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Belfast council funds doling out £31m to community projects 'inadequate'

By Suzanne Breen

Published 03/10/2016

Astounded: Councillor Michael Long
Astounded: Councillor Michael Long

Two Belfast City Council funds which are allocating £31m of ratepayers' money are so inadequate that they are unfit for purpose, a councillor has said.

Alliance council group leader, Michael Long, said he was "astounded" to discover the process involved in allocating huge sums of money to community projects across the city.

His party will raise its concerns at a council meeting tonight and will call for an urgent review into how community funding decisions are made.

Mr Long said that the Belfast Investment Fund (BIF) and the Local Investment Fund (LIF), which are worth £27m and £4m respectively, were not advertised publicly, so denying all community groups the opportunity to take part.

Instead, he said, it was largely up to councillors to propose projects for funding to their area working group. Mr Long claimed that, in his opinion, there was no "clear, detailed, and adequate scoring" to determine which projects would be funded.

Belfast City Council responded to the criticism by saying it is committed to "openness and transparency" and that both BIF and LIF are subject to scrutiny.

The council is expected tonight to approve in principle, subject to conditions, BIF funding of £3.5m for the St Comgalls' project in west Belfast; £2.37m for Harland and Wolff Welders Football Club in east Belfast; £1.6m for the Grace Family Centre in north Belfast; £1.3m for the Lanyon Tunnels project in the Markets area of Belfast and £700,000 for Bredagh Gaelic Athletic Club.

Among other organisations already approved for BIF funding are Raidio F ailte (£950,000) and Davitts Gaelic Athletic Club (£1m) in west Belfast, and Willowfield Parish Church (£560,000) in east Belfast.

Projects approved for LIF funding include the James Connolly Interpretive Centre in west Belfast (£250,000), and Belmont Bowling Club in east Belfast (£200,000)

Mr Long stressed that he wasn't criticising the successful projects involved, nor the councillors who championed them.

"I'm not faulting them, or saying they don't deserve funding. They acted in good faith and did what they were asked to do by the council. But I am finding fault with the process involved. There isn't a level playing-field," he said.

The Alliance councillor described the processes involved in allocating millions of pounds of community funding in Belfast as "totally unsatisfactory". He said: "There is no advertising of BIF, or LIF, funding, no closing date for applications and, in my view, no overall objective and no clear, detailed and adequate scoring.

"Practices which would be deemed out of order if the council was filling one job vacancy are judged acceptable for allocating millions of pounds of cash. It's a crazy way of doing things."

Mr Long said that his experience as a councillor in Castlereagh before coming to Belfast, was very different.

"Even in Castlereagh Council, every funding process was advertised, so the whole community had a chance to participate, with an overall strategy in place to identify how projects met clear criteria and objectives.

"The process used by Belfast City Council for these two funds is not the same and it is surprising that the Local Government Auditor appears to have no concerns."

Mr Long said that both BIF and LIF operated on the basis of councillors bringing forward their own proposals to working groups for each area of the city.

"If a group doesn't have councillors to tell them about the funds, or propose them, they're disadvantaged. I've come across community groups which don't even know that BIF and LIF exist," he said.

"The system grants a lot of sway to local councillors. In an area of the city where one party dominates, that party has considerable control over the funding pot. If that party doesn't like certain community groups, then those groups could potentially experience difficulty when it comes to council funding. I feel the procedures used are too subjective."

A council spokeswoman said: "Belfast City Council is committed to openness and transparency, and all of the projects in relation to the Belfast Investment Fund (BIF) and the Local Investment Fund (LIF) are subject to scrutiny through the Area Working Groups, Strategic Policy and Resources Committee, and are ultimately ratified at the full monthly meeting of the council.

"All of the projects considered for funding are highlighted openly in our committee meeting minutes, which are available online at www.belfastcity.gov.uk

"The objectives and selection criteria for BIF were agreed by the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee on 24 April 2015.

"At the same meeting the three stage decision-making process was also agreed.

"Expenditure relating to BIF is audited by both our own internal audit service and the Northern Ireland Audit Office."

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