Belfast Telegraph

Late payments by councils big part of decision for planning firm to shut


The firm worked on the People's Park in Ballymena.
The firm worked on the People's Park in Ballymena.
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

A planning practice in Northern Ireland has stopped trading with the loss of five jobs after nearly 40 years, to the "regret" of one of its directors.

Belfast-based MWA Planning has carried out key contracts since it was established, including work on Antrim Castle Gardens and the People's Park in Ballymena.

It was founded in 1982 and at its height, had 16 staff. It became the first landscape architectural firm to carry out an environmental impact assessment in Northern Ireland when it was chosen to work on the Omagh by-pass.

It was also the first practice to carry out a public realm project, working on the immediate surroundings of Belfast City Hall.

However, the practice, which also had offices in Ballymena and Londonderry, said it had decided to close after cash-flow problems caused by late payments from clients, mainly local councils.

But it did not identify which of Northern Ireland's 11 councils were the worst culprits at late payment.

MWA said contracts were also long-drawn out, needing three months to complete work and another three months for payment, which made cashflow problems worse.

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It had also had difficulty with staff retention, while another director had also decided to retire.

Former director John Eggleston said: "I totally regret the circumstances of our cessation of trading, and the loss of employment within the practice, as we still had many projects on our books at the time we were advised to close."

Three members of staff and two directors are affected by the closure of the firm, which was based at Belmont Business Park in east Belfast.

But he said he could not blame the lack of an Executive for the firm's troubles.

"There seems to be many new tenders within the construction and design industry for new schools, village renewal projects, shared space/public realm projects and greenways, parks and play areas etc, and obviously the money has been secured for such projects to be developed from a design stage to construction."

But he said the process of carrying out contracts had become more prolonged, with more time spent providing accountability to funders and having meetings, which he said allowed less time for design and creativity.

He said the planning process was also slowing down projects.

Timescales for approval were hard to establish - and with some clients holding back fees until approval was granted, cashflow was affected.

Councils have been required by the Executive to pay 90% of their invoices within 10 working days, and by legislation to pay 100% of their invoices within 30 calendar days.

Figures on prompt payment performance from the Department for Communities for the first quarter of 2019/20 found that Mid Ulster Council was the fastest at paying invoices, with 82% paid within 10 days. Newry, Mourne and Down put in the poorest performance, at 12%.

And for payment within 30 days, Fermanagh and Omagh Council came out on top, with 95% of its invoices settled within 30 days. But Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council was poorest, with 73% settled within 30 days.

In 2016, research by news website The Detail said payment of 21% of invoices was taking more than 30 days, with councils effectively treating small firms as a source of interest-free credit.

But the FSB said that many small firms feared repercussions or the potential loss of future work if they complained about' late council payments.

Belfast Telegraph