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Boundary dispute village at the heart of a £9m disaster

By Victoria O'Hara

It was the boundary dispute that helped to sink plans to reform local government in Northern Ireland.

The Review of Public Administration (RPA) was to have been one of the Assembly's most far-reaching reforms with ambitious plans to streamline our 26 councils into 11 and lead to savings worth more than £200m a year.

Instead, the plans collapsed amid accusations of gerrymandering of the new proposed council areas.

So far the failed RPA plan has cost the taxpayer almost £9m but there are fears the final cost could be much higher.

Last week the Executive failed to agree plans, leading to the NIO confirming elections for the existing 26 councils will go ahead next year.

One of the key issues at the centre of the failure to implement RPA was a disagreement over whether Dunmurry and the large nationalist estates of Twinbrook and Poleglass should go into a new, bigger Belfast ‘super council’, or become part of the new Lisburn/Castlereagh authority.

The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner recommended that the areas became part of Belfast.

It felt that if Belfast was to hold on to four Parliamentary constituencies, the city must spread out into the suburbs.

But this sparked major political disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

DoE Minister Edwin Poots |said the boundary that would incorporate Dunmurry into Belfast, rather than Lisburn, did not make sense.

This in turn angered Sinn Fein. MLA Paul Butler accused Mr Poots — who is a DUP councillor for the area — of attempting to |gerrymander the independent Boundary Commission's recommendations.

Mr Butler said he questioned whether the minister had a conflict of interests and was acting out of political motives.

But the minister said “strong local opposition was expressed which was not heard by the Boundary Commission”.

That strong opposition was from the Dunmurry Community Association, which said it wanted to remain in Lisburn.

The majority of people the Belfast Telegraph spoke to in |Dunmurry said they wanted to stay in Lisburn, where the rates are lower.

But some political commentators believe there is a purely political motive to this dispute.

If Dunmurry, Twinbrook and Poleglass become part of Belfast, unionists fear that an extra nationalist ward in the city might be just enough to upset the balance of the council and tip it into nationalist control.

UUP leader Sir Reg Empey said: “The bottom line is that the councils were not ready, but the reason they were not ready and the straw that broke the camel's back was the boundary issue.”

'We are ready to fight on to ensure we stay in Lisburn'

Four miles from Belfast, Dunmurry is a bustling village flanked by the River Lagan.

But the recent political debacle over whether or not the village would be part of a new Belfast ‘super council’ or become part of the new Lisburn/Castlereagh council area has left some feeling they have been sold down the river.

Previously seen as a mainly unionist stronghold, residents say that this has “slowly changed” over the years with the nationalist population growing.

But Dunmurry hit the headlines as one of the key sticking points why a £9m plan to revamp the whole Northern Ireland council system has failed.

Some residents, who are passionate that they should remain in Lisburn, believe they were “just a pawn” in a bigger political row.

Other residents, however, out shopping in the busy Dunmurry village told the Belfast Telegraph they “don’t really care”.

Billy Thompson, chairman of the Dunmurry Community Association, said they realised “a lot of work” had gone into the review of local government.

But he added: “From a selfish point of view, we were delighted that the plan failed. We don’t want to move councils.

“We were supportive of Edwin Poots and the fact that he raised the local issues — which were the economical impact on residents.”

Mr Thompson, in fact, claims residents could face a 30% jump in rates if they move to the Belfast district.

Donna Higginson (39), a housewife from Dunmurry, said the whole thing is confusing.

“To be honest, I don’t really care — but at a push I would rather just stay in Lisburn. I don’t think there would be any benefit for us in having Belfast as our council.

“But the whole matter is confusing. Nobody really knows what the impact will be.”

But pensioner Stanley Watersworth (64) said he couldn’t “believe the fuss”.

“Why fix something that I don’t believe is broken?” he asked.

Stuart Livingstone (39), with his partner Lisa Rea (29), also said there was no real reason to change.

“There are probably some benefits that might arise out of moving councils, but as far as I see they are just doing a good job.

“For me what is important is who collects things on time, and who keeps the rates down.

“I do think it is a disgrace, the cost of that plan and nothing being done, but then again this seems to be happening all the time with politicians.”

Siobhan Whittaker (35) owns the florists in the heart of Dunmurry village and has lived there for 12 years.

She said the move to being in a super council would “eat Dunmurry up and leave it vacant”.

“If we go into Belfast you pay higher rates and mine are high enough as it is.

“I’d like to stay in the Lisburn borough. I don’t understand the real necessity of moving just to make the boundaries bigger.

“I don’t see how it will do any real good. There is a business that closed down next to me last year and another business, the butcher’s, just closed two or three weeks ago.

“It is really, really difficult to make ends meet as it is. If I go into the Belfast council it will mean my rates will jump and I would have to rethink after building a business up.

“I think it is all politically orientated for whatever party to get more votes.”

Nuala O’Doherty (19), a student, has lived in Dunmurry her whole life.

“I would just be interested if transport and the cost of things would be made cheaper. But I think there were more political reasons that underpin all of this.”

Mr Thompson added: “I feel we were a pawn in a bigger issue which I think was more to do with the economics.

“We were surprised and baffled that Dunmurry was named as a sticking point. We felt boundary issues could have been simply sorted out.

“But we know this probably isn’t over, but we are prepared to continue to fight on and make sure we stay in Lisburn.”

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