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Council Power Sharing

Mark Devenport | 13:48 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Edwin Poots launched a council reform paper this morning which includes proposals to return planning powers to our councillors for the first time since 1973. Should the proposals be implemented it will be a test of local politicians' ability to decide planning decisions professionally and with impartiality. At present councils discuss planning applications but don't make the final decision. Big decisions, on strategic planning matters, will still be taken centrally by the department (which is subsuming the planning service).

The other aspect of the paper covers the future governance arrangements for our councils. This is where you need to be a bit of an anorak. The consultation document suggests that council posts should be handed out in proportion to a party's strength. But how to judge that? The paper mentions the possibility of Single Transferrable Voting in which each councillor could vote for the individual they think should get a job. It also raises the possibility of the Saint-Lague system (devised by a French mathematician who once calculated that a bumblebee could not fly.) However it returns to the trusty old D'Hondt method used for the Stormont ministries as the fall back if parties cannot agree an alternative.

Mr Poots' resort to D'Hondt has drawn fire from the TUV leader JIm Allister who argues that "far from diminishing D'Hondt and moving away from mandatory coalition the DUP, sadly, is in the business of bedding it into even local government." There's a different kind of criticism from the Alliance's Stephen Farry who told me D'Hondt unfairly favours large parties. He thinks that if the method was employed in Castlereagh and Lisburn unionists would get all the top posts and the reverse would be true in Newry and Derry. The consultation document suggests applying D'Hondt to all positions over a four year period to counter any bias towards bigger parties. But Mr Farry isn't convinced this will make much of a difference.

The paper also suggests checks and balances including a procedure under which 15% of the members of a council could "call in" a decision related to the protection of a political minority in the council area. It is also proposed that key decisions which have an impact across a number of wards or involve a major capital project should be subjected to an 80% weighted majority vote rather than the cross community vote used at Stormont.

The department is asking for comments before March 11th next year. If you want someone to explain the detailed maths behind D'Hondt, Saint-Lague or the "Droop Quota method" ask them, not me.

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