£350k offer to help redevelop Kilkeel harbour turned down by Government
Government officials have been urged to visit Kilkeel and speak directly to the fishing industry after a £350,000 offer from private businesses to unlock a multimillion-pound development of Northern Ireland's most important fishing harbour was turned down.
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Firms in the Co Down port had offered to pay for an environmental survey and other works required to push forward a £36m redevelopment of facilities.
However, in a letter, Denis McMahon, permanent secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), said it would be "inappropriate" to accept the offer.
According to Alan McCulla, chief executive of a Kilkeel-based fishing industry co-operative, the department has buried its head in the sand.
"It's all very frustrating and deeply disappointing," Mr McCulla said.
"This scheme has been ongoing for over four decades and we had built up a lot of momentum over the past few years.
"Independent reports have backed our business plan. Kilkeel is the right location for this expansion."
Mr McCulla said that last July assurances were given by the permanent secretary that "the business case stacked up".
"We were told there was 'a mind to progress' and we were expecting an announcement in September. That never happened," he added.
Instead, firms were told there would be talks with a senior civil servant at the Department for the Economy.
"There was optimism when we were then informed there was a 'legitimate expectation' to proceed," said Mr McCulla.
"DAERA then announced there was no budget for the work and that it could not authorise expenditure without a minister at Stormont, prompting the offer from companies at the harbour to fund the first stage of the plan.
"We have a 21st century industry but are working with a 19th century infrastructure while competitors in Ireland and Scotland race ahead of us.
"I have written to Mr McMahon, urging him to come to Kilkeel and see why the decision he has made is wrong."
In his letter, Dr McMahon said he understood the "strong desire" to develop the harbour but, given that it was in public ownership, it would be wrong to accept a private financial contribution for work linked to any future planning application.
"You will understand our need to ensure that this public asset is developed in line with principles of good governance and that any proposed investment of public money meets the principles of regularity, propriety and value for money," he said.
Dr McMahon added there would need to be a review of the entire needs of the fishing industry spread across the three ports of Kilkeel, Portavogie and Ardglass before big decisions were made about future investment.
It is expected the review will be completed by the end of 2019.