Belfast Telegraph

Local Election 2019

Fionola Meredith: Why it's high time councils stop blowing cash on lavish, self-indulgent awards events

If prospective councillors want our votes, they should treat ratepayers' money with respect, says Fionola Meredith

Rory Best receives his scroll from Lord Mayor Julie Flaherty as members of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council look on
Rory Best receives his scroll from Lord Mayor Julie Flaherty as members of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council look on
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

Oh, they know how to throw a party down Armagh way, they surely do. When Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Council decided to bestow the freedom of the borough on Ireland rugby captain Rory Best last September it really went the whole hog. It has just emerged, through a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, that the total cost of hosting the wildly extravagant ceremony was £39,759.56.

Who do these people think they are, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West? Are they going to hire Versailles for their next big council bash?

At least Kim and Kanye cough up their own money when they want to host one of their vast, tacky celebrations. In this case the cash being so lavishly splashed around came courtesy of the rate-paying people of Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, none of whom, to my knowledge, are multi-billionaires dripping with 18-carat gold chains.

The £14,442.50 that the council spent on venue and equipment hire accounted for a large chunk of the exorbitant bill, closely followed by £14,221.50 for catering. That's a lot of egg sandwiches and sausages on sticks, wouldn't you say?

The event was held at the Archbishop's Palace in Armagh, an elegant neo-classical 18th century mansion that serves as the office of the council's Lord Mayor. So why the whopping payout for venue hire when it already had a venue?

According to Save Craigavon City Parks and Lakes, the campaign group that made the FoI request, it was because the council, in its wisdom, decided to hire a large marquee, which was erected in the grounds, and then spent a further £4,131.50 on design, printing, stationery and "venue dressing".

I guess the palace just wasn't good enough for these ambitious party-planners.

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Photographs of the happy event show Lord Mayor Julie Flaherty, resplendent in her ornate, fur-trimmed robes, taking a selfie with Rory Best, who is holding his 'freedom scroll' (cost: £2,835, with accompanying book) as councillors - equally finely kitted out - look on.

Apparently, the BBC was filming the occasion as part of a documentary about the player, so perhaps the childish excitement of being on telly was responsible for this collective abandonment of financial restraint. Who knows? But it's no excuse.

Look, I don't have a problem with the council honouring Rory Best as a great ambassador for the local community, or with Best accepting the honour. But I do think it's disgraceful that it was so profligate with public funds.

When it conferred the freedom of the borough of Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon on former Portadown Football Club manager Ronnie McFall in 2017 it cost £15,458.26. That was excessive enough, but now it appears to have completely lost the run of itself.

And this council has form when it comes to spending big.

A report by the TaxPayers' Alliance published earlier this year found that Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council spent an embarrassing £162,188 on awards ceremonies - the second highest in the UK.

It's especially distasteful considering the high levels of social and economic deprivation within the borough.

In 2017 figures released by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency showed that 11 of the top 100 most deprived areas are in Co Armagh. Parts of central Craigavon have been described as some of the most neglected in the Upper Bann area, with burnt-out or derelict houses providing a breeding ground for vermin. A Government-backed report in 2018 identified parts of both Craigavon and Lurgan plagued by paramilitary activity, deprivation and high suicide rates.

Every penny that the council receives in rates should be spent on improving this impoverished part of our country, not thrown away on exorbitant bashes which are as much about indulging the self-importance of councillors as they are about honouring local celebrities.

And other councils should take note too. The TaxPayers' Alliance report found that councils here were spending three times more than the average local authority on award ceremonies. Largesse is catching, it seems.

We are currently in the run-up to new council elections. Prospective councillors hoping to win a seat should treat the electorate with the respect it deserves.

If they seek the privilege of our votes, they must remember that their central purpose is to serve the people who elect them. To empty the bins, clean the streets, organise planning and regeneration.

Not to prance around in scarlet robes, squandering cash on expensive vanity events while claiming they're performing a service to the community.

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