Parties demand civil service move to Ballykelly is shelved over costs
Stormont parties are demanding a rethink of the multi-million pound plan to transfer the Department of Agriculture headquarters from Dundonald to the former Army base at Ballykelly.
The Ulster Unionist Party has withdrawn support as estimated costs approach £40m and called for any move to be postponed.
SDLP and Alliance MLAs have also voiced concerns - clashing with Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill who wants to spread civil service jobs beyond the greater Belfast area. Other sections of her department are to go to Downpatrick, Enniskillen and Cookstown.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said: "We have to cut our cloth. Value for money in moving has never been demonstrated, and the minister has ignored the repeated concerns of officials across many departments, including her own."
He said there were conservative costings of £40m and Ms O'Neill's hopes of saving £26m by using existing buildings at Ballykelly had been dismissed as "fanciful".
"We believe that the project should now be postponed and no further money spent until an independent investigation into the decision and its feasibility have been conducted. In the absence of demonstrating value for money, we cannot but believe that the move at present is being advanced exclusively for party political advantage."
Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy said his party had expressed concerns "on a number of occasions about the wisdom of spending so much when money is scarce".
"Even the farmers are a bit concerned about what is happening and a lot of my constituents in Strangford who are employed in Dundonald House will certainly not be going to Ballykelly."
And the SDLP's Joe Byrne said while his party welcomed the move out of Belfast, a crucial cost and human resource analysis was still lacking. "The SDLP requires a more detailed costing and business case before any move is finalised and implemented," he added.
At Question Time in the Assembly, however, Ms O'Neill said she remained committed to the plan. "It is about a fair distribution of public sector jobs and fairness across the public sector. We will continue to drive that forward," she said.
And she said initial concerns about staff not wanting to transfer out of Belfast had been allayed. "Individuals want to find a better life/work balance and a job closer to home," Ms O'Neill added.
"Over 1,500 wanted to apply for Ballykelly alone; over 1,000 for Cookstown; almost 1,000 for Downpatrick and 435 for Enniskillen.
"I am very enthused by the numbers of staff who have decided that they want to work in a location outside greater Belfast, showing that there is a need for this change across all departments."
Relocation of an entire government headquarters to the former Ballykelly Army base is only one part - albeit the main element - of the transfer.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) revamp also involves the relocation of fisheries to Downpatrick, forestry to Enniskillen and the Rivers Agency to Loughry Campus in Cookstown.
The first phase of the plan - the transfer of fisheries and forestry services - is due to take place this year but there have been concerns that most staff in Dundonald House did not want to have to move to the new Ballykelly site.