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'A waste of money'... Belfast City Council shells out £6,000 to protect play area from Eleventh Night flames

By Cate McCurry

Belfast councillors have slammed the cost to the public of moving a children's playground to facilitate an Eleventh Night bonfire after it emerged that £6,000 was spent on safeguarding swings.

Equipment from the new play park was removed from its site amid fears it could be destroyed by the bonfire at the notorious Chobham Street site in east Belfast.

Last year, residents were forced out of their homes and their windows had to be boarded up due to the threat posed by the towering pyre just yards away.

After material was spotted near the site last month, council officials put plans in place to remove swings and climbing frames to protect them from the heat only weeks into the summer holidays. Ratepayers forked out £6,000 to cover the cost of the controversial removal.

Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers hit out at the waste of ratepayers' money saying the bonfire should not have been placed at the site.

"It is public money and it has to be managed properly, and I have been saying to people that we need to sit down within the next few weeks to plan for next year's Eleventh Night bonfires because we cannot continue to allow people who build bonfires to act in an irresponsible fashion," he said.

"The vast majority of the fires went off without any difficulty or problems and the police will confirm that.

"It's a waste of taxpayers' money and I have said that from the beginning. I thought there would have been no bonfire in that area this year after what happened last Eleventh Night but at the last minute people started gathering materials, especially pallets, and that's the issue that needs to be addressed."

He said a plan to discuss next year's bonfire was "all systems go".

"We are not going to wait until the last minute, we are going to get involved and talk to those responsible for the bonfire pointing out to them that we cannot continue to allow them to waste taxpayers' and ratepayers' money - it's far too hard to find today."

Alliance councillor David Armitage branded the cost "disgraceful" adding that change need to happen before next year's July celebrations to ensure the same doesn't happen again.

"I realise the council had no alternative due to the proximity of the fire but it beggared belief that we ended up in a situation where equipment from a children's playground was moved in the first place," he said.

He added that the money could have been spent elsewhere in the community.

"It makes the situation even more disgraceful to find out it cost so much public money to do so, especially in an area which could have used that money for community development.

"We cannot deal with this situation and other similar ones if we wait until next summer. That's why Alliance are participating in meetings about next year's bonfires now. While many people engaged with the council and used a beacon instead, others didn't, so it is clear a better working protocol is needed.

"While everyone has the right to celebrate their cultural traditions in a respectful manner, using the public purse to spend a staggering amount of money to facilitate them at the expense of others should not happen."

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