THE Review of Public Administration initiated from Westminster has forced the Northern Ireland Assembly to make a number of changes to the administration of local government. The existing 26 councils scattered across Northern Ireland will be cut back to 11 and this will entail a substantial change in the organisation of the electoral boundaries.
District Electoral Areas Commissioner Richard Mackenzie has been appointed by the Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP, and after an eight-week period of consultation with the the public, he will report his recommendations back to her.
The new local government electoral districts will be set and in 2014 the shadow elections will take place for the new South Down and North Down councils. Down District Council and Newry and Mourne District Council merge into South Down and discussion has already begun about the location of of the new council chamber and offices. But initially there is a feeling that meetings will take place in Downpatrick and in Newry.
Transition committees representing councillors from both councils are now meeting and they are discussing mechanisms for the merger so that policies, structures and procedures etc are harmonised into one system.
One of the key features of this new electoral district layout is that in each district the wards will have a similar number of voters as much as is possible.
There will be a total of 41 wards in South Down across 7 districts, and in North Down there will be 40 wards with 7 districts. The population of voters in South Down is 120035 compared to the 111,915 in North Down. South Down is a more expansive geographic area and generally more rural.
There will be political and ultimately economic winners and losers in the new and final district changes. For example, Newcastle has been seen as the jewel in the crown in tourism in Down District but in a new administrative area with developments taking place on the coast and in the Mournes, will Newcastle continue to enjoy this position in years to come?
Political paries are now analysing the implications of the electoral district proposals and they too will planning their strategies ahead of the shadow council elections and eventually the next Stormont and Westminster elections. If a contentious issue arises, it can be forced to a public inquiry if 100 or more people object to an issue. And it is unlikely that this process will be devoid of political controversy.
These changes are quite historic and will ultimately change the politics of Northern Ireland driven more by local super councils with councillors paid a salary more akin to a wage and working on a more professional basis with council meetings likely to be during the working day.
Voters are being asked share their thoughts with the Electoral Commission in writing: you can write to:
Secretary to the Commissioner, Office of the District Electoral Areas Commissioner,
Belfast, BT8 7AR.
PROPOSED ELECTORAL DISTRICTS in DOWN