Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings: 
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mrs Dolores Kelly 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Francie Molloy 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:
Mr Jonathan McGibbon ) 
Ms Olga Murtagh ) Craigavon Borough Council 
Mrs Nicola Wilson )

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

The next session is with Craigavon Borough Council.

Mr Moutray:

I declare an interest as a member of that august council, as is Mrs Kelly.

Mr Shannon:

I suggest that, since they are members, they do not need to ask any questions.

Mrs D Kelly:

We want to ask the toughest questions.

Mr Elliott:

It is a pity that my local council is not attending.

The Chairperson:

I do not want to declare war on other council areas.

You are welcome to this afternoon’s Committee session. We are considering European issues. We have your written submission. You may begin by making a short presentation, after which members will ask questions. I anticipate that the session will last about 20 minutes.

Ms Olga Murtagh (Craigavon Borough Council):

I am the director of development at Craigavon Borough Council, Councillor Jonathan McGibbon is the vice-chairperson of the development committee, and Mrs Nicola Wilson is the head of economic development at Craigavon Borough Council.

We welcome the opportunity to respond to the Committee on each element of the terms of reference in relation to European issues. Craigavon Borough Council welcomes the fact that the Executive are helping to shape the future of Northern Ireland at a European level. We also welcome the recommendations in ‘ Northern Ireland: Report of the Task Force’ and the refinement of our relationship with the EU and the wider political involvement with the Executive and the European Union.

We realise that the European Union is making decisions that affect all member states, and our location on the periphery of Europe is important in terms of ensuring that that engagement takes place.

We realise that the European Union makes decisions that affect all member states. Our location on the periphery of Europe means that it is important that the Assembly ensure that engagement takes place.

We wish to comment on issue 1 of the terms of reference:

“to review the Northern Ireland Assembly’s role in relation to European issues and to make recommendations to improve scrutiny of European policy and enhance engagement with European issues.”

The Executive must have a strategic, co-ordinated and integrated approach on European issues. Communication is vital in that regard. The Executive’s engagement on European issues could be assisted by developing a strategic approach to communication. The actions that the Committee should examine are: engaging the public on European issues; letting them know about the projects that the EU funds; and informing them of the impact that funding has made.

Craigavon Borough Council believes that the Executive have an important role to play in streamlining and interpreting the funding opportunities and the plethora of funding bodies set up to administer and oversee funding. We also believe that the Executive can help to shape some of those funding programmes by influencing the drafting of the relevant legislation.

There are many untapped sources of EU funding available, from which local authorities, universities, research bodies and the private sector can benefit. However, information on how to access funding is not readily available, and more awareness is needed. We should learn from best practice examples. The National Assembly for Wales has demonstrated some good success in lobbying on European issues. Therefore, we wish to engage with other parts of the UK in order to share their expertise.

Clarifying roles and responsibilities is a key issue. Lobbying European Ministers and influencing key decision-makers through communication is crucial. We see the Executive playing an important role in that respect.

Mrs Nicola Wilson (Craigavon Borough Council):

Issue 2 considers the Executive’s strategic approach to European issues — in particular, their response to the report of the task force. The report is to be highly commended as it demonstrates EU commitment to Northern Ireland and its future of continued peace, political stability and economic growth.

The Northern Ireland Executive have taken a strategic approach to EU issues and the work of the task force. The report of the task force has been hailed as a road map for further co-operation, peace and prosperity. It also evaluates Northern Ireland’s participation in EU initiatives and relevant issues to our needs.

However, we feel that the Executive’s response to the report should also note the barriers, both real and perceived, to EU funding and engagement. Craigavon Borough Council has encountered some of those barriers, whether they are real or perceived. One barrier is that, at times, some EU funding appears to have competing priorities between programmes. Another barrier is that, sometimes, we have difficulties accessing decision-makers and key influencers — for example, the Committee of the Regions. When the Departments come to drawing up the single programming document for Northern Ireland, councils must be enabled to engage and influence at a local level so that they can bring their experience to bear on the process.

