In two posts a few weeks ago, I looked at whether the Lisburn City Council website met its promises in relation to promoting transparency and accountability by publishing details of upcoming minutes and approved minutes on its website.
Tonight, I ventured down to the Island Civic Centre to attend a couple of the committee meetings.
The grand sounding Strategic Policy Committee was advertised on the website as starting at 6pm - on a link only updated a week or two ago. When I arrived the meeting was already underway - it had been brought forward half an hour a couple of days ago. Not such a triumph for public accountability and transparency.
So the main business was finishing up when I arrived. They’d had what was described as a “lucid presentation” from the NI Local Government Association’s chief executive Heather Moorhead and Peter Weir MLA about the Review of Public Administration that seeks to shrink the number of local councils across Northern Ireland.
There’s currently an informal (“voluntary”) Transition Committee made up of representatives from Lisburn City and Castlereagh Borough Councils that will take on legal powers next year in the run up to 2011’s local government changes.
A few month’s back, the Strategic Policy Committee delegated authority for decisions around Lisburn’s 400th Anniversary celebrations to a separate subcommittee. It reported back tonight that a couple of new projects had been agreed, including a substantial one that proposed to put an ice rink in the centre of Lisburn city centre over Christmas. (Update - new post looking at how much it might cost.)
Flag flying was raised in relation to some complaints that are making their way through the Equality Commission.
The meeting closed with the Chief Executive noting that much of the Strategic Policy Committee’s work had been moved to the Transition Committee (whose minutes are not currently made public, despite what it says at the bottom of a recent press release) and to the 400th Anniversary subcommittee (which doesn’t advertise its meetings, doesn’t publish its minutes, and only includes the briefest of summaries in the SPC minutes).
Councillor Palmer (I think) generously passed around fresh plums as the meeting ended! Cue lots of people walking around with stones looking for one of the scarce bins.
Then at 7pm, it was the turn of the Planning Committee which is attended by the full council and held in the main Council Chamber.
The first business was a presentation by Billy Thompson on behalf of the Dunmurry Community Association detailing their views on the proposed boundary changes. The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner has recommended that Dunmurry becomes part of Belfast rather than remaining in the Lisburn/Castlereagh council.
The change is opposed by DCA, demonstrated by nearly 1000 letters sent in from the 1500 local residents and businesses. Though there was a suggestion that some residents in the newer estates (to the west of Creighton Road) did feel a closer affinity to West Belfast.
One practical upshot of the boundary change would be a massive increase in the charge incurred when a Dunmurry resident buried a family member in a Lisburn cemetery as opposed to one in their new (Belfast) council area.
From where I sat, with the exception of Sinn Fein, the Lisburn councillors were supportive of the DCA’s approach and alternative boundary suggestions. Arlene Foster was criticised by some for expanding Belfast’s power when she proposed the boundary change as Minister of the Environment, and the current Environment Minister and other MLAs sitting as Lisburn councillors were scolded for not intervening at Stormont.
A letter was to be sent to express Lisburn City Council's concerns. Basil McCrea (UUP) queried whether they were sending the letter to the right people (OFMDFM) rather than the Department of Environment. Not sure they actually answered his question! But the DUP did indulge in some light hearted heckling of Basil McCrea, including Councillor Givan who took the time to look up from reading his magazine! (Later he chatted his way through much of the Planning Reform presentation.)
Working their way through lists of planning applications with the planning officer there was a real fuss over a planning application for new residential build/properties. A couple of DUP councillors felt that this residential application in an area designated for residential properties was somehow compromised by another application by the same applicant for a very large retail development (reported in this week's Ulster Star) on the same land. Discussion continued long after they’d agreed to push the application sideways into an office meeting.
Edwin Poots (a Lisburn councillor as well as MLA and Environment Minister) absented himself during two of the planning presentations to avoid a conflict of interest should he be called upon to take a view on them with his minister's hat on. There was some discussion around whether leaving the council chamber was sufficient, or whether he needed to leave the building completely. Again, no conclusion.
Michael from Turley Associates gave a twenty minute presentation on Planning Reform and the implications for the local council in 18 months time when the proposals will be implemented. Perhaps two, maybe three, councillors actually listened to the presentation. The rest chatted, fixed up dates in their diaries, and walked out of the chamber, mobile phones glued to their ears. I suspect that I’d have been thrown out of the public gallery (chairs around the back of the chamber) if I’d behaved in the same manner as the councillors!
There were questions on whether Coca-Cola were being properly held to account by the Roads Service to comply with the planning restrictions on their new bottling plant at Knockmore Hill. Heavy vehicles should be sticking to the major roads in the area, but this was alleged not to be the case.
Bad luck has hit the long running saga of the Legacurry Bridge. Just as the bridge was about to be reopened to a single lane of traffic (with traffic lights controlling the flow), a culvert just up the road collapsed, and will take a week or so to be repaired.
The last piece of planning business was a suggestion that the old SEELB training building - Rathvarna House on the Antrim Road (near Murphy's garage) - be put forward for listing in advance of an SEELB planning application to demolish it. Jeffrey Donaldson referred to the property’s place in Lisburn’s built heritage. Someone’s going to be busy typing up all the letters the planning committee agreed to send tonight!
It was a bizarre experience to sit through and witness the council committees. While there was some good humour shared across the circular chamber, there was plenty of school boy tittering and jeering - particularly noticeable whenever Alliance Councillor Trevor Lunn spoke. Somewhere between childish and rude. And there was a lack of attention which didn't help Sinn Fein Councillor Butler's dithery style of questioning.
My impression was that the older councillors - the ones perhaps most likely to take a package and leave when the Lisburn and Castlereagh councils merge in 2011 - were the ones contributing the most, not in quantity of words, but in quality of intervention. The younger councillors would need to up their game if they're going to maturely represent Lisburn interests in years to come.
But if more people came to witness what goes on, then perhaps there would be a change of attitude.
Lastly to note that there’s good BT Openzone wifi coverage in the council chamber. Though it’s pretty weak outside in the public seating. Councillors seem to have electronic access to meeting documents, and quite a number sat in front of open laptops rather than piles of papers. Ironic then that the public copies of approved minutes are scanned in PDFs rather than actual electronic copies.