Watchdog to probe rising £9.5m costs of Gobbins cliff path
The Northern Ireland Audit Office says it plans to look at Mid and East Antrim Borough Council's spending on The Gobbins cliff path in "more detail than normal" during this year's annual audit of the local authority's accounts.
To date the multi-million pound attraction has been accessible to the public for only six of the 19 months since it reopened in August 2015.
The £7.5 million coastal walk was forced to close after just five months when a landslip caused by heavy rainfall damaged parts of the access path.
The path briefly reopened over the 2016 May Day weekend, but closed again on June 20 for essential maintenance to prevent rock falls.
The visitor centre, viewing platform and access path leading to the cliff walk's entrance at Wise's Eye were the only parts of the attraction to remain open.
Earlier this year Mid and East Antrim Borough Council announced that it will reopen the attraction at the end of June.
It revealed that it had spent around £500,000 on maintenance up until February 2017, and had budgeted a total of around £2m for such work.
This means that the bill for the attraction could cost up to £9.5m.
The last audit of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council's accounts by the Audit Office took place in August/September 2016.
However, while the council spent £82,502.28 between August 2015 and October 2016 on repairs, the NIAO has revealed that "no amounts specifically related to The Gobbins repairs were selected" for audit testing through its random sample procedure during the 2016 audit.
Five other areas of expenditure related to The Gobbins were selected for "detailed testing", and the NIAO says that "no issues were identified".
However, the NIAO refused to disclose what these areas of expenditure were, stating that this was "not covered by the Freedom of Information Act".
It added: "As part of this year's audit we intend to look at the spending on The Gobbins in more detail than normal.
"We may report on this in the annual audit letter to the council if there are significant issues that we consider we need to raise." East Antrim DUP MLA Gordon Lyons said it was important that people had full confidence when public money was being spent.
"I look forward to the necessary work being done quickly so that The Gobbins can open and enhance the tourism potential of the wider East Antrim area," he added.
Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said: "Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
"If they had known that amount of money would be spent, would they have embarked on this in the first place?
"There is a need to ensure that it is value for money and will deliver in terms of tourists on the ground and tourist pounds in Mid and East Antrim."
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council said: "The Northern Ireland Audit Office examined all expenditure of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council in 2015-16 (the first year of operation of the new council).
"This review included spending on The Gobbins during that period.
"The council has received an unqualified audit opinion. The next audit will cover the period ended 31-03-17 (2016-17).
"All expenditure of council, including expenditure at The Gobbins, will be available for review by NIAO."