Another barrier to EU funding is the inability of the Lisbon agenda to suit the economic climate. The Committee is aware of the Northern Ireland EU competitiveness programme. All programmes and projects must comply with the Lisbon agenda, which aims to achieve the goal of making Europe the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010.

The Lisbon agenda’s key principles are innovation and the learning economy. As members know, however, the global recession has turned the economy on its head, and the Lisbon agenda is now perhaps seen as not being as relevant as it was when that programme was set two to three years ago. The shrinking and contracting of the UK economy means that businesses’ short-term focus is now on survival, not growth.

In response to the global recession, economic development practitioners have developed survival strategies and sought support from Europe through that EU competitiveness programme, only to be told that survival strategies do not fit with the Lisbon agenda. Those difficulties have arisen because Departments drew up the single programming document two years before the programme went live, and because the document does not suit the current economic climate. There is an inflexibility of the funding rules to be able to react to change, and the inability of the economic development practitioners to influence the decision-making process at an early stage.

However, Craigavon has benefited greatly from EU funding, and Craigavon Borough Council has been able to match fund moneys. Some of the rates manage to enhance the economic development prospects of the area. Notable examples include investment in a newbuild innovation centre for Craigavon, which has many benefits for the future in helping us to meet the Lisbon agenda. We have been able to invest substantially in tourism infrastructure — for example, building a new marina, complete with floating pontoons, which meets a local need. We have been able to develop many business development programmes that have helped businesses to grow, develop and reach a stage where they can become Invest Northern Ireland clients.

I will move on to issue 3, which considers European policy issues that fall within the remit of the Committee. There are many European issues that affect the economic climate of Northern Ireland and which would fall within the remit of the Committee. The first issue for consideration is the euro. Northern Ireland, as part of the UK and bordering the Republic of Ireland, is subject to the turbulent and fluctuating exchange rate, which plays havoc with local businesses, distorting trade on both sides of the border.

At present, businesses in Northern Ireland have a competitive advantage with the weakened pound. However, that has not always been the case. As members know, the fluctuations can be the difference between business success and business failure. At a local level, Craigavon Borough Council has been leading on a number of initiatives to try to get its businesses to capitalise on the strong euro. The council has initiated a Eurozone campaign aimed at encouraging shoppers from the Republic of Ireland into the borough. The fluctuating exchange rate is outside the control of the Committee, but it is an issue that must be borne in mind for future programmes.

We feel that the issue of economic migrants could be considered by the Committee. Economic migrants have had a huge impact on the economy of Craigavon, and over 2,000 migrant workers were employed in Craigavon in 2006, providing valuable support for factories, production lines, shift work and semi-skilled labour. In 2009, things have changed, and the tide is beginning to turn. Many migrant workers, particularly those in the Polish community, are returning to their own economies and leaving behind a huge labour market gap. That issue could be explored by the Committee.

A couple of months ago, some of us had the opportunity to be part of a delegation with the east border region, and we visited the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. We feel that it operates from within the heart of the European Parliament. A method must be found to harness and use this important position in Brussels. EU policy and practice can be influenced at a local level.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your comprehensive overview.

Obviously, Craigavon Borough Council has, very successfully, achieved EU funding for a variety of projects and business assistance, and you have outlined some of that. What role will Craigavon play in the new situation under the review of public administration, and with a greater emphasis by the Assembly and the Executive to create more established links with Europe? What are your links with other local government units, including those in Armagh and Banbridge, which you are scheduled to combine with under RPA? What model do you envisage to be the best in order to maximise influence in Europe from a local government level?

Ms Murtagh:

We welcome the RPA proposals, which will make our council the second-largest local authority in Northern Ireland. The working relationship that exists through the east border region and the south-east economic development (SEED) group— which comprises seven councils including North Down Borough Council and Armagh City and District Council — gives us an opportunity to collaborate on projects collectively. We are working on several projects, which we have submitted to the EU competitiveness programme.

The future model is based on regional development agencies and will, potentially, provide the Executive with an opportunity to consider England’s successful model, which has harnessed a significant amount of funding and brought the private sector to the table. Councils need critical mass to be successful, and, as the second-largest local authority, we will have that critical mass. We also work closely with our colleagues through the local economic development forum, the details of which Nicola will outline.

