On Tuesday in the assembly the Minister of Environment laid down the “ 2012 Local Government (Boundaries) Order (Northern Ireland) 2012”, why he calls it “2012” twice I don’t knows as the current proposals won’t take effect till 2015, were drawn up in 2009, based on information gathered in 2008, from a process began by Peter Hain in 2005, as part of the Review of Public Administration launched in 2002. Tha’ts right for ten long years we have listened to the debate back and forwards concerning the “All New Super Councils” originally seven, then eleven, with rumours of fifteen, it has gone round in circles, and in the meantime the existing system has fallen apart…
Hold on that’s not true, in the meantime our existing twenty six councils have got on with the job pretty well, yes there are squabbles and white elephant schemes, but new councils won’t be any different in that respect, in fact probably much more prone to such excesses, but I guess 26 councils obviously cost much more to operate than 11, right? That is the main purpose of the exercise, to save money and Price Waterhouse Cooper have published the figures to back it up, so it is a done deal.
According to the PWC report of 2009 (yes it is already 3 years out of date and based on much older information ) they projected savings of £438 million pounds over twenty five years, TWENTY FIVE YEARS, I would love to have their crystal ball, twenty five years ago a gallon of petrol cost about the same as a litre does today, you got a fish supper for a pound and Isle of Mann was an exotic holiday, but taking it at face value that is less than 18 million a year, or 0.18% of the executive budget. However that is not the bottom line figure, the cost on implementation is estimated at between 120-150 million, to be paid up front, in the middle of a recession, by the councils themselves, with many thinking the cost is grossly underestimated, but even on face value there will be financial pain for the next decade at least with only hints of savings many years ahead. You heard me ITS GONNA COST MONEY for quite sometime when we can least afford it.
So where do the projected savings come from? Very little of it is from reduced administration, or less councillors, or even getting rid of Mayor’s limos, most of the options looked at were “cost neutral” at very best, in reality much of the reorganizational benefits will be far outweighed by costs. Going through the PWC figure the real savings (based on that generous 25 yr timescale) come from implementing two additional reforms not mentioned in the original proposals, firstly:-
“A regional Business Services Organisation delivering a range of collaborative services to the New 11 councils”; and secondly-
“A single Waste Disposal Authority providing a holistic view of waste disposal management across NI”.
The second proposal essentially means centralising waste disposal, in reality stripping it of the councils and bring it under Stormont’s control, there may be merit in this proposal, but it is irrelevant if you are taking the powers of 26, 15, 11 or 7 councils, so if that is the case is there any need to carry out the rest of the reforms? The other proposal is a little more complex, can anyone tell me what a “Regional Business Services Organisation” is? wading through the jargon (PWC are exceptionally good at doing jargon!) it seems to include such things as centralising Finance & Personnel for the entire councils, that’s right stripping the 26, 15, 11, 7 of their finance and personnel departments, more centralisation by the back door. Bound to save money right? And of course be more efficient, just look at AccountsNI, a similar project carried out across the Stormont departments, supposed to cost less than a million, but actually costing ten times that!
So back to that figure again, the magic £438 million, nearly two third of it is solely based on centralising bins and finance, centralisation which it seems does not require a reduction in Council numbers, and was not part of the original proposals, meanwhile the other third is going to end up wasted on the transition costs. These are best case figures, in reality the costs are ALWAYS greater and the saving less, and for what, 11 councils which most people will hate, pitting town against town, destroying identities developed over decades. Remember these were to be “Super Councils” it wasn’t just the size that was to be super, they were to gain many more powers, but one by one these powers have reverted to the centre, and for the proposals to work even more will be stripped from them. From what I can see these are disastrous proposals from whatever viewpoint you take, and are simply being forced through for the simple reason no-one is will to back down at so late a stage.
From these figures it is obvious that any cost savings from reducing the councils to 11 is questionable to say the least, however if the benefits to society were significant enough the project could be worth proceeding with, I beleive however the proposals are an even bigger social disaster than an economic one, but I will save that argument for another day, surely on financial reasons alone the pug should be pulled now before it is too late?