Councillors in Derry have branded a decision by government departments to turn down a request to meet over rates support cuts “absolutely disgraceful”.
They will now seek a meeting with the Secretary of State after being told that the joint request issued by Derry City & Strabane District Council and other “less wealthy” councils in the north was rejected.
The Council’s Governance and Strategic Planning Committee was also told at its monthly meeting on Tuesday that local community services could be adversely impacted if contingency plans ordered for further cuts to rates assistance are implemented.
It was revealed at the meeting that the council have over the past six months managed to save £811,000 from their own budget. Lead Finance Officer Alfie Dallas told the committee that this had been due to different factors.
These included staff vacancies, the Brandywell stadium closure and greater than projected income from leisure facilities, car-parking charges and planning and building income.
It was proposed that £120,000 of the underspend is set aside for Brandywell Stadium fit-out costs, while other funding is expected to be used to repair council properties following recent flooding.
The committee was told that it was “very disappointing to note the impact of the four percent cut applied to Rates Support Grant and this, along with further potential cuts to this and other central government grants, presents significant challenges for the upcoming rates estimates process”.
Letters in relation to the Rates Support Grant were sent to the Secretary of State James Brokenshire and a number of senior civil servants, “requesting an urgent meeting to demonstrate the impact that cuts to this grant will have on the seven less wealthy Councils”.
As well as the request being denied, the committee was told Departments have been asked to provide information on the potential impacts of further overall budget reductions of four, eight and 12 percent in the next two years.
Sinn Fein councillor Brian McMahon said the savings the council had achieved were “significant” but added that it was “incredibly shocking and disappointing” that the meeting request was turned down. UUP councillor Derek Hussey said it was “absolutely disgraceful” that civil servants were refusing to meet with democratically elected members.
There are now plans for further correspondence from the seven councils, and councillors agreed to seek a meeting with James Brokenshire.
SDLP councillor John Boyle said: “We represent the second city in the north and the wider city and region and I think it is about time we asked for a bit of respect for people in this city and district, as once again it feels like we are being treated as second-class citizens.
“We are not taking it; we are not taking it anymore.”
Independent councillor Gary Donnelly said he was not surprised about this and that a strong message was needed to make them take notice.