Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein and DUP accused of 'abusing' Belfast council procedure for 'community tourism'

By Andrew Madden, Local Democracy Reporter

Parties at Belfast City Hall have accused Sinn Fein and the DUP of “abusing” the council’s call-in procedure in a string of controversial funding decisions.

Chair of the Belfast City Council’s Audit Panel, Ulster Unionist Councillor Jim Rodgers, said his party will be meeting with their legal advisers over the issue this week.

Alliance council group leader Michael Long accused Sinn Fein and the DUP of “scuppering any sort of scrutiny” in recent funding decisions by removing the call-in mechanism from the process.

The “call-in” mechanism is a safeguard which allows councillors to request an issue be revisited if they feel the original decision was not handled correctly, or if a decision could have a disproportionate and negative affect on a particular community.

Two weeks ago, the issue of the council's call-in mechanism raised its head following a controversial decision by the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee, in which Sinn Fein and the DUP have a majority, to award £400k to community groups for “bonfire diversion”.

The decision was also supported by the PUP, in a move that followed a drop in the uptake for the council’s own “bonfire grants” programme.

When the matter was brought before committee the call-in procedure was removed from the process.

According to the Local Government Act (NI) 2014, a “call-in” can be requested if: “the decision was not arrived at after a proper consideration of the relevant facts and issues; or if the decision “would disproportionately affect adversely any section of the inhabitants of the district”.

Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers said abuse of the call-in procedure at Belfast City Council was “getting absolutely out of hand”.

“We will be holding talks later this week with our party legal advisers over the abuse of the call-in mechanism,” he said.

“It’s an absolute disgrace what happened with the bonfire diversion fund decision and the community tourism decision back in February.”

In recent weeks representatives at City Hall have referred to a "string of controversial decisions" pushed through the council by some parties in which the call-in was not used, including February's reallocation of £4m of council funds for "community tourism".

Councillor Rodgers said, as Chair of the council’s Audit Panel, he was “extremely alarmed” because the council has to “stand over every penny” it spends.

“But it seems to be some parties, whenever it suits them, just bring forward proposals simply because of their own agendas,” the Ulster Unionist representative added.

“I’ve been here at the council for more than 25 year and I am very concerned – many ratepayers are finding it difficult to pay their rates as it is and we need to ensure we can stand over every penny we dish out.”

SDLP and Alliance councillors have already requested a meeting with the Audit Office over recent funding decisions at City Hall.

Alliance council group leader Michael Long said “loopholes” in the call-in procedure need to be closed “as a matter of urgency”.

“We first heard about some of this £400,000 funding months ago, but some parties ensured the call-in mechanism couldn’t be used because it was brought to committee too late - so much so it was apparently a ‘matter of urgency’.

“We are extremely concerned - what we saw in the bonfire diversion decision was a deliberate attempt to scupper any chance of transparency and fairness in the funding.

“The abuse of the call-in mechanism is something we will be raising with the Audit Office urgently, because some really good community organisations are being rejected because decisions are being taken without any attempt at transparency and fairness.”

The DUP and Sinn Fein has been approached for a comment.

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