, setting rates for 2015/16, appointing senior staff and leading cooperation between merging councils. The councils will also design their new organisational and service delivery structures, and agree the method by which positions of responsibility will be shared.”
Among the new responsibilities to be assumed by the eleven councils are for off-street parking and tourism. Arguably, however, the most controversial move will be putting politicians in charge of all but the most significant planning decisions.
Currently, if you want to build a new house or erect an extension, you have to apply for permission to the Planning Service, an agency that comes under the umbrella of Stormont's environment department. Local councillors can voice their opinion on the merits of the scheme. But the final decision rests with the Planning Service.
Michael Corr, the creative director of Northern Ireland's architecture and planning centre, PLACE, told the BBC that the move was a "huge opportunity for the future".
"They [the voters] really want to choose politicians who have the ability and understand urban regeneration and planning issues, because it's those politicians who will be able to make the biggest difference."
Friends of the Earth, however, expressed concner about the "traditional" close relationship between developers and politicians in Northern Ireland, saying that a strict code of conduct was necessary and that this would have to be rigorously enforced.
As expected, Sinn Fein and the DUP dominated the local election last week, with DUP becoming the biggest party in terms of seats but with Sinn Fein leading first prefernce votes under the proportional representation system.