Fears raised in Derry & Strabane government support for poorer Councils could be scrapped

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Derry City and Strabane District Council members have voiced concerns about two reviews of the Department for Communities’ Rates Support Grant.

During a year end draft financial out-turn report, at a Governance and Strategic Planning Committee meeting, on Tuesday, Lead Finance Officer, Alfie Dallas, said the council budgeted this financial year for an expected Rates Support Grant of £1,789,263.

“Unfortunately the council was notified after the 2023/24 rates process that the regional pot was reduced to £4.9m with an associated allocation of £987,198 to council,” Mr Dallas said.

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“This created a budgetary pressure of £802,065 for the year, which thankfully Council was able to set aside funds within it’s financial contingency reserve at 2022/23 year-end to cover.

Concerns: UUP Alderman Derek Hussey and SDLP Councillors Brian Tierney and Rory Farrell.Concerns: UUP Alderman Derek Hussey and SDLP Councillors Brian Tierney and Rory Farrell.
Concerns: UUP Alderman Derek Hussey and SDLP Councillors Brian Tierney and Rory Farrell.

“The judicial review hearing against these cuts, in conjunction with Mid Ulster Council, has taken place in October and Council awaits the outcome.

“Additionally, the Minister for Communities has now commissioned an independent review of the Rates Support Grant, seeking an analysis of whether it remains fit for purpose and the original policy intent remains relevant.

“This is potentially a concerning development given the significant reductions applied to the fund in recent years and creates significant uncertainty around council’s forecast allocation for 2024/25.”

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UUP Alderman Derek Hussey said that it was “absolutely ridiculous” that members were still waiting for results from the judicial review eight months later.

“I don’t know what we can do to speed it up,” Alderman Hussey said, “but I do have to put on record my disappointment that we haven’t had a result from that review yet.

“Because it has massive implications for the services that we provide and hope to provide.”

SDLP councillor Brian Tierney shared Alderman Hussey’s concerns about the wait time and asked if there was a way to speed up the process.

He also expressed worry abut the independent review.

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“We have seen cut after cut to the grant and plugged that gap for many, many years,” Councillor Tierney said.

“Most of the Ministers we wrote to over the years had little understanding of why we need it and why we count on it, so the fact that they’re doing a review worries me that it may be done away with altogether.

“I’m not hopeful that a Minister is going to carry out an independent review and give this council what we’re due and what we’ve lost over the years.”

SDLP councillor Rory Farrell agreed that the independent review “does not look like good news”.

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He enquired if the review process involved meeting with councillors or would just be decided on written submissions.

Chief Executive John Kelpie said he would consult with legal services about the judicial review, but didn’t “honestly think we can do too much to speed that up”.

Mr Kelpie concluded: “In respect of the broader review of the grant, in May DfC started working with the Business Consultancy Service to draft up the terms of reference and at some point during that process councils will be engaged.”

DfC describes the Rates Support Grant budget as “a discretionary amount of funding which is able to provide financial support to less wealthier councils as defined in Section 27 of the Local Government Finance Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 and Local Government (Rates Support Grant) Regulations 2011”.

Andrew Balfour,

Local Democracy Reporter