Uprooting of 800 civil servants to north west 'big blow for families'
As people in Ballykelly give a resounding welcome to the announcement that 800 civil servant jobs are to be relocated there, unions are being more cautious, with east Belfast politicians saying the move from Stormont will be a blow to families and the area.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) will move more than 70 miles from Belfast to the site of the former Army barracks.
The move is expected to bring a much-needed boost to the local economy, which was hit hard when the base closed.
Staff from DARD are expected to be in situ by 2015 and work on the site could begin as early as next year, creating a number of construction jobs.
However, fears are growing over the harsh choice facing the hundreds of civil servants who may have to uproot their families to keep their jobs.
The boost for the north west is being seen by some as a blow to east Belfast, where most of the department’s employees are believed to be currently located.
Local politicians are seeking urgent meetings with Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill over the decision.
Naomi Long MP (right) said: “I am concerned at the potential impact for many of the staff working at the department, who may now be faced with an expensive daily commute or having to uproot from greater Belfast.”
UUP MLA Michael Copeland said: “Political chess is being played with people's lives and livelihoods.”
Ms Long said she wants to meet Ms O’Neill with Alliance Party MLAs Judith Cochrane and Chris Lyttle. She added: “Although no staff members will be forced to move to the new location, in reality many will be left without any other option and I will be seeking assurances from the minister on choices available to them.”
Union Nipsa, which represents most DARD staff, said some members had expressed concerns but believed issues — including employment contracts, job sharing, part-time working, reduced hours, and the retention of work conditions after relocation — could be resolved.
Assistant secretary Noel Griffin said the union had fought for the decentralisation of public sector jobs to ensure a fairer |distribution. He said: “Our view is quite clear and we agree with the ministers, nobody should be forced to move.”
By contrast, in the north west the mood was upbeat.
Tina McCloskey from Ballykelly Community Centre said the move was welcome.
Councillor Edwin Stevenson said that not everyone will want to relocate, which will help the north west population.
He said: “It would be foolish to imagine that all 800 workers within DARD will want to commute 140 miles every day so it is fair to say that if those posts are not filled through transfers then there will be job opportunities for people living in the north west area.”
”It makes good sense moving at least some Government departments out of Belfast and DARD already have a presence in the North West with Orchard House and the Veterinary Office in Derry and offices in Limavady and Coleraine.
“This site has been costing the Executive £100,000 a year to maintain so it was just good economic sense to put these 700 acres to use.”
The President of the Limavady Chamber of Commerce said: “The relocation of these 800 is certainly welcome news and there is a real buzz on the streets of both Ballykelly and Limavady and people have a spring in their step because they know that while these are not 800 new jobs, there will still be a significant knock-on effect for the local traders.
“My only concern is that I hope this announcement is not followed by the Executive closing Magilligan prison which will be catastrophic for this area.
“Over 500 people are either directly or indirectly employed at the prison and these are local jobs so bringing 800 new people into the area to work will not redress the effect of putting 500 others out of work.
“But right now we will concentrate on this positive news story for all the independent traders and will also breath some life into the construction trade locally too ahead of the relocation itself.”
The DUP has laid claim to first suggesting the former Army base at Ballykelly (right) be a new HQ of DARD. First Minister Peter Robinson visited the site — gifted to the Executive by the Ministry of Defence — with his party’s East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell last year. “I'm glad the minister and her officials have now recognised the potential of this site,” Mr Campbell said.