Hmm. For all the talk of double jobbing between Stormont and Westminster, perhaps more attention should have been paid to the fact that a large majority of Stormont MLAs are also district councillors. With these guys calling the shots, the reduction of the number of councils from 26 to 11 was never going to run smoothly. Although when it comes to some elements that are attractive to the political class but less so to the punters – such as pay-offs to retiring councillors or the elimination of by-elections – there has been remarkable harmony amongst the parties.
This is of course now a devolved matter, and falls within the bailiwick of environment minister Edwin Poots (DUP, Lagan Valley), who is also a member of Lisburn council. According to a leaked Executive document, Pootsie is proposing to tinker about with the findings of the impartial Boundary Commission, notwithstanding the exhaustive consultation the BC carried out prior to issuing its recommendations. And – purely by coincidence, I’m sure – this tinkering is taking place in the minister’s own backyard.
It all revolves around the boundaries between Belfast City Council and the new Lisburn-Castlereagh supercouncil – specifically, where the Dunmurry ward should go. The BC proposed hiving off the Twinbrook-Poleglass-Lagmore area from Lisburn and putting it into an enlarged Belfast. This made a lot of sense, as those estates have always considered themselves to be part of west Belfast and have never had much affinity for the extremely orange council in Lisburn. Dunmurry is a bit trickier, though. Quite a few people there wouldn’t mind staying in Lisburn, mainly because of the lower rates. Representations along these lines were made to the BC, which rejected them. Edwin now seems disposed to keep Dunmurry in Lisburn.
Does sectarian geography come into this? You bet your life it does. It is essential that Belfast not have a majority one way or the other, so while the city boundaries are being extended westward they are also being extended eastward, to take in some of the more urban parts of Castlereagh – which happen to be solidly Prod. Now, there seems to be a worry in unionist circles that the inclusion of Dunmurry in Belfast could tip the balance the wrong way. There also seems to be some thinking in SDLP circles that it might not be a bad thing to boost the numbers of Catholics in Lisburn so as to increase their electability. (Lisburn is already experiencing west Belfast creep, but if the boundaries are unhelpful then the SDLP might expire before demography shifts their way.) If this is the case, then it’s a rather embarrassing position for a party that was formed in large part to campaign against gerrymandering. Chris has a good breakdown of the local factors at work over at Slugger.
Then there is the monetary aspect of the land grab, as flagged up by Conall. In brief, the new boundaries were to see Forestside shopping centre go to Belfast, which would quite sensibly see the dual carriageway become the city boundary. The trouble is that Castlereagh council rakes in a great big whack of commercial rates from Forestside, which helps keep the domestic rates low. Pootsie proposes to allot Forestside to Lisburn-Castlereagh, in return giving Belfast the Dundonald Ice Bowl and the modestly named Robinson Centre. This is not a good deal for Belfast, but it would be a good deal for the (DUP-dominated) Lisburn-Castlereagh.
It remains to be seen how this will play out. Pootsie claims both unionist parties, the SDLP and Alliance are all willing to go along with his modest revision. On the other hand, the Executive operates on the basis of consensus and, even if this got to the Asssembly, the majority nationalist party could block it by calling for a cross-community vote under the GFA. Paul Butler (PSF, Lagan Valley), who represents the Dunmurry area, has pronounced himself opposed to the revision, though he may have to give his party a shake. If the plans don’t go through, the minister has been rumbling about how the entire project of local government reform may crash.
Although to be honest, when you look at how little power our local councils have and, specifically, the kind of balloons who get elected to the councils… would the electorate even notice? The existing councils have already had their terms extended well beyond the four-year limit, and nobody seems to be much exercised about that.