Belfast Telegraph

Ratepayers foot £250k bill for our councils bestowing honours on great and good

 

Bill Clinton and George Mitchell receiving their Freedom of Belfast awards in 2018
Bill Clinton and George Mitchell receiving their Freedom of Belfast awards in 2018
Sir Kenneth Branagh
Ireland rugby captain Rory Best
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

Councils in Northern Ireland have spent almost £250,000 honouring prominent people.

Eighteen citizens or groups have been given Freedom of the Borough or City awards in the last three years.

They include Olympic sportsmen, a renowned actor, healthcare workers and even a former US President.

In one case almost £40,000 was spent honouring rugby star Rory Best.

John O'Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, a right-wing lobby group, said ratepayers' money could be used more productively.

"Local authorities in Northern Ireland should focus on their statutory responsibilities, and not prioritise these kind of functions," he said.

The Freedom of the Borough, or City, is the highest honour that a council can bestow.

It is a public recognition of the esteem in which the recipient is held by the council and its people.

Since 2016 councils in Northern Ireland have spent £241,380 on 13 ceremonies.

The 18 people - or groups - honoured include former US President Bill Clinton and Senator George Mitchell.

The pair were given the Freedom of Belfast in April 2018, recognising their role in drafting the Good Friday Agreement.

The ceremony, at the Ulster Hall, cost a total of £22,257.

The council also gave the Freedom of Belfast to actor Sir Kenneth Branagh in January 2018 at a further cost of £28,333.

Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council spent more than £55,000 recognising two sportspeople.

Former Portadown FC manager Ronnie McFall was honoured in May 2017 at a cost of £15,698.

And in September last year Ireland and Ulster Rugby captain Best was honoured at a cost of £39,759.

Wrightbus founder Sir William Wright was one of three recipients honoured by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. His ceremony in January this year cost £15,332.

Meanwhile, Olympic rowers Peter Chambers, Richard Chambers and Alan Campbell were honoured by Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council.

Joan Christie, the former Lord Lieutenant for Antrim, was given Freedom awards by three different councils.

Some local authorities opted to recognise groups of people.

Ards and North Down Borough Council gave the Freedom of the Borough to local health and social care staff last September at a cost of £16,066.

And Belfast City Council recognised the city's nurses in May 2016, costing £19,563. Four of the 11 councils - Derry City and Strabane, Fermanagh and Omagh, Mid Ulster and Newry, Mourne and Down - did not bestow any honours.

Earlier this year a report by the TaxPayers' Alliance found councils here spent more than £600,000 on various awards ceremonies in three years. Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council had a bill of £162,188 - the second highest in the UK.

On the latest figures, Mr O'Connell added: "Of course it is right that well-deserving people should be recognised, but there are better ways of doing this.

"In future all councils should make every effort to use sponsorship and external funding to pay for these events, as many local authorities across the UK already do."

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, the umbrella body for local councils, defended the spending.

"The £240,000 spent on 'Freedom of...' awards equates to just over £7,000 per council per year over the last three years," she said.

"This is a tiny fraction of the £2bn annual investment councils are responsible for in their localities, which in turn is a small fraction - less than 5% - of the overall public sector budget in Northern Ireland.

"Freedom of... awards are generally given to people of high profile who have championed, promoted or otherwise helped the city, borough or district and who continue to do so; and in turn, the awards and the presentation events involved generate large amounts of publicity for the locality.

"It is a priority for councils to promote their area and civic pride in that area, to drive up visitor numbers, to promote and support the local economy and at the same time achieve value for money.

"'Freedom of... awards are one very positive way of fulfilling this responsibility."

Who they spent the money on during the last three years...

Belfast City Council

Nurses of Belfast in January 2016 at a cost of £19,562

Sir Kenneth Branagh in January 2018 at a cost of £28,332

President Bill Clinton and Senator George Mitchell in April 2018 at a cost of £22,256

Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council

Jonathan Rea in January 2019 at a cost of £16,270

Ards and North Down Borough Council

Health and Social Care Staff in Ards and North Down in September 2018 at a cost of £16,066.

Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council

Ronnie McFall in May 2017 at a cost of £15,698

Rory Best in September 2018 at a cost of £39,759

Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council

Four people (Peter and Richard Chambers, Allan Campbell, and Mervyn Whyte) honoured at two ceremonies in 2017/18 at a cost of £4,500

Two people (Joan Christie and Sir Denis Desmond) honoured at two ceremonies in 2018/19 at a cost of £4,200

(the council did not provide any further breakdown of the ceremony costs)

Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council

Joan Christie in February 2019 at a cost of £33,888

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council

B (North Irish Horse) Squadron, The Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry, in January 2016 at a cost of £8,851

Joan Christie in April 2018 at a cost of £16,463

Sir William Wight in January 2019 at a cost of £15,532

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