Unionism was divided over council reform last night with every unionist outside the DUP who voted in the Assembly opposing a Bill that will enshrine in law the powers of the Province’s 11 new ‘super councils’.
But the votes of the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance saw the Bill comfortably pass its second stage by 64 votes to 12.
Ulster Unionist minister Danny Kennedy took the unusual step of voting against a Bill from the Executive of which he is a part.
The extensive Local Government Bill – which has 128 clauses, 16 parts and 12 schedules – contains several substantial changes for councils: protection for unionist or nationalist minorities; enforced power-sharing; and control over planning permission.
SDLP Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said that the changes represented “the most significant shake-up of our system of local government in over 40 years”.
The DUP’s Pam Brown said that the Bill was “a further stage of the devolution process”, seeing powers over roads and housing devolved to councils.
UUP MLA Tom Elliott made clear that he had concerns about the Bill but did not say that his party would oppose it.
However, UUP, TUV and NI21 MLAs voted against.
TUV leader Jim Allister said that the bill was “excessively prescriptive” and “stifling” but Mr Durkan insisted that every effort had been made to ensure that was not the case.
Mr Allister said the councils would “concentrate power” in a few hands under a new executive on each council made up of the major parties.
Smaller parties and independents would be effectively excluded, he said. But the DUP’s Peter Weir said that the system being implemented was closer to that of most councils in the rest of the UK.
NI21’s John McCallister questioned whether councils were capable of handling control of planning permission, with Basil McCrea saying that the Bill could “devolve [Stormont’s] dysfunctionality” to councils.