Belfast Telegraph

Lough funding runs dry

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency is under fire after pulling the plug on the body that manages the UK’s biggest lake.

Both the Lough Neagh and the Lower Bann Advisory Committees, which have drawn down millions in funding for tourism projects, will lose their funding at the end of March in what was described as a “bolt from the blue”.

Stormont's Environment Committee has vowed to write to Environment Minister Edwin Poots asking him to reverse the decision and is planning to take the issue to the Assembly.

The shock decision threatens years of work aimed at transforming the Lough Neagh and Lower Bann systems from “Northern Ireland’s largest drainage system” into the “Shannon of the north”, according to SDLP committee member John Dallat.

His colleagues raised fears over the potential loss of expertise and threat to future navigation, recreation and biodiversity projects once the committees are disbanded. It came as Mr Poots launched River Basin Management Plans for wetlands throughout Northern Ireland yesterday.

NIEA told the committees in mid-November that they would be losing their funding after three of the nine councils refused to renew their £5,000 apiece contributions, citing concerns about duplication of work with other bodies.

Committee chair Dolores Kelly slammed NIEA, saying the decision was “very badly handled” after it emerged that the committees were given no opportunity to propose a reduced budget.

“It’s hard to believe that for an organisation that has drawn down such huge sums of money there has been no analysis of whether it was value for money,” she said.

“This has been very badly handled — the fact that there was no discussion with the advisory committees at all, it came as a bolt from the blue.”

The budget for the two bodies is £119,000 a year, made up of contributions of £37,000 each from NIEA and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and £5,000 from each of nine councils.

However, there was a glimmer of hope — NIEA director of natural heritage Graham Seymour told the Environment Committee his organisation might reconsider if councils confirmed in writing they would contribute.

Mr Seymour said he fully supported everything the committees had achieved but things had changed, such as the setting up of the devolved administration and Waterways Ireland as well as the “patchy support” from councils.

He said last year a number of councils had raised concerns about the remit of the advisory committees amid fears of duplication with other groups. The councils were asked to confirm whether they would be contributing and by the end of October — Ballymoney, Dungannon and Magherafelt had refused.

“If there was a reversal (by the councils) and that was expressed to us in writing, we would discuss it with our colleagues in DCAL.” Mr Dallat, who suggested raising the matter with the full Assembly, said the advisory committees had been successful in laying the foundation for transforming Northern Ireland’s largest drainage system into an attractive proposition for tourism, leisure and the development of marinas.

“It’s a precursor for what happened in the Shannon and Lough Erne. It’s absolute madness to dissolve that body,” he said.

“If the development of the river goes as planned we would see the creation of hundreds of new sustainable well-paid jobs in tourism and leisure — that is the only job growth we have, and we wouldn’t be talking about a particularly long time span.”

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