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Local council changes must be fair for all

The Department of the Environment has launched a document on Reform of Local Government, and the SDLP has responded to this document in detail.

The whole system of local government had to be taken apart and rebuilt in the early 1970s after 50 years of unionist abuse of power.

As we again reform this system, we need to ensure that we get it right.

Just as housing powers were once abused, it would be possible for a politically dominated council to abuse powers over planning - which are to be returned to councils - to determine who could live where, where jobs are located, whose land is zoned for building and development purposes.

We need strong protections against any abuse of power, to ensure inclusivity and that power is shared democratically on councils.

The SDLP has proposed a legislative basis to council power-sharing that can guarantee cross-community representation in the top posts of all councils; proportional representation in council nominations to all committee posts and outside bodies; sufficient cross-community consensus on important decisions; and safeguards against partisan or sectarian decision-making.

We insist on power-sharing, not the sort of cosy power-dividing which Sinn Fein and the DUP seem to be comfortable with.

The d'Hondt power-sharing mechanism must be operated properly, which means the distribution of posts after an election must be for the full four years of the council's term.

There must be a pro-active mechanism to ensure that the letter and spirit of power-sharing and fairness legislation is adhered to.

The SDLP proposes that a 15% minority of councillors should be able to call in an independent commissioner to investigate any issue which indicated abuse or the danger of abuse of power, and that qualified 80% majorities would be needed to pass decisions on sensitive issues.

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