DARD headquarters move 'on course'
Minister rejects claims of spiralling costs and refuses to consider alternatives
A Stormont Minister has rejected a cheaper location her for new departmental headquarters in the North West and denied costs for the planned move to a former military base are "spiralling".
Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Michelle O'Neill said she remained determined to locate her HQ at the old Ballykelly army base.
More than 600 staff currently at the Department of Agriculture HQ in Dundonald, near Stormont, are being moved to the former base.
Ulster Unionist Jo-Anne Dobson suggested using the vacated Driver and Vehicle Licencing premises in Coleraine instead after its functions were transferred to Swansea in Wales last year.
The Upper Bann MLA claimed costs of the planned transfer are "spiralling" and the Coleraine site could prove "better value for public money" - assertions which the Minister denied.
Mrs Dobson said: "The costs for the project have been spiralling, not least since the Minister's hopes to save £26m by using the existing buildings on the site were later dismissed."
Ms O'Neill replied she was "absolutely confident" the Ballykelly site represents value for money and the claim about the costs spiralling "is wrong".
"It will create public sector jobs in the area, and there will be ongoing servicing of the building as well as the construction of the building. All those benefits speak for themselves.
"It is about time that we had all Departments looking towards the needs of rural communities and those people from rural communities who work in the greater Belfast area now to access employment."
Their exchange came as it was confirmed that the first major phase in shifting an entire Government department by more than 60 miles is complete.
Demolition work on the site, gifted to the Executive by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), has recently finished - but construction work on a new £45m headquarters building is not due to get under way until June of next year.
However, around 400 staff are to be moved by 2017, with the remainder joining them by 2020, the Minister told MLAs yesterday.
In response to a series of questions from the Belfast Telegraph, her department revealed the new headquarters will be built in two phases - the first, "accommodating 400 workstations" being completed by the end of 2017 and the second with a further 200 workstations, by end of 2020.
"The first move, involving 340 posts, will be when Phase One is completed in December 2017," a statement added.
This project involves the building of a new headquarters on the site. The estimated cost of relocation, contained in the outline business case, is £45.1m
"Costs are currently being refined as part of the development of a full business case which is to be completed by end November 2015," the statement added.