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Super-councils junket: 18 councillors take £9,000 trip to England to find out how to grant permission for a loft conversion

They’ve yet to take reins of power but our politicians are already enjoying lavish junkets at ratepayers’ expense

By Noel McAdam

Northern Ireland's new councillors have been accused of wasting public money by going on fact-finding junkets.

While the 11 shadow councils do not go live until next April, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal that the new authorities are already spending thousands of pounds on 'fact-finding' trips to Great Britain.

At least three have already sent large numbers of councillors and staff to England and Scotland to investigate their planning systems - one of the powers being transferred from Stormont to town halls.

The total cost of the trips, which involved attending planning committee meetings, was almost £20,000 of public money.

Mid and East Antrim, Mid Ulster and Antrim and Newtownabbey councils insist the visits, all in the last few weeks, will be of real benefit.

But they have come under severe attack for sending such large numbers of people on the trips and for wasting ratepayers' money.

Concerns have also been raised about why the local authorities attended fact-finding trips in England and Scotland which have different planning systems from Northern Ireland.

This paper can reveal

Eighteen councillors and three officers from Mid and East Antrim visited Peterborough at a cost of almost £9,000.

Mid-Ulster sent 13 councillors to Irvine in Scotland, staying at the Park Hotel near Kilmarnock for one night at an estimated cost of £4,500.

And Antrim/Newtownabbey sent 11 elected members, three planning service staff and three council officers to Uttlesford District Council in Essex. They spent two nights in the Holiday Inn Express hotel, near Stansted airport, at a total estimated cost of £5,900.

Ukip MLA David McNarry hit out at the trips.

He said: "I am concerned that some experienced councillors are allowing themselves to be led by the nose by officials into going on these trips.

"I can't imagine councillors have asked to go on them. It is officers on these councils who are spending and wasting money just to justify their existence in this transition year. It is ridiculous at a time of spending cuts to be going on these bum-steer trips because the councillors are not going to learn a lot from the systems elsewhere. Planning in Northern Ireland is very different.

"And I don't think planning is going to be the end of it. I have serious concerns about how these new councils are going to connect with their electorates."

SDLP local government spokesman Colum Eastwood said: "It is very important councillors are trained to do the job they have to do but it is essential in these straitened times that councils guard against wasteful spending.

"These new powers will be stronger than councils have had before but every single penny must be wisely spent and scrutinised."

A spokesman for Mid Ulster hit back, however, saying: "Planning is arguably the most significant power to be transferring to local councils in April 2015 and ensuring that local councillors are fully prepared for assuming responsibility for such a vital function is crucial."

Mid and East Antrim council said Peterborough had been recommended by the Association of Public Service Excellence (APSE) as a model of best practice with a proven track record in using planning to stimulate growth and regeneration and revealed the total cost to be £8,882.08.

A spokesman said: "Their chief executive has agreed to provide Mid and East Antrim District Council with support from a number of their senior officers who will spend time in Mid and East Antrim as we develop our planning committee and associated governance processes."

And the Antrim/Newtownabbey authority said the Uttlesford trip had included several site visits, a pre-application planning presentation, and watching a planning committee in action.

Studying best practice comes at a (high) price

Mid Ulster sent 13 councillors who stayed at the Park Hotel near Kilmarnock for one night at an estimated cost of £4,500.

A statement said they attended a planning committee meeting, had a briefing “on the practical aspects of operating a committee” as well as case studies and site visits.

Antrim and Newtownabbey sent 11 elected members and six staff who stayed at the Holiday Inn Express hotel near Uttlesford council area costing £5,900. The council said they took part in several site visits, attended a pre-application planning presentation, watched a planning committee session and had a number of presentations.

Mid and East Antrim council sent 18 councillors and officials to Peterborough at a cost of almost £9,000. It said they attended a planning committee and had a debrief “sharing examples of difficult and contentious cases which the council has considered, including cases which have been subject to judicial review”.

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