Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Short-changed by arts funding

There is a compelling duty on government departments and agencies to spend tax-payers' money wisely and prudently, especially in times of recession, when there are so many competing demands on the public purse.

That duty does not appear to have been adhered to when it came to funding seven major projects, most of them in the arts sector, which were delivered by Stormont's Department of Culture Arts and Leisure.

According to a damning Public Accounts Committee report, the projects, collectively, ran £25m over budget.

This, unfortunately, is not an uncommon feature of government capital projects, where initial estimates of the cost often prove to be wildly optimistic, with the final bill much higher than at first mooted.

But that is not the most worrying aspect of this report, which raised serious questions about the tendering process for one of the flagship arts projects, the rebuilding of the Lyric Theatre.

The committee concluded that they had a "strong impression" that the process had been "rigged and manipulated".

While this is disputed by the theatre, it is nevertheless evident that proper procedures were not adhered to in the process and that a body – the Central Procurement Directorate, which advises government departments on tendering issues – did not attend the tender evaluation meeting, even though it was tasked to provide advice. While it is accepted that the arts projects have contributed immensely to the cultural life of the province, as the report says, the ends cannot justify the means and value for money must always be a watchword for those who hold the public purse strings.

DCAL, the Arts Council for Northern Ireland and the Central Procurement Directorate are all criticised in the report, but there is no criticism of the company which won the tender for rebuilding the Lyric. Lack of proper oversight, failure to recognise a conflict of interest – the company was also a major donor to the Lyric – and significant departures from good practice are some of the criticisms made. As ever, the government department promises to review the report carefully but will similar failings be avoided in the future? Experience does not make us optimistic.

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