Council plan receives mixed response

Details have been announced of new plans for seven ‘super councils’ in the North to replace the current 26 under the review of public administration announced by the British government last year.

The plans have now been put to public consultation until January 5.

“Key decisions” would also be taken on a cross-community basis and in future councils would assume responsibility for planning and local roads.

Should the power-sharing Assembly be revived next year, Assembly members would have to resign as councillors.

Boundaries commissioner Dick Mackenzie said he had chosen the names of the seven new councils, to reflect the north’s geography. He said attempts by historians to devise more colourful or traditional names not been successful.

Mr Mackenzie confirmed that his plans provided for 60 councillors to serve Belfast, which would incorporate the current city council area, parts of Lisburn, North Down and Castlereagh. The Belfast local government district will expand from a current council population of 277,000 to 320,000 .

Other areas are the Inner East, which would incorporate Antrim, Carrickfergus, Newtownabbey Councils and the remainder of Lisburn City Council. Populations in these six council areas range from 200,000 to 280,000.

The East District would comprise Ards, Down, parts of North Down and Castlereagh Councils.

Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon and Newry and Mourne would make up the South District.

Cookstown, Dungannon and South Tyrone, Fermanagh and Omagh would merge in the West District.

The North West District would comprise Derry, Limavady, Magherafelt and Strabane and part of Coleraine, including Magilligan Strand.

The North East District would be made up of Ballymena, Ballymoney, Larne, Moyle and a major part of Coleraine.

Mr Mackenzie insisted he had approached the drawing up of the boundaries purely on the basis of geography and not on the grounds of their electoral consequences.

“The proposed boundaries of the districts are based on the amalgamation of the existing councils, with the exception of Belfast, for which I am recommending a more natural boundary for the population living within the city area and which reflects the expansion of the city over the years,” he said.

At present, the moderate unionist Alliance party holds the ‘balance of power’ in Belfast. The expansion takes in additional unionist and nationalist areas and may shift the current position slightly in favour of unionism.

The remaining six proposed councils will be three unionist - North East, Inner East and East - and three nationalist - North West, West and South.

Sinn Féin welcomed the seven council plan when it was announced last year while the other parties favour an 11 or 15 council version.

Before the announcement Sinn Féin MP for West Tyrone Pat Doherty said the redrawn council boundaries should not result in gerrymandering in favour of one community.

“No-one should forget that the reason local government was stripped of much of its power was because of serious abuse of power by unionist politicians - a practice that continues today in many unionist-dominated councils,” he said.

Unionists oppose the seven council plan, which they claim would lead to ‘balkanisation’ and increased sectarianism. They have called for between 11 and 15 councils.

“The 7 council model is the only one we have seen so far to provide protection for all minorities,” said Doherty. “It would ensure that within each and every council area there would be a minority of at least 20%. Those who advocate 11 or 15 are failing to tell people that this would result in significant minorities being trapped within council areas where their rights would not be represented or protected.

Public meetings on the proposed changes will take place in the super council areas in January and February.

The Boundary Commission will revise its recommendations on March 31 next year, with a final report going to the Department of the Environment on May 31.

But if the Belfast Assembly is restored, the assembly will face a vote on the changes in July. With cross-community support required, commentators believe the proposals face a difficult passage.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News