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:
Ms Oonagh McGillion ) Derry City Council 
Mr Tony Monaghan )

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

The last evidence session is with Derry City Council, which is represented by Ms Oonagh McGillion and Tony Monaghan, who are very welcome. Thank you for attending. You may wish to provide the Committee with an overview, after which members will ask questions. The Committee anticipates that the session will last about 20 minutes.

Ms Oonagh McGillion ( Derry City Council):

We will use our written submission as a summary of the key points that Derry City Council wishes to make to the Committee. Those points can be subdivided into three, the first of which is European policy, the second is European funding, and the third is European representation.

After listening to the previous witnesses, I imagine that a number of the issues that we will present to the Committee have already been covered. Please bear with us while we raise some further points in respect of that information.

European policy is an area that has caused councils much consideration, in that 70% of European policy affects Northern Ireland at a local level. The Committee has heard several of those mentioned — for example, waste management. Derry City Council wants to draw attention to the fact that those are central policies that are not disseminated on the basis of their local impact, costs and benefits. Therefore, when a policy is introduced in Northern Ireland, the regional impact is not identified, and councils must often pick up significant costs related to the implementation of those policies. That gap is significant. If more analysis were carried out at a Northern Ireland level, and more support were given to local authorities, implementation of those policies would be more effective when they reach local level.

Initial problems that we have recognised include waste management, which has a significant environmental impact. It has put a huge financial burden on ratepayers. Having completed our rate-estimate process at the end of last week, we have had to increase the burden on local ratepayers in the Derry City Council area by £1 million. That is extremely significant. It is over and above what was identified in previous years.

We urge the Northern Ireland Assembly to challenge constructively the European Commission on its commitment not only to peripheral regions but to subregions within those, such as in the Northern Ireland context. Significant time and energy have been spent on regional policy documents such as the regional development strategy. Where do those policies fit when EU policy enters at Northern Ireland level? How can commitments that have been made under a regional policy directive match what is asked for by European policy? Often, there is a mismatch, to which proper due consideration is not given.

The Derry City Council area, like many others, has benefited from European funding programmes, particularly significant peace and reconciliation structural funds and cross-border territorial co-operation programmes. Notwithstanding that, when European programmes have been designed at Northern Ireland level, they have not taken due cognisance of, for example, the regional development strategy, which states that there are subregional disparities. They have not taken due cognisance of TSN, section 75, Investing for Health or neighbourhood renewal by the Department for Social Development.

If all those policies are considered against the significant levels of deprivation in the Derry City Council area, it is clear that the council did not get its fair share of European programme funds that have come into Northern Ireland. We welcome an analysis of the application of TSN, section 75 and all other policies towards dealing with regional disparities in the European funding initiatives that have been implemented throughout Northern Ireland. Now there is a chance, if needs be, to take corrective action through new programmes that are currently being implemented in Northern Ireland.

Previous witnesses from Craigavon Borough Council referred to three current EU programmes — the competitiveness, employment and rural development programmes. Those programmes are currently important for the Derry City Council area. However, they present significant challenges. Five projects in the area have been approved. They have been awarded funding of 65% of their total costs but have been unable to secure the remaining 35%, which means that they are unable to draw down that funding.

It has been suggested to those organisations that they should secure match funding from Derry City Council, DSD, the health and social care trusts, and so on. In fact, those organisations do not have the necessary resources to co-finance those initiatives. We have lobbied the Department strongly to urge it to consider changing intervention rates.

Provision of 50% grant aid for the rural population will also be a challenge. Those operational programmes were written during periods of growth and boom. The current economic climate is quite different. Therefore, although we recognise that only certain changes can be made to the operational programmes, we call on the monitoring committees to give special consideration to current intervention rates.

We acknowledge that the Northern Ireland Assembly has tried to be creative with access to European funding. The most recent example is the distribution of grants by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. We believe that there should be dedicated pots of money for specific programmes throughout Northern Ireland.

In previous times, we had access to the integrated development fund, which recognised that there were discrete projects in Northern Ireland that were deserving of development. We believe that we should be lobbying strongly for similar funding programmes with a European perspective. For example, the URBAN programme had an important role in kick-starting investment in neighbourhood renewal in Northern Ireland, and URBAN II had an impact on Derry city. Community initiatives no longer exist, but that type of intervention proved to be invaluable to the local communities at which it was targeted.

We are very fortunate to have three MEPs who represent us in Europe and who advocate and lobby strongly on behalf of Northern Ireland. However, the Northern Ireland Assembly should give our MEPs additional support and encourage a strong collaborative approach to issues, not only in the Northern Ireland context but in a wider Irish context in order to benefit from the European opportunities that are available to us.

