The chief executive of Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council says the merger of the two legacy councils has been good for local ratepayers.
Looking back on the first year of the new super council - which came into existence on April 1, 2015 - Jacqui Dixon said that people need only look at their rates bills to see the benefits.
“This process was really all about efficiencies and saving money and I think if you look across the 11 councils I am 99 per cent sure we were the only one that was able to deliver a rates reduction or a zero per cent increase for all of their ratepayers - I don’t think any other council has achieved that,” she told the Times.
While admitting that the reorganisation of local government has thrown up many challenges, particularly in terms of staffing issues and councils taking on new powers, Mrs Dixon believes the process has gone well thus far.
“Twelve months in, on reflection in terms of what we have achieved, it couldn’t really have gone any better,” she continued.
“In the chamber we’ve got the 40 councillors and they have certainly demonstrated very strong political and civic leadership; they are very ambitious for the council. We have put together a very ambitious Corporate Plan and, importantly for the ratepayer, over the last two years in terms of striking the rate we have been able to achieve a zero per cent increase for the Newtownabbey ratepayer and we are quite confident that we can sustain that over the lifetime of the council.”
The chief executive confirmed that the rates convergence process is due to be completed next year, with the district rate in the Newtownabbey area likely to remain frozen while rates in the Antrim area will be reduced for the third year running - a move required to bring the two figures into line.
Mrs Dixon stressed that the local authority is working hard to find ways of doing things better and more economically while maintaining the high level of service that ratepayers expect. She said that a number of efficiencies have already been achieved through initiatives such as the staff severance scheme, which it is estimated will save the council around £1million every year.
“We are in a good, strong financial position and I suppose that sets us up well for the future in terms of the priorities that the councillors want to deliver for the borough,” she said.
As well as progressing several major capital projects that are already in the pipeline, council staff and members are also looking to the future and shaping the development of the borough for years to come.
Through the Local Development Plan the authority will be able to zone land for various uses over the next 15 years, such as housing, economic development and industrial projects. And the Corporate Plan will map out priorities in terms of tackling issues that aren’t necessarily within the council’s remit, but where it can still play a major role alongside other statutory bodies and organisations - in education, health, transport, job creation and other key areas.
Estimating that the merger and associated restructuring is “about 75 per cent complete”, Mrs Dixon confirmed that the rebranding of council vehicles and replacement of ‘Welcome to...’ road signs will be progressed over the next few months.
“There is still some work to do in terms of the staff structure and reorganising that, but apart from that it’s business as usual and hopefully from the public’s point of view they don’t really notice any difference in the day to day services that they receive from the council,” she continued.
“By this time next year we will have a very settled and strategically more coherent organisation.”
While stressing that the council has no plans to close any of its facilities, the chief executive revealed that staff will be carrying out a “comprehensive asset review” between now and the end of 2016.
“This council is very conscious and very focused on doing the best for the ratepayer and if that means some things have to change or people have to move then it’s my job to manage that,” she added.