Mrs N Wilson:

Several councils work together in the local development forum, which has brought Departments to the table to explain what they are doing or what they plan to do. For example, we have brought decision-makers to the table in order to influence, shape and mould — through our experience — the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s strategy document on enterprise. Harnessing councils’ collective will and might at that level has borne fruit and is probably one mechanism through which local government can engage with Europe in the future.

Mr Shannon:

Thank you for your responses. If Craigavon Borough Council ever needs a PR officer, Nicola should get the job. I am tempted to go there for my holidays on the strength of her comments. [Laughter.]

Olga said that the east border region will contribute to the RPA. An official from Belfast City Council gave evidence earlier and outlined that council’s actions. Although that council area covers a sprinkling of rural communities on the edge of Belfast, it is, in essence, an urban council area. Are there, perhaps, roles for two officers, one for urban areas and one for rural areas? Would that enable Northern Ireland to build relationships with Europe and, ultimately, get as much from Europe as possible? Although it seems mercenary to use that terminology, it is our job.

Your presentation referred to the expertise of the National Assembly for Wales, and you must be aware of examples from that assembly that we can, perhaps, use here. We are not too old or too parochial to learn.

Mrs N Wilson:

I will answer the first question. We welcome every opportunity to put as many resources as possible into increasing engagement with Europe, and the appointment of an urban and a rural officer is, perhaps, a start. However, we need to address many more issues. We are aware that some councils already employ European officers.

However, we are mindful of many other issues on funding streams and other opportunities to explore issues that are unconnected to urban and rural officers. For example, we engage with universities and the further education sector, which encompasses urban and rural areas. One could build a case for appointing an officer to manage that area of business. I welcome any use of resources that will develop our engagement with Europe and get as much out of Europe — and give as much back — as possible.

Ms Murtagh:

I am sure that the Committee has access to information on Welsh EU funding levels. Wales’s total budget is approximately €2·7 billion, and community funding through the European regional development fund amounts to €1·25 billion, which is approximately 11·8% of the total EU investment earmarked for the United Kingdom under the cohesion policy for 2007-20.

It is obvious from the financial outputs that Wales has secured a significantly better proportion of EU investment than Northern Ireland has. We are aware that there are opportunities for the Executive to meet and work with their counterparts in the National Assembly for Wales and that its representatives have visited here to discuss those opportunities. Wales has examined its infrastructure requirements in depth and is adopting a much more strategic and co-ordinated approach. It is useful for us to benefit from best practice elsewhere.

Mr Shannon:

Therefore, it is not simply about money; it is about more than that. Is that what you are saying?

Ms Murtagh:

Yes, it is.

Mr Shannon:

Obviously, Wales has been able to increase the amount of money that it receives, but other resources are also involved.

Ms Murtagh:

The European agenda seems to be central to what the National Assembly for Wales is trying to promote.

The Chairperson:

It is reasonable to remind the Committee that Wales still enjoys Objective 1 status, which brings considerable benefits.

Mr Molloy:

Thank you for your presentation. I want to ask about promotion. What is your opinion on links between councils and the Assembly with the Office of the Executive in Brussels? Would councils provide funding to support the Assembly with direct engagement? You said that, sometimes, it is difficult to engage with the decision-makers.

Jonathan, what do elected members feel about engagement with Europe and how the councils are tied in with it?

Mrs N Wilson:

I am not really sure how to respond to that question because I do not know how the council would feel about having to give up valuable ratepayers’ funding to engage with Brussels.

The Chairperson:

There are three councillors present, so we could perhaps test that theory. [Laughter.]

Mrs N Wilson

It would be a cross-party discussion, too.

From a recent visit to the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, I can say that there certainly is the potential to engage more effectively with that office, which is central to the European Parliament. The member mentioned promotion. I really do not know how best to engage. One approach might be to work on some sort of strategic communication policy. We could begin by holding meetings and seeing where we can go from there and perhaps develop an action plan for greater engagement in the future. We have not tried anything else previously, but we could meet representatives of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels and see what engagement proposals we can come up with. Once we have agreed an action plan or a way forward, we can certainly consider how that can be funded.

