Revealed: Bonfire pallet clear-up cost for Belfast residents
Ratepayers forked out thousands after Belfast City Council controversially removed, stored and then disposed of pallets collected for July 11 bonfires, it can be revealed.
The council took 2,500 pallets from the Bloomfield Walkway bonfire in east Belfast and 300 from the Hope Street bonfire in the south of the city last May with the clear-up costing over £50,000.
They were stored at council-owned Beechvale Farm on the Gransha Road, before a portion of the material was stolen the following month.
There had originally been an agreement that the pallets would be returned, but as the unofficial deal came to light the council took the decision to dispose of the material.
The costs were detailed in a report into the incident by former Northern Ireland Ombudsman Tom Frawley.
The report, which is only available in hard copy for the public to view, also details a number of recommendations for the future.
One of these has already been adopted by the council.
Last Friday it voted to allow its strategic policy and resources committee to take quick decisions on bonfire-related matters, instead of the usual system whereby all committee decisions must be approved at the full monthly meeting of the council.
Dr Frawley was asked to investigate events surrounding the council's handling of Eleventh Night bonfires last summer.
In his report, which was initially kept confidential, the costs of clearing the Bloomfield Walkway site were detailed.
The costs included:
- £2,500 for a NI Housing Executive contractor to remove 2,500 pallets.
- £4,992 for the clean-up.
- An estimated £18,932 in staff costs, which the report noted were not additional costs.
It also details the cost of the Hope Street site:
- £538 for a Housing Executive contractor to remove 300 pallets.
- £4,662 for the clean-up.
- An estimated £18,851 on staff costs, which again were noted as not being additional costs.
There were no storage costs.
The report also noted additional costs for removing and getting rid of material:
- £500 for VAT.
- £1,483 for the removal and disposal of material from the Bloomfield Walkway site on May 17, 2017.
- Another £2,926 for the same on June 5, 2017.
- £1,097 for the removal and disposal of material from the Hope Street site on June 26, 2017.
Alliance councillor Michael Long said he was not surprised that the costs of dealing with just two bonfire sites had been so high, but suspected that many of the public would be.
He said the cost of the full clean-up operation following all the July 11 bonfires in Belfast would be significantly higher, and pointed out that the council also paid out tens of thousands of pounds to community groups as part of its bonfire management scheme.
"We take responsibility for cleaning up after all the bonfire, even ones not in the bonfire management scheme," he pointed out.
In his report, Dr Frawley acknowledged bonfires were "one of the more complex and difficult challenges facing public authorities in Northern Ireland" and that public bodies had to act in the absence of any political agreement over how to deal with the issue.
"As authorities come under political and community pressure from all sides for action, the reality is that there is no agreement, particularly across political parties, on what that action should entail," Dr Frawley wrote in the report's preamble.
He went on to note that some of the July 11 bonfires were significant events which can attract as many as 5,000 people, and yet were challenging for public bodies to manage.
"Concerningly, the structures and associated behaviours that affect bonfires sit outside the normal framework of insurance liability and public event management," he said.
"Potentially, this has major implications for those public authorities who own these sites where these bonfires may be located or having statutory responsibility for law and order, public safety (specifically fire safety), child protection, the environment, land use planning and the management of housing estates and public spaces, including roads.
"In Belfast, the number of bonfires, coupled with the scale and siting of some, makes the task of Belfast City Council officers particularly challenging."
Last summer some residents were forced to evacuate a 10-storey tower block close to Sandy Row in south Belfast after flames from the nearby bonfire blew towards the building, causing damage.
In 2016 disaster was narrowly averted when embers from a bonfire at Hopewell Square set fire to two terraced houses near the pyre.
Mr Long said he remained hopeful over this year's bonfires.
"There has been an attempt to get more self-regulation, and there is an increasing use of the beacons, which create a lot less mess," he said.
"We would hope that this summer will be better."