Belfast Telegraph

Six Northern Ireland councils spent £120,000 on a 'jolly' to French Riviera

Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

Six councils spent more than £120,000 sending officials to a real estate conference in Cannes in the south of France, sparking criticism of the use of public money.

The four-day event last month took place in the upmarket Riviera city, the venue for the world-famous annual film festival.

MIPIM bills itself as "the world's largest international property investment conference" which "gathers all the key international players of the real estate sector for four days of exhibition, networking, and transactions".

This was the fourth year running that a group represented Belfast at MIPIM.

But for the first time the delegation included representatives from five other councils as part of the Belfast Region City Deal programme of investment.

Also present were members from Antrim and Newtownabbey; Ards and North Down; Lisburn and Castlereagh, Mid and East Antrim, and Newry, Mourne and Down councils.

The total cost of the trip to ratepayers was £122,300. James Roberts, political director of right-wing pressure group the TaxPayers' Alliance, questioned the benefits of the trip.

"Stories of bureaucrats taking swish trips to the south of France are starting to leave taxpayers with a sad sense of deja vu," he said.

"Council officials urgently need to cut back or justify jetting off on these jollies."

The figures emerged days after a report revealed how 20 senior officials at councils here are on six-figure pay packages.

The largest sponsorship for MIPIM came from Belfast City Council, which spent £80,000.

That's £20,000 more than 2018.

Seven representatives attended, including the chair of the city growth and regeneration committee, SDLP councillor Donal Lyons, and chief executive Suzanne Wylie.

They were part of the 100-member Belfast-led delegation which also included Belfast Harbour, Invest NI, Queen's and Ulster Universities and Translink.

Defending the trip, Mr Lyons said: "When Belfast City Council sent its first delegation to MIPIM in 2016, council set a target of bringing £1bn worth of investment to the city.

"Three years later, thanks to waterside and harbour developments, and major regeneration schemes for the city like Merchant Square, we're on course to see that figure double to £2bn worth of investment.

"This success is in part due to council taking a strong, proactive role in marketing Belfast as a city for investment.

"With MIPIM being the prime event in the European real estate calendar for so many of the world's investors, developers and funders from both the private and public sector, it is essential that we take the opportunity to showcase Belfast and the opportunities our city presents for investors.

"Our participation in MIPIM is about showing a strong public-private partnership, working hand in hand to deliver for the city and the region.

"This year was the biggest 'Team Belfast' delegation to date with more than 30 public and private organisations represented.

"Our delegation included the five councils partnering with Belfast City Council in the Belfast Region City Deal - a deal worth £850m - along with developers and investors, with key sectors such as advanced engineering, education, transport, tourism, construction, financial and professional, technology, and life and health sciences all represented."

Four local authorities - Ards and North Down, Lisburn and Castlereagh, Mid and East Antrim and Newry, Mourne and Down - each spent £10,000 sending representatives to the event.

Attending from Ards and North Down were Ulster Unionist mayor Richard Smart, chief executive Stephen Reid and the director of regeneration, development and planning, Susie McCullough.

The council said: "Our delegation presented a number of development sites from our area including tourism accommodation opportunities, Bangor Waterfront and Whitespots Regional Park.

"Several follow up meetings have already been arranged from contacts identified at the conference."

Mid and East Antrim sent three council officers and a councillor to the conference.

The council said: "During more than 100 meetings over three days, our delegation promoted a number of development opportunities in our area.

"We are delighted to have secured visits from key investors to Mid and East Antrim on the back of relationships established at MIPIM as we continue to target significant private-sector investment to complement the £80m City Deal funding recently secured for our area."

Newry, Mourne and Down was represented by the chairman, SDLP councillor Mark Murnin, chief executive Liam Hannaway and Marie Ward, director of enterprise, regeneration and tourism.

It said: "During the visit the council delegation attended a number of meetings with potential investors.

"Newry, Mourne and Down District Council continues to target significant private-sector investment to complement the City Deal funding recently secured for our district.

"Part of our area's plans include the delivery of the Southern Relief Road, a new civic centre and a new conferencing and enhanced theatre facility in Newry City."

The lowest spend of approximately £2,300 was by Antrim and Newtownabbey.

Two council staff attended to promote "key sites across the borough" to potential investors and developers including Global Point and Corr's Corner, Belfast International Airport and The Junction.

Lisburn and Castlereagh did not disclose how many representatives it sent to the event but said its "financial commitment to MIPIM matched that of the other Belfast Region City Deal partner councils".

Last Tuesday a report revealed 20 senior council officials here received financial packages totalling more than £100,000 in pay and benefits last year.

Six work for Belfast City Council while four are employed by Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Council, a report revealed.

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