Belfast Telegraph

Jobs cull means we've too few staff to meet community: minister

By Noel McAdam

Officials have less time for face-to-face meetings with community leaders because of the civil service jobs cull, a Stormont minister has claimed.

Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard said the ongoing voluntary exit scheme meant there were fewer staff available to attend such meetings.

He spoke out after a planned meeting between a community association in Magheralin, near Moira, and Transport NI about road safety concerns fell through.

UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson said it was "incredible" the Sinn Fein Minister had suggested that contact with community groups could be confined to telephone calls and correspondence.

"Community groups make a massive contribution to the lives of so many families in their areas and always have the best interests of their community at heart, no more so than in isolated rural communities," she added.

The Upper Bann MLA also expressed her surprise that the meeting with the organisation had fallen through and dismissed the minister's comments as mere excuses.

"I am concerned that this sets a worrying trend where the voices of community groups will be left outside the decision-making process, rather than being encouraged and embraced as the best way to meet the needs and address the concerns of rural communities," she said.

"Over the years I have facilitated a considerable number of site meetings between community groups and government departments at which we have often achieved the best results - results which all too often would not be achieved through initial correspondence.

"Site meetings are usually the final resort when written correspondence has been exhausted. I am therefore concerned that the voluntary exit scheme is being used as a convenient excuse.

"(It is) keeping officials chained to their desks, rather than allowing them to engage with those they are employed to serve - the general public."

In a written Assembly answer, Mr Hazzard said: "As a result of the voluntary exit scheme, there are fewer staff employed in my department's Transport NI, and as such there are fewer staff available to attend site meetings, including meetings with community representatives.

"Even though TransportNI staff may not be able to attend as many meetings as previously was the case, I do not believe this will reduce the impact of community groups as any issues raised at community group meetings can be brought to the attention of the relevant Transport NI section via correspondence or telephone communications."

In a letter, the Infrastructure Minister added: "Given that these issues have been dealt with previously, I do not feel that a site meeting is the most effective use of resources."

A statement from the Department of Infrastructure to the Belfast Telegraph read: "In situations where site meetings would provide no additional information or benefit, it is likely they will be declined by officials, given that the department is now operating with significantly fewer staff."

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