Ms Murtagh:

I want to support my colleague’s comments. We are aware that NILGA is currently considering a European engagement strategy, and it has drawn up a business case for launching a European and international unit to help to support local government. That could, potentially, be part of a collaborative approach to engaging with Europe.

I have 18 years’ experience in local government, and I can recall that, in 1997, local councils contributed to an office in Brussels. It is up to each of the local authorities to consider — perhaps after the review of public administration has been implemented — what the impact of that funding would be. As far as ensuring that the argument is at a local level — and being mindful of the investment opportunities that Europe could bring — that is a decision for elected members.

Mr Jonathan McGibbon (Craigavon Borough Council):

Broadly speaking, the elected members across the parties would share the views that have been outlined in the report. The main concerns are around duplication and competitiveness between different programmes, and with the difficulty in getting information on European projects to community and voluntary groups, and so on. At the end of the day, it is in the communities that the money makes a difference.

Mr Molloy:

Have you any idea how much money Craigavon Borough Council has drawn down? I do not see that as contributing to the current Office of the Executive in Brussels, but a new Executive office would be funded if more financial benefits were available from Europe.

Ms Murtagh:

We can report back to the Committee on the exact amount of funding that the council has received. The council has received significant funding through the Peace I and Peace II programmes, the local strategy partnership, the European regional development fund and other European funding programmes, as well as through the LEADER programme. The evaluation is of what impact that funding has made on the area and it how has contributed. What are the needs that still need to be met in each of the local council areas? There is an opportunity for the Executive to encourage that debate to take place.

Mr Elliott:

Thank you very much for your interesting presentation. At one stage, I felt that you were suggesting that Craigavon Borough Council was in support of the Lisbon Treaty. I am unsure about that; perhaps you will provide clarification.

The way in which the National Assembly for Wales has handled EU issues has cropped up quite often, and Mr Shannon referred to that. Is a larger amount per capita going to Wales than to Northern Ireland? If that is the case, that is interesting, and the Committee needs to follow up that point.

How big an impact do European regulations and directives have on Craigavon Borough Council, particularly waste directives? Does the council feel, as many others do, that those are burdensome? Have you any ideas about how that can be changed?

Ms Murtagh:

Up to 70% of EU policy directives have an impact on areas of work in local government. Those relate to waste management, environmental impacts, procurement and diversification of rural communities. EU directives need to be simplified so that the local population can understand them. The changing role of the Northern Ireland Executive as policy-makers is fundamental in that regard. EU directives have an important impact, but that information needs to be conveyed to the general public in a manner that they can understand.

As the Chairperson has mentioned, Wales still has Objective 1 status. We are aware that our productivity and gross value added is different from Wales, and we must consider comparisons in that regard. The opportunity provided by the investment in Wales has seen a greater return in relation to what it has been able to lever out. It is probably because of the types of projects to which they have earmarked funding to be allocated. There are opportunities arising from the great result that the impact has had in Wales.

Mr Elliott:

Although, to be fair, it has had a fairly good result in areas in Northern Ireland as well. Finally, the issue concerning the waste directives is not just about people understanding them. It is about their implementation and the results of that implementation to the population. That is more important than understanding them.

Ms Murtagh:

The council is a member of the southern waste management partnership (SWaMP) initiative. We are aware of the waste management requirements. That is a crucial issue, of which local authorities must be aware.

Mrs D Kelly:

I cannot pass up the opportunity to speak, because I no longer serve on Craigavon Borough Council’s development committee. We have heard about building relationships, and a key message that the Committee received from the Republic of Ireland’s Joint Committee on European Affairs and the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee was in relation to networking. Craigavon Borough Council did give some funding to an office in Brussels. Witnesses have told the Committee that there needs to be an investment in resources, not only in the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels but in some mechanism here in the Executive or the Assembly.

Your presentation concentrated heavily on economic development. The previous witness from Belfast City Council said that 2010 will be the year of anti-poverty. Given that the central area of Craigavon, Court and the Birches are high up on the Noble indicators, how do you plan to maximise any opportunities at this stage? From where will you get advice? Who will be responsible for getting that advice out to the community and voluntary sector and others?

