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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 March, 2005, 18:05 GMT
Reform to increase council powers
Ian Pearson to announce proposals to cut costs
Ian Pearson said he had consulted widely on the plans
Streamlining Northern Ireland's public administration will deliver strong local government, Finance Minister Ian Pearson has said.

His plans to save tens of millions of pounds in administration costs will be up for six months of consultation.

Under the proposals there would be fewer health and education boards and 26 councils could go down to seven, 11 or 15 by revising existing boundaries.

Nipsa General Secretary John Corey said the plans could lead to large job cuts.

"To reduce this review to a cost-cutting and job cutting exercise, we think would be a grave mistake," he said.

"What is important here is to get public services right for Northern Ireland and that will not be achieved on the cheap."

The government has said the new councils would have increased powers and functions.

Mr Pearson's proposals also include replacing the current health boards with either five or seven sub-regional health and personal social services agencies.

Further consultation

"Sitting at the heart of all of this major change programme is a return to strong local government," he said on Tuesday.

"I have listened carefully to all points of view on this and I have set out in the consultation document a range of illustrative options."

He said these covered configurations of seven, 11 and 15 councils all based on amalgamations of the current district boundaries, including one option based on the current parliamentary boundaries.

"The new councils would have increased powers and functions, such as planning urban and rural regeneration, local and economic development and tourism, with local roads and library and youth services also under consideration."

The plans follow three years of consultation and research and will be subject to further consultation over the next six months.

Plans to reform the education sector include a new education services support body which would replace the existing five education and library boards.

Education Minister Barry Gardiner said the proposals would "ensure that every pupil, parent, teacher and school in Northern Ireland has access to the same services, no matter in which school they are, where they are geographically or what community they come from."

Four health and social services councils are to be replaced by either five or seven sub-regional health and personal social service agencies.

The ambulance trust is set to survive the shake-up.

No figure has been given in terms of net job losses.

The DUP's Edwin Poots said his party had been calling for serious reductions in the levels of duplication and bureaucracy in Northern Ireland's public administration.

"There would clearly be considerable savings in administration costs as a result of these proposed reforms which would be to the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland," Mr Poots said.

Ulster Unionist Jim Wilson also welcomed the proposals.

"The proper measure for the success of local government reform will be how much improvement can be achieved in the efficient and effective delivery of services, and value for money for ratepayers," he said.

Kieran McCarthy of Alliance said he was glad the government had raised the possibility of 15 local councils rather than deciding on seven as previously suggested.

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