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Northern Ireland ratepayers fork out £20k for councillors' China visit

By Jenna Gardiner

A trip to China by Antrim councillors will cost ratepayers £20,000 this year - with potential for more spending later.

The Mayor-led delegation will jet off in October in the hope of establishing mutually beneficial business links with the country.

The trip was approved at a recent meeting of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and it has the potential to be one of many, with an estimated expenditure of £70,000 to £80,000.

Accompanying Mayor Lindsay Millar will be the chairwoman of the Economic Growth and Tourism Committee, DUP councillor Audrey Wales, and two other officers.

They will travel to a summit in the city of Dalian to develop a Friendly Co-operative City Agreement.

A council spokesperson said that a key priority will be boosting the economy in Mid and East Antrim, with "inward investment in the region" an integral part of the plan.

He said: "This is a great opportunity to develop relationships with not just Chinese businesses, but other global audiences, to raise our profile as an attractive investment location."

Councillor Stephen Nicholl of the UUP said he believes the upcoming trips should involve business representatives.

He feels the engagement with China is using up a vast amount of expenditure without a proper business plan.

"It's not enough to simply say there's an opportunity and get on a plane and go somewhere. We need a plan that will actually deliver for the ratepayers," he said.

"The council doesn't have a product to sell.

"There's no point spending the next few years sending councillors abroad - we need business representatives who can make business connections."

The plans have stemmed from a visit by Chinese consul general Madam Wang Shuying to a business event in Northern Ireland in January 2017, hosted by the then mayor, Ms Wales.

Welcoming the plans, Ms Wales told council there is a "mass of people in China just waiting to be tapped into".

Plans were presented to councillors in a report ahead of their vote to approve the trips to the country.

The report explained that cooperating with the Chinese market is not a quick solution and does involve risks.

The business partnership will take time and multiple trips to "demonstrate a steadfast commitment to the region", it said.

TUV councillor Timothy Gaston said the October trip will lay the groundwork needed to establish a working relationship with China.

"Long-term or annual delegations to China are definitely not confirmed at the minute," he said.

"After October, there needs to be a feasibility study and evaluation to determine whether or not these trips are value for money.

"If there isn't a strong business foundation in the first trip, I will not be supporting any more."

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