Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: It's time Northern Ireland councils counted the pennies

Editor's Viewpoint

The squeeze on public funding has been a recurrent complaint in recent years, including at local government level. It therefore comes as a surprise that precious finance has been spent on awards ceremonies by 10 of our new supercouncils at a far higher rate than in local authorities in other regions of the UK.

Figures obtained by the Taxpayers' Alliance reveal that spending on awards ceremonies in Northern Ireland ran at three times the national average in the last three years.

Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council spent more than £162,000, just over a quarter of the total £600,000 spent by the councils in the province. It had the second highest expenditure on awards ceremonies in the UK.

These are significant figures, and hard-pressed ratepayers who have faced their own squeeze on pay in both the public and private sectors will wonder if this level of expenditure is justified.

That is not to say that awards such as Freedom of the Borough for people who have brought honour to their local area should be scrapped. Recent recipients in various parts of the province have included Ireland rugby captain Rory Best, businessman Sir William Wright, motorcycle World Champion Jonathan Rea and Mervyn Whyte, race director of the annual NW200 motorcycle racing event, which has been a huge tourism draw. These are all people deserving recognition for their achievements, which have reflected well on the province.

There is room also for recognising less public figures or groups of people who have also contributed positively to society.

But as the Taxpayers' Alliance points out, every effort should be made to lessen the bill to individual councils. It is proper that they should seek sponsorship for awards ceremonies and be judicious in those that they choose to support with public funds.

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Councils have relatively few powers or responsibilities, but cleansing, leisure facilities, small business regeneration plans and local planning all contribute to the wellbeing of local communities, and money gathered from ratepayers should be concentrated on providing those services.

Many people will see excessive spending on awards ceremonies as self-indulgent and outside the remit on which councillors were elected.

Their job and the husbandry of public funds is all the more important in the absence of devolved government at the moment.

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