Belfast Telegraph

Waterfront work 'costs taxpayers'

Taxpayers are facing a bill of almost £3 million to upgrade one of Northern Ireland's top concert venues, it has been claimed.

The money is required to fund mechanical and electrical works at Belfast's Waterfront Hall which opened 20 years ago.

Belfast City councillor Jim Rodgers has expressed concern at the costs.

He said: "I am a big supporter of the Waterfront Hall. But, it is costing an awful lot of money."

The hall is currently undergoing a major £29.5 million extension. Construction work on the new conference centre is expected to be complete by December.

The city council contributed around £11 million to the redevelopment through its much-hailed Investment Package, with a further £14.4 million allocated by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

Cash for the convention centre cannot be diverted, a council spokesman said.

It is understood lighting, sound and lifts were due to be upgraded within the next few years and the spokesman claimed it "made sense" for the work to be carried out while the construction is ongoing rather than close the hall at a later date.

Ten years ago the Waterfront was shut for three months so faulty stage equipment could be fixed. Even though the staging and the elevator control system had been guaranteed for around 30 years, ratepayers had to foot a bill of between £1 million and £2 million.

Mr Rodgers said despite the costs, he believed the hall should stay under council control.

He added: "I am aware some councillors want to sell the Waterfront Hall while others think there should be some deal with the private sector.

"I think it should remain under council control. The hall is still in very good order and I want to see further details and more information about why it needs so much work."

Meanwhile, it has also been revealed that ratepayers may have to fund a £1.8 million shortfall to complete two major regeneration projects in Belfast.

Delays in an £8 million transformation of the North Foreshore and building of a £9.1 million Innovation Centre in west Belfast have resulted in a failure to secure crucial European funding.

In a statement, the City Council blamed circumstances outside its control.

A statement said: "The Innovation Centre and the North Foreshore are both key regeneration projects and in the longer term both will generate income and additional rates for the council as well as supporting jobs and levering private sector investment.

"However, members have been advised that due to circumstances outside of our control, an additional £1.8 million of council funding will be required to complete the North Foreshore and the Innovation Centre projects.

"The cost of the projects is the same but the shortfall is because all EU (European Regional Development Fund) funded projects are subject to an immovable deadline of expenditure by December 31, 2015 and the Innovation Centre and North Foreshore will not be completed by that date due to a delay in starting the projects.

"Although ERDF cannot go beyond the deadlines in relation to funding, Invest NI has confirmed it will continue to fund the project along with the council."

It is understood EU Letters of Offer have not yet been received for either project.

The statement added: "The work has not started on schedule as these are complex programmes and as a result there have been delays in agreeing letters of offer. There have also been other unanticipated issues requiring detailed legal, financial and valuation advice.

"The council is working very closely with all the relevant funding bodies on these projects to ensure their successful delivery and will be doing everything to deliver to the tightest possible deadline."

Plans for a multimillion-pound Creative Hub to support the digital media industry in Belfast have also been hit by delays.

The project hinges on the refurbishment of a building in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter.

A council spokesman added: "A letter of offer for funding has not yet been received for the Creative Hub project and it is proposed that this project is withdrawn from the current ERDF programme and resubmitted under an alternative funding programme which has a longer timescale.

"This does not change the scope of the project nor the council's commitment to it but eliminates any potential loss of EU funding due to the December 2015 deadline for ERDF."

Guy Spence, a Democratic Unionist councillor in Belfast, said it was important that the council fulfilled its commitment to deliver the regeneration projects.

He said: "Obviously it is a disappointment but we the council are left with the dilemma - we will have to decide yes or no for the projects to go ahead."

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