The Northern Ireland Centre in Europe was a vibrant organisation. However, we feel that the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels does not provide the same level of service. Perhaps the Committee can address that issue as part of its deliberations. We thank the Committee for inviting us here today; we believe that there is an opportunity to change the way in which European issues are addressed at a local level.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation. How can local government in Northern Ireland build better and deeper relationships with the EU? You concentrated on your own council area, which is to be expected, but how does your work broaden out into a more strategic context for local government generally in Northern Ireland?

Ms McGillion:

I mentioned European policy in my opening comments; we believe that there should be a mechanism for delivering dedicated support that translates European policy directives at the local level. That support should be made available to all council areas in Northern Ireland. The community and voluntary sector provide dedicated support through the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA). I respectfully suggest that local government should use a similar approach, perhaps through the auspices of NILGA or through some other recognised organisation that could support local authorities in interpreting and implementing European policy. I apologise if that did not come across strongly in my opening remarks; we recognise that all of Northern Ireland is affected by European policy, not just the Derry City Council area.

Mr Elliott:

I am particularly interested in the issue of European directives and the significant way in which they affect local government. In your written submission, you say that Derry City Council:

“considers the current scrutiny role being implemented by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to be inadequate for the needs and challenges facing local government in Northern Ireland.”

You go on to say that there should be a greater emphasis on reviewing European policy directives, and:

“particularly at their potential local impact and on the dissemination of this information so that local authorities can make a more informed response”.

I wonder whether you realise the enormity of that task. We visited the Scottish Parliament a few weeks ago to see how it addressed those issues. The Scots find it impossible to keep up with developments. The Dáil has a very active European scrutiny committee, but again, its members find it impossible to keep up with the amount of legislation that is produced by the European Union. The Scots concentrate their scrutiny activity on just three or four issues. Do you have any suggestions as to how we can do better? Should we adopt a targeted approach and narrow our scrutiny focus onto one or two issues? Based on the evidence that we have received to date, it is virtually impossible for a regional Assembly such as ours to keep abreast of all the issues.

Ms McGillion:

Others have already made attempts in that regard, and we are fortunate that we can learn valuable lessons from their experiences. Starting with something is better than starting with nothing. It is better to start with the directives that are considered to have the greatest impact rather than adopting a scattergun approach and trying to target all EU directives.

Some directives will have less of an impact than others. We respectfully suggest that you start by monitoring the directives that have the greatest impact and resource them. That will ascertain the effect of those directives and whether there is an opportunity to collaborate and share information with other assemblies in the UK and Ireland. Instead of everyone going off and doing their own thing, information can be shared on what is happening across the wider area.

Mr Moutray:

Thank you for your presentation. You are the third local authority that has made a presentation to the Committee this afternoon, but you are unique in that you are the only one of those council areas that shares a land border with another EU state. You mentioned that you had benefited from cross-border collaboration and funding. To what extent did you benefit, and do you feel that the collaboration was maximised?

Ms McGillion:

INTERREG funding has played a significant role, particularly in respect of capital infrastructure development. One of the most recent INTERREG projects to be announced is Project Kelvin, and it gives an indication of the scale of the investment that can be realised through dedicated funding.

We enjoy an excellent relationship with Donegal County Council, which has played an important role in the north-west region cross-border group. The councils of Strabane, Limavady, Derry and Donegal sit on that group, and it has secured significant funding. Furthermore, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and Invest Northern Ireland, also secured a number of innovation projects in their last tranche of funding.

It is slightly concerning for us that there does not seem to be the level of activity in attempting to secure funding opportunities for the north-west that there was previously. The budget has been much reduced, and it does not have the same level of capital infrastructure projects that we enjoyed before.

Ms Anderson:

I want to clear something up in case there is any confusion. Stephen has led me to say Derry City, as the instruction-to-tender project for Project Kelvin states that it is located in Londonderry, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland. In case there is any confusion, Derry City Council is before us here, not Coleraine Borough Council.

Belfast City Council has an EU unit, and, in the first presentation today, its representative indicated that it has secured £12 million. Would a dedicated EU unit assist Derry City Council in maximising possible benefits? I was impressed to hear of the number of programmes and projects that Belfast City Council is tapping into for the benefit of Belfast and the adjacent council areas. Derry City Council could consider doing something similar, and that may assist in the pooling of resources with Donegal County Council under the workings of INTERREG.

