Page last updated at 20:49 GMT, Friday, 13 November 2009

Minister denies boundaries bias

Edwin Poots
Edwin Poots points to the boundary which he wants to be implemented

Edwin Poots has denied political bias was behind his warning that failure to agree on new council boundaries could scupper the whole reform programme.

The DUP environment minister warned his Executive colleagues that time is running out to reach agreement on plans to streamline NI's 26 local councils.

Some nationalists accused Mr Poots of having a conflict of interest because he wants to change a boundary in Lisburn, where he is a councillor.

He said he was voicing local concerns.

Mr Poots's department is overseeing the shake-up, and in a leaked letter obtained by the BBC on Thursday, he warned Executive colleagues that failure to agree new council boundaries could mean he may not get the necessary legislation through by the end of this year.

'Stronger identifiable boundary'

He predicted this could lead to the collapse of the whole local government reform programme which was meant to save the Executive more than £400m over the next 25 years.

Last March, the Executive agreed to cut the 26 locals councils to 11 in a move seen as proof that the DUP and Sinn Fein could cut a deal on a big issue.

On Friday, Mr Poots said the boundary which would incorporate Dunmurry into Belfast rather than Lisburn, recommended by an independent commissioner, does not make sense.

He insisted his motives were not because the change could ensure Belfast does not become a majority nationalist city, but because "strong local opposition was expressed which was not heard by the Boundary Commission".

"I've been approached by four out of the five major parties who asked me to make changes and bring Dunmurry back into Lisburn," he said.

"I have identified a stronger identifiable boundary, a main road, as opposed to a stream which has been culverted in many places and most people don't actually know where the boundary exists."

Mr Poots denied he was risking the future of the programme, which has so far cost £5.5m, because he was not getting his own way.

Observers will surely question whether a conflict of interest exists for Edwin Poots in holding the entire process to ransom over the single demand that one boundary affecting his own Lisburn constituency should be changed
Paul Butler
Sinn Fein

"If others say they want to block the programme as a result of this modest adjustment which is within my entitlement to make, that is up to them.

"We are awaiting legislation on the reorganisation which has been ready for five months to go out to public consultation - I am ready to go with that, it is others who are holding the process back."

Sinn Fein Lagan Valley MLA Paul Butler said Mr Poots was attempting to gerrymander the independent Boundary Commission's recommendations.

"Observers will surely question whether a conflict of interest exists for Edwin Poots in holding the entire process to ransom over the single demand that one boundary affecting his own Lisburn constituency should be changed," said Mr Butler, who is also a Lisburn city councillor.

Proposed council boundaries
There are plans to amalgamate the 26 councils into 11 bigger areas

Earlier on Friday, SDLP assembly member Dolores Kelly said that paralysis in the Executive seems to have turned into chaos.

Ms Kelly chairs the Assembly's environment and local government committee.

She said: "We have a number of officers at local council level, all sorts of employees wondering what their future is."

Ms Kelly said that "nobody knows what is going on now".

"We certainly know that November was the deadline for the minister in trying to ensure that this legislation would be in place for the elections to be held in 2011 for the new councils."



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