Belfast City Council will take over parts of neighbouring Lisburn, Castlereagh and North Down districts under plans to reform local government in Northern Ireland. A new Newry and Down District Council will cover the whole of the Mournes Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including some of the existing Banbridge district.
The reorganisation of local government will see the number of councils reduce from 26 to 15 and will be achieved by merging district councils without otherwise affecting existing boundaries. The Office of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner is also proposing variations to the existing council ward structures, with a reduction in the number of wards across Northern Ireland from 582 to 460, with each new district having 40 wards – except Belfast that will have 60.
The Commissioner, Dick Mackenzie, said: “My proposals for the ward boundaries are designed to achieve, as far as possible, electoral equality within each of the proposed districts.” A spokesman for the commissioner said that this was an attempt not to change the political/religious composition of councils and to avoid any allegations of ‘gerrymandering’.
Alderman Arnold Hatch, the president of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association and a councillor on Craigavon Borough Council, expressed concerns about the proposals. He said that the changes to wards would mean that the new Fermanagh and Omagh District Council would have 1,860 voters per ward, while the new Armagh City and Bann District Council would have 3,125. He is also unhappy about the extension of Belfast’s boundaries. “They have taken chunks out of Castlereagh just to balance the [party political] groups in Belfast and then taken bits out of Lisburn, which is mainly nationalist, while Castlereagh is mainly unionist,” he said.
Lisburn City Council is taking legal advice on the proposals and will discuss them at an urgent meeting of its strategic policy committee. Belfast City Council declined to comment. No one was available at Castlereagh Borough Council.
There is uncertainty about when the new local government structure will be in place. A spokeswoman for Northern Ireland’s Department of the Environment said: “The previous minister Arlene Foster said that we aim to implement the reorganisation by 2011. That remains the case.” Consultation on the proposals will last until 12 November.