Belfast Telegraph

Councils spent £300k looking after 60 empty buildings in Northern Ireland

 

Armagh Gaol
Armagh Gaol
Floral Hall
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Councils in Northern Ireland spent almost £300,000 of ratepayers' money on empty buildings, it has emerged.

Right-wing pressure group the TaxPayers' Alliance revealed that between January 2016 and December 2017 UK councils spent a total of £74,022,381 on at least 6,047 properties vacant for all or part of that time.

Here the total was £292,073 for 60 empty buildings, with spending going on security, insurance, maintenance and renovation.

With nine empty buildings, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council had the highest local cost by far, spending £256,000. The council said one of the buildings concerned was undergoing restoration and has since opened creating jobs and has been shortlisted for awards.

SDLP councillor Joe Nelson, a member of the council's governance, policy and resources committee, said: "If we're looking for a reason why the cost is higher than any other council, then I would say look no further than Armagh Gaol.

"That project is currently continuing but it does require both an external developer funder and funding from government.

"But as we don't have a functioning regional government at the minute, the whole project is behind schedule.

"Hopefully, in this term, the council can get something done about it."

Mr Nelson said the building had been empty for decades and required ongoing work to keep it from decaying.

He added: "There's still a considerable amount to be done. There's about a £6m shortfall in an overall cost of £70m; it's a huge project.

"There will be a requirement for government support as it is a signature project for tourism and it's hoped it could be used in the future as a boutique hotel."

The council was contacted for a response but had not commented at the time of going to print.

Belfast City Council had the second highest spend here at £20,378.44, with £14,753.99 going on maintenance and £5,624 on insurance.

Most of this (£13,356.32) was spent on the Floral Hall at Belfast Zoo.

Other empty buildings during this period included the Old Pavilion Playing Fields in Belfast, a PSNI station in Glengormley, leisure centres in Londonderry and Bangor, as well as a former pump house in Portadown.

Scotland and Wales had the highest number of vacant properties per person, while London and Northern Ireland had the lowest.

John O'Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "Councils have a duty to maintain properties for future tenants and owners, so of course some costs will be involved.

"Many people will be startled by the total cost of maintaining empty properties and want an explanation as to why these haven't been used or sold by the council.

"At a time when families are struggling with the cost of living, and sky-high council tax bills, it's important that local authorities do all they can to ensure that they are making decisions with taxpayers in mind."

In a statement, Armagh City Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council said: "One of the properties, which the reported financial figure relates to was undergoing restoration works as part of a major regeneration project for the area funded by the Department for Communities and Armagh City Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council.

"The building in question has since created four jobs and brought vibrancy to the immediate area. The project has also been shortlisted for two prestigious Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors awards, highlighting the quality and significance of this completed scheme."

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