| 13.1°C Belfast

New council boundaries border on ridiculous: Sir Reg Empey


Ex-UUP leader Sir Reg Empey

Ex-UUP leader Sir Reg Empey

Ex-UUP leader Sir Reg Empey

A former Executive minister has slammed some of the new council areas due to be formally elected this week as "ridiculous".

Ex-UUP leader Sir Reg Empey, who was a member of the Executive that launched the Reform of Public Administration more than a decade ago, argued that local identities had been left out of the council changes.

He said it was "ridiculous" that while Twinbrook in west Belfast – only a few miles from Lisburn – was in the new Belfast council area, the Ballybeen estate in Dundonald was not.

"The Ulster Hospital is now in Lisburn!" he said.

But the DUP hit back saying that the new council boundaries were set by the independent local government commissioner, and branded the UUP is "confused".

The latest clash between the two main unionist parties came with only two days left before voters go to the polls to replace the current 26 councils with 11 new authorities.

Lord Empey (right), a long serving Belfast councillor, argued that when the proposed 11-council model was first mooted back in 2007/8, he and former Health Minister Michael McGimpsey urged then Environment Minister Arlene Foster to ensure that new Belfast boundaries would include the four current Parliamentary constituencies.

"However, when the proposals came to the Executive in 2008, the Executive voted through the proposals that in essence we have now, against UUP opposition," he said.

That attempt ended in stalemate, however, when the DUP and Sinn Fein could not agree on part of Dunmurry leaving the then Lisburn council area, and whether the Forestside complex should be in Belfast or Castlereagh.

"It fell to the current Executive, again without Ulster Unionist support, to deliver the gerrymander of Belfast with which we are now confronted," Sir Reg told the Belfast Telegraph.

"My conclusion is that local government reform was not conducted on the basis that local identity should be taken into account.

"There was a deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP that ensured Belfast would be deprived of the Rathcoole and Dundonald/Ballybeen areas for political, not local government reasons.

"We have the ridiculous situation where the Twinbrook housing estate in west Belfast, which is two miles from Lisburn city centre is included with Belfast, while the Ballybeen estate, which is 12 miles from Lisburn, is not.

"How Peter Robinson could have made such a strategic mistake is unclear, but what is clear is that the DUP in Belfast put up only token resistance to his deal with Sinn Fein."

Responding, DUP chief whip Peter Weir said: "Time and time again Reg proves that he is either unaware of, or chooses to ignore, the fact that council boundaries are set by an independent commission.

"The UUP doesn't know whether it wants 15 councils or 18 councils.

"Tom Elliott even suggested as recently as last year that his party were content to stick with 26 councils.

"The only consistent policy the UUP has is one of opposing whatever the DUP supports. The electorate expects more.

"The underlying problems facing the Ulster Unionist Party cannot be fixed by any change in council boundaries.

"Regardless of where lines are drawn on a map, the UUP's main problem remains convincing the public they have anything to offer."

Belfast Telegraph