Ilex 'regeneration' of Derry a grim tale of dysfunctionality
The Department of the Environment last week gave planning permission for development of all the 26-acre site at the former British Army barracks at Ebrington in Derry. The site had been gifted to Derry by the Ministry of Defence in 2003 after it became surplus to military requirements.
The Ilex Urban Regeneration Company was set up by the NIO to undertake development of the site and generally to work for regeneration of the city.
Thirteen years later Ebrington has become something of a tourist attraction. It housed a number of events during Derry's year as City of Culture, including the Turner Prize exhibition.
But it has also become a source of disappointment and embarrassment.
The City of Culture and other events, impressive in themselves, have left little behind, so there was local enthusiasm at Mark H Durkan's announcement that: "This application sets out a blueprint that will be a boost for business, tourism and people in the area by revitalising the 1840s site with new homes, offices, cafes, restaurants and museum and arts facilities."
The application came from the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minster, which had taken over direct responsibility for the site from Ilex last year.
Peter Robinson said the approval was "a welcome development", which would have a "positive impact." Martin McGuinness said the plan would "transform not just the landscape of the city but also the economic prospects of the north west".
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It is far from clear how the development is expected to deliver this transformation. Broad planning permission is now in place but no detailed proposals have emerged. The go-ahead has been given for a development that hasn't been designed yet.
There's also been little discussion of why it's taken 13 years to reach this point. There's been even less discussion of the relevance of the fact that development of a public asset of huge potential has been carried out according to the principles and practices of the more cynical sections of the private sector.
Examples were set out in a NI Audit Office report in March 2012. Unauthorised payments in relation to six separate projects totalling £404,687 were discovered. An unapproved bonus of £28,836 was paid to Ilex's former chief executive Bill Kirk on top of a salary of £110,000 a year.
The report revealed that a director hired in September 2010 for a position bench-marked at £57,000 a year was in fact paid £80,000 without any record of discussion, much less approval, for the extra £23,000 a year - a 28.75% pay hike. Public sector workers subject to effective wage cuts looked on in astonishment, or would have if the arrangement hadn't been kept under wraps until the Audit Office blew the whistle.
But the most breathtaking example of excessive generosity to top officials concerned part-time chairman Roy McNulty. He was hired in October 2007 on £800 a day for 30 days a year - £24,000 per annum. But BBC Newsline subsequently revealed that Ilex had actually paid him £103,600 in his first 15 months, or around £80,000 a year. Ilex explained that it had turned out that the job entailed more days a month than had been anticipated. So an undisclosed 300% wage rise was nodded through.
This arrangement was known to OFMDFM. Ministers were also aware that the time McNulty spent travelling to and from his home in the Cotswolds was being counted and remunerated as work-time. One civil servant noted in a memo that this was "not normal practice" but remarked, strangely, that the arrangement could be regarded as "appropriate" since McNulty was using his time in transit to prepare himself to conduct Ilex business or, on the way back, to ponder the business completed. Workers commuting to Belfast from anywhere outside a 10-mile radius might consult their local MLA for advice on how they, too, might avail of these conditions which OFMDFM obviously regards as fair enough.
In February 2011 an assessment by consultants BDO landed on Ilex's desk. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs had ruled that McNulty should all along have been paying tax on his travel-time earnings. BDO calculated the liability for the three years from 2007/08 to 2010/11 at £30,735. There was nothing in McNulty's contract of employment to require Ilex to pay this bill. But the company coughed the public money up anyway.
It should be said that compared to, say, the banks, Ilex has been a model of pay restraint. But that's not hardly the most appropriate comparator for a public body established to regenerate a city wracked by joblessness and poverty.
The result of it all has been cynicism among 'ordinary' Ilex workers and a certain attitude of anything-goes at a senior level. The relevance to the dysfunctionality of Ilex is obvious.
Will lessons be learnt? Probably not.