Alex Attwood's quota plan caps busy week

 

I spent Thursday morning in Templepatrick at the Local Government Association's annual conference.

Alex Attwood has already had a busy week with his Giant's Causeway golf course announcement, but that didn't stop him coming up with several more.

In fact the minister began his speech by joking to his senior officials that they could relax - there would only be two or three policy initiatives he hadn't run across them first.

As ever the minister wasn't short of a word or two (in fact Alex Attwood's executive colleagues probably think that Frank Carson's old joke "what's the difference between me and the M1? You can turn off the M1" could be applied to their SDLP counterpart).

He confirmed - as previously trailed - plans to ban double-jobbing on the new super councils, the almost immediate reduction in allowances for double-jobbing politicians and his de facto surrender to the DUP/Sinn Fein agreement on 11 councils.

Ending double-jobbing is likely to prove a popular policy for the minister, although the public may be less convinced about the need for generous severance packages for veteran councillors who step down as part of the planned re-organisation.

Blue-sky thinking

Mr Attwood had put that on hold but is now prepared to re-open negotiations about severance arrangements.

Engaging in a bit of blue-sky thinking, Mr Attwood said he is taking legal advice on whether he has the power to set quotas for female candidates in council elections.

His fellow minister, Martina Anderson, thought this was a good idea, pointing out that Sinn Fein already applied its own quotas.

However another female politician, Alliance Councillor Geraldine Rice, didn't sound convinced about the need for quotas.

'Grandstanding'

Even if he does have the power to legislate in this area, Mr Attwood's plan may well be scuppered by the DUP.

Peter Weir accused the minister of "grandstanding" and expressed his view that the idea would not gain sufficient support in the assembly chamber.

Mr Attwood also promised to bring forward proposals on the display of election posters - repeating a statement he has previously made during environment questions.

The Ulster Unionist Mike Nesbitt has previously declared his interest in bringing forward a private member's bill banning election posters.

Mr Attwood wouldn't spell out his ideas in any detail.

But whilst the public regularly complains about posters cluttering their streets, not all candidates share Mr Nesbitt's views (especially if they have the disadvantage of having less recognisable faces than the former TV presenter).

So lots to chew on, but one element in the minister's speech which left a sour taste in many councillors' mouths was the fact that the environment department expects the councils themselves to pay for the up-front costs of the forthcoming shake up.

Some councillors aren't convinced about the projected long-term savings, and predict that rate-payers will be unhappy when they see their rates increase sharply to pay for the short-term bills incurred during the re-organisation.

 
Mark Devenport Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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