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Agriculture department buys half acre of land for £600,000

An artist's impression of the new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs headquarters at Ballykelly, Co Derry

A half-acre strip of land bought for £600,000 to provide an access road to the Department of Agriculture's new headquarters was "the best value for money", it has said.

The department plans to move to a new base on the site of the former Shackleton Barracks in Ballykelly, Co Derry by January 2018 as part of a £21 million project.

The purchase comes after the Executive sold 621 acres of land at Ballykelly for a total of £1m - or around £1,610 per acre.

It was unclear whether an access road to the former barracks was sold as part of the deal.

Details of the £600,000 purchase emerged yesterday as officials from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) came before the assembly agriculture committee.

The committee heard that the money was paid to an unnamed farmer.

The department said an access road for the new headquarters "has always been an integral part of this project".

However Ulster Unionist assembly member Harold McKee said the cost of the land "does raise serious questions about the way business has been conducted in relation to Ballykelly".

"Did the Department of Agriculture know that they would have to purchase a strip of land when they drew up their original plans? And given that the Executive owned over 600 acres of land on the Ballykelly site, did no-one think to tie down access to the new DAERA HQ site before selling everything off?" he said.

"The value for money aspect for the public purse has already been questioned given that the final decision to move DAERA HQ was made by ministerial direction.

"I don`t think this latest revelation will do anything to inspire confidence in the Northern Ireland Executive, who demonstrate arrogance and contempt should anyone dare to scrutinise them."

Alliance MLA David Ford also claimed the decision to move from Belfast to Ballykelly "raises serious questions about the way the Executive is managing public money".

"It is clear that 90 per cent of staff in Dundonald House do not want to move to Ballykelly, and that few of the civil servants who do want to move to Ballykelly have any real experience of the work to be done by DAERA headquarters staff," he said.

"Managing a team which is partly based in Dundonald House and partly based in Ballykelly is likely to add to management difficulties, and to cost."

He claimed that three years after the new building opens, it is estimated it will "only be half-occupied by DAERA staff".

A spokesman for the department said the project will "bring around 600 civil service jobs to Ballykelly, boost the local economy and help regenerate the wider area".

"The project is on time and within budget. A new access road has always been an integral part of this project and while every option was considered before the contract was awarded in March, ultimately the one chosen was the best value for money," he said.

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