Newtownabbey Borough Council has agreed to spend around £30,000 on a purpose-built bonfire site in the Ballyduff estate.
By providing a suitable site for the annual July 11 bonfire, the council says it hopes to avoid a repeat of the situation which arose in the estate last year when a massive pyre consisting of thousands of tyres and pallets was built close to people’s homes, sparking fears for life and property.
The project, part of an environmental improvement scheme, could see a 15m long ‘estate feature’ wall constructed on the grass bank at Forthill Drive, behind which would be a level base for the bonfire. The front face of the structure could feature wording such as ‘Welcome to Ballyduff’.
The decision to go ahead with the project was taken by the local authority’s Planning and Consultation Committee on Monday night (April 7). However, it will only proceed if agreement can be reached with the Housing Executive, which owns the site, and local residents.
Earlier this year the council carried out a survey of more than 300 residential properties in the area. Of the 88 residents who responded, 82 per cent expressed concerns about health and safety issues associated with the annual bonfire and 79 per cent said that the council should provide a bonfire site as part of an environmental improvement scheme.
At Monday’s meeting, councillors were divided over the plan, with some keen to see it go ahead as soon as possible and others concerned that it could set a costly precedent.
The meeting was informed that bonfire builders in the estate have declined to take responsibility for the site, or insurance issues associated with the annual event - something which concerned several members, who argued that the council should only deal with a properly constituted group.
Cllr Gerry O’Reilly stressed that the Housing Executive has a ‘no bonfires’ policy on its land and warned that the council could be setting a costly precedent, opening the door to similar requests from bonfire organisers in other areas of the borough.
“Once we open this door it will be very hard to close it,” he claimed.
His concerns were echoed by several members, including Alderman John Blair, Cllr Lynn Frazer and Cllr Noreen McClelland, who questioned the use of ratepayers’ money to build a bonfire site on land that the council doesn’t own and isn’t responsible for.
“I’m supportive of spending money within Ballyduff to give it a facelift, but I’m not convinced that this is the best way to do it,” Cllr Frazer said. “If I thought that this was actually what the residents of Ballyduff wanted I would be supportive of it.”
“This scheme is not the best use of ratepayers’ money at this present moment in time,” Cllr McClelland added.
Alderman Blair warned that if a precedent is set, “the costs will start to escalate.” He also stressed that the council has received no guarantees that tyres and other illegal materials won’t be stored and burned at the site.
Chief executive Jacqui Dixon informed members that the council wouldn’t be buying or leasing the land. She said that the site would remain in the ownership of the Housing Executive and that they would retain responsibility for the issues they face every year in terms of the bonfire.
Cllr Billy Webb argued that the council should not be spending £30,000 to provide a bonfire site on land it doesn’t own, but should be working with the PSNI, Environment Agency and Housing Executive to facilitate a resolution to the problems facing residents living near the Forthill Drive site.
Cllr Victor Robinson claimed that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Housing Executive and other public bodies “don’t want to know” about the problems in the estate, arguing that the council has a duty to “take civic leadership” on behalf of its residents.
His party colleague, Cllr Robert Hill agreed, saying: “We have a duty to try to help the residents of this borough.”
Later in the meeting, Cllr Robinson pointed out that local residents had “pleaded with us to help” and said that they were “over the moon” that the council was taking action to alleviate their concerns.
The DUP’s Pamela Barr and Alliance’s Lynn Frazer suggested that further consultation should take place with residents and the Housing Executive before any decision was taken. However, their amendment was lost by eight votes to two.
A majority of members (10 - 7) finally voted in favour of a proposal from Cllr Hill that the scheme should proceed, subject to agreement being reached with the Housing Executive and local residents.
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