The creation of super-councils under the RPA will amalgamate the councils of Derry and Strabane. Therefore, Derry City Council will inherit problems such as deprivation and huge numbers of lone parents. How can we maximise any available opportunities in the European economic recovery plan, for example? We hear about that plan, but I do not have enough information on it. At this Committee, Bairbre de Brún, and possibly other MEPs, mentioned that that plan will at least try to address the match-funding issue. Have you any more information about that plan? Would it be worthwhile to pursue it at your end? We can also pursue it and then share the information.

Many people seem to work only within their own silo and focus on their own geographical area. How can we pool resources to maximise benefits for everyone who lives here?

Ms McGillion:

That is beginning to happen organically. The Peace III programme is being delivered via a subregional approach. Strabane and Omagh are collaborating to deliver that programme. There is also a cluster under rural development, which includes not only Omagh, Strabane and Derry but Limavady. We are starting to see that synergy, and people are working together to identify and address subregional problems to try to make the funding go further. We are not in a unique situation, but we are addressing significant problems in our geographical area, and we have carried out a considerable amount of animation work. By that, I mean that local communities are now really engaged, and they want to be able to help themselves and to take control of how they improve their lives.

We need to ensure that people are not left behind when it comes to European funding. For instance, significant regeneration projects will happen in the city, but we need to ensure that local people avail of those projects. That is why the EU employment programme is so important. It will upskill and engage people who are economically inactive as well as people who are long-term unemployed. We are considering whether we can do collaborative projects with Strabane, because the unemployment rates and economic inactivity rates are very similar to those in Derry. Therefore, we are looking at joint initiatives and joint programmes rather than just doing things in an individual geographical area.

Ms Anderson:

The PROGRESS programme is mentioned in the report of the task force, and there is £743 million of EU money attached to it. There should be a lobby, and the Committee is going to make a submission to the Executive on our response to the report. However, there is no reference to that in DEL’s action plan. When we met officials last week, they said that they did not wish to tap into that opportunity because of the difficulties that the Departments faced when trying to engage with Europe. I do not know if that opportunity has been lost, but, given that it is about employability, we need to try to find a mechanism through which DEL can tap into that resource and maximise it. However, that needs to come not only from us but from other organisations.

Mr Tony Monaghan ( Derry City Council):

I will pick up on the dedicated EU units. In Derry City Council, we have sought to maximise European funding opportunities through the north-west regional cross-border group accessing INTERREG funds, the European social fund or establishing partnerships through Peace funds. I work in the economic development section of the council, and we have sought to maximise the funding opportunities that are available. However, we are examining how other local authorities are seeking to provide a dedicated focus. The council’s development department will shortly be going through review and restructuring, and we have sought to identify a dedicated resource that will assist us in identifying, co-ordinating and helping us to assemble European funding bids.

Mr Spratt:

I thought that you were negative in your remarks about the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. Members visited the office and were impressed with the amount of work that was being done there, so I am wondering why you made that remark. What contact have you made with the office, and what efforts have you made to secure assistance from it, which is what it is all about? The Committee has never heard any negative comments about the office before.

Since the restoration of devolution, there have probably been more ministerial visits. Junior Ministers visit Europe regularly, and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and other Ministers visit Brussels regularly. There has been contact with the Northern Ireland Assembly at the highest level. The president of the European Union has visited here, along with other key players in relation to major funding in the context of Europe. There is much more happening now than during direct rule.

Will you provide two or three examples of work that MEPs have done on behalf of Derry City Council to bring major funding to the Derry area?

Ms McGillion:

My comment was certainly not intended to be negative, because we recognise that it is great to have the dedicated asset of the resource of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. As you said, it plays an important role. The policy directive is for local authorities, particularly Derry City Council, to be able to translate policy, implement that policy and identify any potential challenges and barriers to implementation at the local level.

I was not aware that the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels provided that service, but I can review that. That is the genesis and the background of where my comment came from, but I was not referring to the work of that office. There is no question that it is considered to be an excellent resource.

MEPs, through securing European funding for the city, have played a significant role through the first and subsequent Peace programmes and the Building Sustainable Prosperity programme. Funding has not only benefited Derry City Council but all of Northern Ireland and the six border counties. That has been a significant implementation to those areas; for example, the URBAN I programme was targeted at deprived neighbourhoods in the city such as the Bogside, Brandywell, Fountain and Creggan. That was a community initiative that was available for all of Northern Ireland in the first instance, and, through discrete lobbying, Derry and Belfast benefited from that.