Ms Murtagh:

The member has clearly raised the issue about the number of stakeholders and agencies involved in all the initiatives, and we have also highlighted that issue. A number of Departments — DSD in particular — have responsibility for the anti-poverty strategy, and we would seek to work closely with DSD.

In the Craigavon borough, there are neighbourhood renewal partnership areas in Portadown, Lurgan and Brownlow, and we believe that those provide an opportunity to consider the anti-poverty message.

Communication must be a two-way process. Information must be fed up the line, and we look forward to working with the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in that regard. We are keen to have discussions about ensuring that the programmes can be communicated through, because the council plays a pivotal role in servicing all the partnerships in the local area.

Mrs D Kelly:

Based on what I have heard, there seems to be no mechanism in place for that communication flow. It is all a bit hit and miss.

Ms Murtagh:

I concur with that and with the comments from the official from Belfast City Council. Belfast has a dedicated European unit, which has sole responsibility for dealing with European issues, and it can consider those wider issues. It is not a resource that lies with many other local authorities, and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Committee and local councils should examine that. However, it is an ad hoc mechanism on how communication is fed back through to local government.

The Chairperson:

Thank you. Mrs Kelly did not exactly give you a planted question.

Ms Anderson:

Jonathan, following on from what Dolores said, you must be in contact with groups and organisations that are finding it difficult to obtain match funding. Indeed, many groups have contacted us to say that they are finding it difficult. Have you been able to tap into the European recovery plan? Groups do not know whether it has been fully developed or whether it is still out there. It is about allowing Departments such as DEL to give 100% funding rather than having to look for match funding.

There is a deficit with regard to outreach to groups and organisations. When you secure money, do you have experience of clawback? Have you given technical support to groups or organisations to ensure that if they have seen it happening in Peace I — and now we are on to Peace III — that they have understood the process?

Mr McGibbon:

You are clearly right in what you have said. That is evidence, and it is part of the joined-up approach that is needed, but it must be more than that. It needs to be clearly defined, and that is part of the problem. Many of the groups do not know to whom they should turn, but the development department of Craigavon Borough Council has invited groups and delivered seminars to provide people with the necessary skills to apply for the fund and to provide the clear routes to take to download the fund. However, it needs to be broader, and the responsibility needs to be more clearly defined. That issue has been touched on.

Ms Anderson:

Does the council often deliver seminars? Are they regular, or are they one-off events?

Ms Murtagh:

We deliver regular seminars. We have a calendar of events for the community to come in, and we have a seminar next week on funding opportunities. The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, the lottery, the health trusts and community groups have been invited to come along and hear about all the available sources of funding. We also run grant-finder workshops to which community groups are invited in order to access a database for available funding, including that available from foundations and trusts rather than mainstream funding.

We work closely with other statutory agencies — for example, the health trusts, on their sources of funding for older people — and with education and library boards in relation to their funding for youth projects. Therefore, we believe that Craigavon Borough Council has a very good database of funding knowledge. However, Ms Anderson’s point about 100% funding is valid. That information is only now starting to come through slowly. We want to know from where the other total package of funding will come. That information has not been disseminated in an official manner.

Mrs D Kelly:

However, it must be added that clawback is not allowed.

Mrs N Wilson:

I deal with businesses that apply for European funding. A particular funding source that is pertinent at present is the rural development programme, which will soon open for applications. We anticipate that a lot of businesses will apply for grants of up to £50,000, but they must find the other 50% of the funding themselves. In the present economic climate, that will present a major barrier for rural businesses.

The council and its lead partners — councils that lead on the rural development programme — have been lobbying the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for companies to be allowed to include 45% sweat equity — their own work and toil — as part of their contribution, rather than trying to find 50%. Therefore, we are lobbying and trying to harness our collective resources, as councils, in order to make a difference to local businesses.

The Chairperson:

That completes the questions from the Committee. I thank the witnesses for their presentation and answers. You have indicated that you will provide any additional information, including a breakdown of the council’s funds to date. The Committee looks forward to receiving that.

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