DUP and Sinn Féin accused of 'political carve-up' of £4m council fund

The issue was discussed at a Belfast City Council committee meeting
Brendan Hughes

THE DUP and Sinn Féin have been accused of "another political carve-up" in a row over plans to realloate £4m of council funding without a public bid process.

It comes after the two parties yesterday backed proposals to change the focus of Belfast council's City Centre Social Outcomes Fund.

The new plan sees the fund shared between nine projects in the east and west of the city.

It includes £1m for a 'James Connolly Interpretive Centre' and another £1m for a 'Roddy McCorley Museum' in west Belfast.

An Orange Hall museum will also receive £80,000 under the proposals, and £750,000 is earmarked to develop a 'social economy training hotel' in the Shankill area.

According to council papers, the change is aimed at prioritising tourism projects in east and west Belfast to capitalise on investments in transport infrastructure in these areas.

The Alliance Party said there has been "complete lack of transparency", but the DUP and Sinn Féin rejected the criticism, saying the funding will boost tourism.

It follows concerns of a lack of transparency in money allocated from Stormont's £80 million Strategic Investment Fund (SIF).

The fund faced scrutiny last week over claims DUP assembly speaker Robin Newton misled MLAs about his role in a UDA-linked community organisation.

Mr Newtown, who denies wrongdoing, sat on a steering group that awarded a £1.7 million contract to Charter NI.

Alliance councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown branded the council proposals "another political carve-up".

"In light of recent concerns around SIF funding, we owe the citizens of this city the highest standards of transparency and the DUP and Sinn Féin let them down again," he said.

"Public money must be spent properly and the appearance of these projects in this way gives me no confidence that we committed this money fairly."

The proposals were discussed at yesterday's Strategic Policy and Resources Committee, and will go before the full council for approval next month.

Mr McDonough-Brown said his party supported re-focusing the fund, but questioned how the proposed projects were chosen.

"Three quarters of this money is earmarked for one part of the city so there isn't even an illusion of fairness across the city," he said.

"No need was presented at committee and while we support the principle, the complete lack of transparency will do nothing to enhance the reputation of our politics."

However, DUP council group leader Lee Reynolds strongly dismissed concerns.

"The east-west focus comes because it's built around another major strategic investment in the city – the rapid transport network and transport hub. It's not a case of something being plucked out of mid air," he said.

"Here we have a fund that was not being used – and Alliance wasn't coming forward with anything to do with it.

"This was discussed in full in the committee and every one of the concerns had an answer."

Sinn Féin councillor Ciaran Beattie said: "Sinn Féin supported the recommendation that the City Centre Social Outcomes Fund would proceed as suggested.

"We did so on the basis that a number of projects were at an advanced stage and there was no need to delay them further.

"It was our recommendation that if other projects came in which were beneficial to the city that they would be looked at with the possibility of adding them to a reserve list in the event of the named projects not being viable."

According to the report presented to councillors, the proposed projects were identified through the council's Area Working Groups (AWGs).

Belfast City Council was yesterday unable to supply a copy of the relevant AWG minutes.

A spokeswoman said the committee agreed to "support capital tourism projects with an emphasis on the development of community tourism infrastructure".

"Each project will be subject to the already agreed three-stage due diligence process before any money can be allocated," she said.

"The committee approved that other projects could be considered for potential funding if any of the agreed emerging projects fail due diligence.

"The committee noted that work is continuing on tourism opportunities in other areas of the city and that the potential for a further phase of funding will be explored through other financing mechanisms for similar projects in other areas of the city."

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