Auditors demand review of £4m Belfast City Council community project fund
The Northern Ireland Audit Office has told Belfast City Council to review a controversial £4m fund for community projects which the Alliance Party reported as unfit for purpose.
Alliance had raised serious concerns about the "lack of openness and transparency" surrounding the Local Investment Fund (LIF).
The party's group leader, Michael Long, had complained that the fund wasn't advertised publicly and therefore did not give all community groups in the city the chance to take part.
Instead, it was largely up to councillors to propose projects for funding to their area working group.
Mr Long claimed there was no "clear, detailed and adequate scoring" to determine which projects could be funded.
Projects approved for LIF funding include the James Connolly Interpretive Centre in west Belfast (£250,000) and Belmont Bowling Club in east Belfast (£200,000).
Mr Long stressed that he wasn't criticising any of the successful projects, nor the councillors who championed them, but he was "finding fault with the process involved".
After investigating the Alliance councillor's objections, the Northern Ireland Audit Office told the council that a review of LIF should be held to "assess and consider the appropriateness and effectiveness of this method of funding projects".
The review should consider "any possible impact of this funding approach on the reputation of the council".
In its response to the audit office, the council pledged to review LIF "in the context of the development of a corporate neighbourhood regeneration strategy".
Alliance also complained about the £27m Belfast Investment Fund (BIF), but the audit office hasn't reviewed it yet as the projects remain to be delivered. Mr Long said the audit office's recommendation was a vindication of his party questioning the funds.
"Alliance raised legitimate concerns about the lack of openness and transparency regarding LIF and BIF, which have allocated over £30m in funding in recent years," he said.
"It is simply not good enough that funding programmes have not been advertised, have no deadlines for applications, no strategic objectives and no measurement of outcomes. We welcome the council's agreement to review the situation. But Alliance will be making firm proposals to ensure the operation of future funding programmes is more open and transparent.
"We are fed up with the council's ad hoc approach to funding".
Mr Long said reports of a recent DUP and Sinn Fein "carve-up" regarding the allocation of £4m to their own "pet projects" didn't inspire confidence that either party had "learnt that change is needed".
He claimed that despite the "sham fight" between the DUP and Sinn Fein over Easter lilies on sale in City Hall, both parties had much in common on funding issues.
Mr Long said new procedures were urgently needed at City Hall. "Practices which would be deemed out of order if the council was filling one job vacancy are judged acceptable for allocating millions of pounds of cash. It's a crazy way of doing things," he said.
"If a group doesn't have councillors to tell them about the funds, or propose them, they're disadvantaged.
"I've come across community groups which don't even know that BIF and LIF exist.
"In an area of the city where one party dominated, it had considerable control over the funding pot.
"If that party doesn't like certain community groups, then those groups could potentially experience difficulty when it comes to council funding," he added.