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Last Updated: Friday, 18 August 2006, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
Shape of NI 'super councils' emerging
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
Political editor, BBC Northern Ireland

They are sometimes called the government's Plan B should the Stormont Assembly fail to get off the ground. Now more details are emerging about what the planned seven new super councils might look like.

Voters will be asked to go to the polls in two years' time to elect so-called shadow councils.

In 2009, the new bodies will take over from the existing 26 councils.

At Stormont, politicians designate themselves unionist or nationalist

Over the summer, the Department of Environment's Local Government Reform Task Force has been considering in detail how the new councils should operate.

Sub-committees have reported on areas like governance, relations between local government and central government and questions raised about the kind of headquarters the new councils will need, and what should be done with property already in council portfolios.

A key issue tackled by the governance sub-committee is what kind of protection there should be for the nationalist or unionist minorities within the new council areas.

'Current deadlock'

A committee, which includes representatives from the five main parties, has suggested the answer could be weighted majority voting, by which three quarters or more of the new councillors will have to agree contentious matters.

That is a change from the system negotiated during the Good Friday Agreement for use at the Stormont assembly.

26 councils reduced to seven super councils
Maximum of 50 councillors per council
Planning responsibility returns to councils
Assembly members not allowed to sit on councils
Councils to devise community plan for delivery of local needs

At Stormont, politicians have to designate themselves as unionists or nationalists. Difficult issues require parallel consent - meaning that both communities can veto a proposal they do not like.

The system was designed as a guarantee against the majority community freezing the other side out of power. But critics say it has contributed to the current deadlock at the assembly.

Instead, the latest blueprint for the new councils suggests weighted majority voting. If 20% of councillors do not like a proposal, they can "call it in" - basically demanding it is given special consideration.

Only if 75% of councillors approve, can the policy proceed. Looking at the planned seven new councils, unionists will be in the majority east of the River Bann, while nationalists will be in a majority to the west.

The weighted majority system would appear to guarantee minority interests in six of the seven proposed new councils.

For example, in the North West council area, where unionists are likely to be around 28%, they would be able to stop a proposal they oppose.

Belfast city council is thought likely to be retained
Belfast city council is thought likely to be retained

However, in the proposed greater Antrim council, nationalists could have a problem, as they may constitute a minority of only 15%.

That is not enough to trigger the "call in" nor enough to block a 75% vote. For that reason, nationalists indicate they may agree to the system in principle but still want to argue about the precise threshold.

Besides the idea for weighted majority voting, it is proposed that council jobs should be allocated in proportion to party strengths.

It is recommended a new Commissioner for Local Government should keep an eye on the conduct of individual councillors.

There is also a suggestion for a new Communities Minister, within the Office of First and Deputy First Minister, whose job would be to act as a champion for local government.

A Partnership Panel would bring together representatives of central government and the councils.

The details of all of this are yet to be agreed, as are the precise boundaries of the new councils and where their headquarters will be.

But the progress made so far in the latest blueprint appears in stark contrast to the continuing deadlock at Stormont.

The proposed council areas

Mark Devenport explains more about the 'super councils'





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