There are plans to amalgamate the 26 councils into 11 bigger areas
Plans to streamline Northern Ireland's 26 local councils could be on the verge of collapse, leading to elections next year, a Stormont minister has warned.
In a leaked letter obtained by the BBC, the Environment Minister Edwin Poots warned his Executive colleagues that time is running out to reach agreement.
Last March, the Executive agreed to cut the 26 locals councils to 11 in a move seen as proof that the DUP and Sinn Fein could cut a deal on a big issue.
So far the programme has cost £5.5m.
Mr Poots's department is overseeing the shake-up, but in the letter he warned that failure to agree new council boundaries could mean he may not get the necessary legislation through by the end of this year.
He predicted this could lead to the collapse of the whole local government reform programme which was meant to save the Executive more than £400m over the next 25 years.
'Waste of money'
In his letter, Mr Poots said he had a "strong sense" that the Northern Ireland Office would call local elections next year if he could not provide the Secretary of State Shaun Woodward with an assurance that the Executive would bring forward legislation to implement the new local government boundaries by the end of 2009.
He said the timetable for the proposed Local Government (Reorganisation) Bill was "already challenging" and stressed that agreement needed to be reached by the next meeting of the Executive.
The minister pointed out that failure to agree on the boundaries would be a waste of time, money and effort which had already been expended on the programme.
Mr Poots has sent a letter of warning to his Executive colleagues
He added that it would also cause "considerable damage" to the reputation of the Executive.
The Environment Department refused to comment on correspondence between ministers.
Last month, it emerged that more than £90m has so far been spent on the Review of Public Administration, which also includes reforms to the health and education sectors.
Alliance Party leader David Ford said the letter "calls into question the integrity of the whole boundary process".
"The whole point of having an impartial Boundary Commissioner is to give the process full credibility and ensure buy-in from all sides," he said.
"This letter is a very worrying development in this long-running saga."
John Mathews of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association said his colleagues were shocked and deeply disappointed.
"It would be an outrageous disservice to our citizens to let all of this work run into the sand at this stage," he said.
Mr Mathews said the situation was "deeply demoralising".
"The topic of local government reform has been on the agenda for seven years - it is time to stop marching on the spot and to move forward in delivering the real benefits promised," he said.