Belfast Telegraph

Council row over vote to bail out pre-school group

By Rebecca Black

Belfast City Council has voted to step into the breach to provide funding for an early years programme catering for pre-school children in west Belfast.

The First Steps Early Years group has been running a service for pre-school children in the Lenadoon area for the past 16 years.

It was previously funded by the Belfast Education and Library Board, but lost part of this cash recently due to a fall in applications from children who are in the target group for the Pre-School Education Advisory Group.

SDLP councillor Colin Keenan proposed that the council give the group £8,000 as an emergency measure.

Unionist and Alliance councillors opposed the recommendation.

They are concerned it would lead to more requests from other groups who have lost their funding, particularly in light of recent cuts.

DUP councillor Lee Reynolds said the funding of the group was not the financial responsibility of the council.

"We could all arrive in here with an organisation finding itself in a similar situation," Mr Reynolds said.

He added the council should not "set itself as a funder of last resort", and criticised councillor Keenan for "offering false hope".

Ulster Unionist councillor Bob Stoker said funding would set a precedent and that other groups would have to be treated with equality.

Alliance councillor Andrew Webb said he took his responsibility to the ratepayers of Belfast very seriously but that, as a precedent to set, it was bad one.

However Mr Keenan, who proposed the motion, rejected the comments about it setting a precedent and said the same mechanism – Section 37 of the Local Government Finance Act – had been used to help a number of groups, including the Backin' East Belfast campaign, where council provided money to traders there who had lost business because of the Union flag protests.

The motion was seconded by Sinn Fein councillor Caoimhin Mac Giolla Mhin.

It was passed by 23 votes to 21 at the meeting last night.

Belfast City Council also voted last night to start using artificial Christmas trees.

City Hall's Christmas decorations are among the most impressive in Belfast, but council officials revealed finding the trees is becoming increasingly difficult and hard to arrange transport for.

The main tree at the front of City Hall will not be affected, but the other trees in the building will now be artificial.

They also said the two natural pine trees cost around £8,500 a year, including daily watering to prevent needle drop.

The cost of two artificial trees is approximately £18,000 and they will last up to 10 years.

Other changes to decorations include new energy efficient LED curtain lighting across windows to enhance the visual effect and the replacement of the existing pea lights in the trees with larger LED-type fittings.

The main Christmas tree is a Norwegian spruce, usually sourced from within Northern Ireland.

Last year it was a 15m tree from Pubble Forest in Tempo, Co Fermanagh, while in 2011 it was sourced in Augher, Co Tyrone.

Last night's meeting was the first for five new councillors.

They are Sinn Fein representatives JJ Magee, Mary Clarke, Ciaran Beattie and Arder Carson, who have replaced Conor Maskey, Danny Lavery, Tom Hartley and Gerard O'Neill.

It was also the first meeting for DUP councillor Nicola Verner, who was co-opted to replace William Humphrey.

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