The LEADER programmes, which are rural development programmes, are not specific to Derry City Council but are used across Northern Ireland. Those have been valuable to the local rural economy. The rural area partnership in Derry (RAPID) recently told us that it has been able to secure a further £3 for every £1 of European funding that has come in. It has been able to secure a significant amount of leverage. Therefore, the MEPs have played an important role not only in bringing the mainstream programmes to Northern Ireland but the community initiatives, which provide a top-up over and above the European funding.

Mr Spratt:

May I be clear: you do not have any basis for your earlier comments on the work of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels? You have not attempted to use that office or to make any enquiries with it.

Ms McGillion:

Derry City Council has been with that office, and we have made a number of European visits, particularly under a Peace II project — Outward and Forward Looking Region. The office has been involved with engagements and exchanges. I shall qualify my earlier remarks: they concerned the local interpretation of EU policy and directives coming to the local area, not about the representation in Brussels.

Mr Spratt:

Therefore, you are happy enough with the work that is being done by the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, and Derry City Council has no problem with it.

Ms McGillion:

No, it has not.

Mr Molloy:

How do you see a different role for the MEPs in how they could buy in and be part of a local structure? I was surprised to hear that Derry City Council did not believe that it did not get its portion of funds, because the rest of us always believed that Derry got all the funds from Europe.

European law is made by the member Governments. Do you think that enough pressure is put on by the Governments here — North and South — and by the British Government to make appropriate legislation? The waste directives, which are a burden, are made up by the member states, two of which are the British Government and the Irish Government.

Obviously, the member states did not think far enough ahead when they were making the waste directives to put in place targets and the structures to deal with those. The main issue that has arisen is that the councils did not question that in a response. The same can be said of the European funding. All the councils sought the Peace and rural moneys, but they did not seek the other funding that is available.

Did Derry City Council ask about, or object to, any of the terms and conditions for accessing European funding for the rural or URBAN programmes? The provision of funding for five self-catering units under the tourism programme is probably an unrealistic figure. That problem was identified, and yet no one seemed to object to it. We have discussed redrawing the terms and condition for that programme, and it is important that we do so. That is a wee lesson, because, in the past, funding has not met the needs of the area. Funding applications should be drawn up to meet the needs of an area, not the other way round, whereby funding applications are rejigged to suit the plan.

As regards Jimmy Spratt’s point, has the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels yet to fulfil any of Derry City Council’s demands? Has the council had any contact with the European Commission Office in Belfast to discuss the implementation, or explanation, of European issues?

Ms McGillion:

Derry City Council has submitted formal responses on European policies, directives and programmes and has engaged in consultation exercises in respect of those.

It is a challenge for the Department of Finance and Personnel to encapsulate those responses in a programme to meet an area’s different needs, whether they are local needs or subregional needs. We have good programmes that address significant issues in a Northern Ireland context around peace and reconciliation, and rural development.

Quite often, programmes’ overarching objectives do not translate well at a local level. The council has found that the mismatch occurs when it attempts to design its local strategy, because it cannot always do everything that it wants to do. However, that is probably not the fault of any of the programmes’ designers.

This is very much an evolving process. The initial consultation for those structural programmes was undertaken a number of years ago. However, as time has lapsed, the economy and priorities have changed to create a different set of circumstances. One cannot be as flexible and reactive to those local circumstances as one would like.

I cannot quote any examples of when the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels has not supported the council. Certainly, it has always acknowledged any correspondence about, or participation in, consultation events on European programmes. We have always had an opportunity to contribute to those.

Mr Molloy:

The European Commission Office in Belfast seems to have slipped out of the net. Everyone is examining the role of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, and yet the European Commission Office in Belfast does not seem to be doing its job, which is to provide explanations about projects.

Ms McGillion:

I am not too sure about that.

The Chairperson:

Do members have any further points or queries?

Ms Anderson:

I went to Brussels with the Foyle Women’s Information Network, which represents women’s organisations from both sections of the community, to meet representatives from that office. The women said that they did get much from the office before, during or after the meeting and that they felt that it would be easier for them to engage with the office if it were set at a different level. The women also said that they did not feel that the office’s representatives were particularly friendly towards community groups that were trying to access information.

It might just be the case that they are going to the wrong location, but that was certainly the view from many of the organisations. A lot of them are from the unionist community.

Mr Spratt:

I thought that they should have made use of a local office.

Ms Anderson:

That group went to Brussels to see how they can influence and intervene in policies when they are being developed. It is too late to become involved after they have been agreed. They went over to try to learn about what is going on in Europe. It is worth noting that not everyone sees the situation in the same way.

The Chairperson:

I thank Oonagh and Tony for their presentation and for their answers today. If you wish to provide us with any other information, we are happy to receive it. It may be that we will need to clarify some points with you.

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