Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 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 Laura Leonard ) Belfast City Council

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

The Committee will today hear evidence on its consideration of European issues. The first session is with representatives from Belfast City Council, and members have received copies of the council’s written submission. I welcome Laura Leonard, the European manager, and Shirley McCay, the head of the economic initiative. Good afternoon; you are very welcome.

Ms Laura Leonard ( Belfast City Council):

I am afraid that Shirley is ill today, so I am here alone.

The Chairperson:

The Committee is seeking evidence on its consideration of European issues. You may wish to make a short presentation and then answer some questions from members. We hope that this session will last approximately 20 to 30 minutes.

Ms Leonard:

Good afternoon, Chairperson, and members of the Committee. I appreciate the opportunity to engage with you this afternoon. Members will have received Belfast City Council’s written submission, which was sent some time ago. I will not go into the detail of that, but I will make a few introductory comments.

The European unit in Belfast City Council was established in 2004 and was endorsed by all political parties. It is based on a consideration of best practice for local authorities across the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, in engaging with the European Union.

Members can see from the submission that there have been significant results since 2004. The unit has brought in over £12 million, is heavily involved in lobbying networks — particularly the 137-strong Eurocities network — and engages in the lobbying and influencing of policy. The unit’s key objectives are to maximise opportunities through European funding — over and beyond the mainstream EU programmes that are available here into other transnational and inter-regional opportunities — and also to be alert to, and to interpret and disseminate, policies that are relevant to local authorities on the ground. The unit services the full council and the other five councils that make up the metropolitan area.

We work with other stakeholders including the universities, Belfast Metropolitan College, the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce,and so on. We already have a strong relationship with our colleagues in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) both here and in Brussels. Members will be aware that we engage annually in the Opportunity Europe initiative. We work with honorary consuls, and we have been involved with events when the UK held the presidency of the European Union (EU).

We fully support the Committee’s consideration of the setting up a subcommittee on Europe. We believe that Europe should not be a bolt-on: it affects everything that we do. All the political parties believe that our European unit is a politically neutral platform to engage on Europe, benefit from it and be aware of how Europe affects us daily.

The submission that I have provided to members on the council’s behalf references ‘ Northern Ireland: Report of the Task Force’ and the National Forum on Europe, which is the model in the South of Ireland. We engaged in the task force consultation exercise, and we await the outcome and action plan. We look forward to being a key stakeholder in the implementation of that action plan. We believe that there is scope for examining the South’s model — the National Forum in Europe, which is backed by all political parties — for better engagement in Europe.

Members will be aware that there is a special observer pillar, in which some of the parties in the North participate. That is also a politically neutral forum for engaging with civil society on issues concerning Europe. The council reached agreement in 2007 to consider setting up a Belfast forum on Europe, where we would hold a number of events each year to examine the key emerging policies that affect us.

In a nutshell, we support the Committee’s examination of the potential to set up a subcommittee on Europe and are keen to be a partner in the implementation of actions arising from the action plan.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for your concise presentation. Belfast City Council, as the largest council in Northern Ireland, already has an established track record of working with and through Europe. How do you think that that can be better improved in conjunction with other local authorities in light of the review of public administration (RPA)? How could it be ensured that the interests of Belfast were not being promoted over and above the interest of local government generally in Northern Ireland? I am not criticising Belfast City Council in any shape or form, but it should be recognised that local government exists outside Belfast, and there are issues about how it would be best co-ordinated on European issues for effective improvement.

Ms Leonard:

Naturally, our bread and butter is the promotion of the Belfast metropolitan area, the urban agenda and, increasingly, the urban/rural agenda. I fully believe that when the RPA rolls out and the 11 councils are reconfigured, there should be a resource at local government level. There are lost opportunities there.

The Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) has a one-man resource to try to better engage with Europe, but that only supports elected members by sitting on the monitoring committees for the current EU programmes. I believe that each super-council or larger council should have a European unit to do exactly as we are doing — keeping a daily watch on policies and opportunities for funding.

For example, we are currently engaged in the consultation on the new territorial cohesion policy. That will have a big impact on funding in the North, post-2013, and we want to ensure that we have an input into the UK response to that. Similarly, 2010 is the year of social inclusion and anti-poverty, and we are already planning how to access opportunities. We need to have a European unit for each of those larger authorities, or at least try to create some kind of shared resource. That is critical.

The Chairperson:

Who do you think should co-ordinate that? Should it be NILGA, or should the corresponding local government units provide some form of secretariat that would have a broad overview?

Ms Leonard:

It could be NILGA. In my experience, most European activity in councils tends to emanate from their economic development units because of the European regional development fund (ERDF) moneys that are driven through that. The European unit that I manage emerged from my role as an economic development officer. European activity can emerge through that, and it can emerge corporately. Resources could be put in from Departments into creating an overarching co-ordinating unit in NILGA as one option.

Ms Anderson:

I am impressed by the amount of £12 million, which you said that Belfast has been able to gain since 2004. You said that you have responded to the report of the task force, and we have noted that the seventh framework programme could result in universities securing money for research. That is particularly relevant to Belfast, given that it has two universities.

We also note the PROGRESS programme, which is about employability and social solidarity and to which £743 million is allocated. The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) is the lead Department for that programme, but it is not included in its action plan. Have you raised those kinds of concerns? Do you lobby Ministers in order to raise potential opportunities that should be maximised? You would look at opportunities for Belfast, and we would look across the North.

Ms Leonard:

We engage with most Departments. We have not started to look at the PROGRESS programme yet, but that is on our list of things to do. We have held targeted information sessions for the universities and for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) on the seventh framework programme. Businesses can really benefit from that programme this time around. Yesterday, I was in Brussels, and they were talking about 100% funding for businesses under that programme. In the current climate, that is a real opportunity.

We work with DEL through the European social fund (ESF) moneys that it delivers, and we work with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) through the European regional development fund (ERDF). For the last year and a half, we have been lobbying the Department for Social Development (DSD) and DETI to embrace the joint European resources for micro to medium enterprises (JEREMIE) funding, which is a new financial instrument for small businesses through the European Investment Bank’s loan system, and the joint European support for sustainable investment in city areas (JESSICA) funding, which is a new initiative for urban redevelopment. That is potentially exciting for Northern Ireland, given that there is such a strain on resources. On a project-by-project basis, we engage with Departments.

Mrs D Kelly:

We have heard about the relationship between the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels and officials here, how that could be strengthened and whether it meets the requirements. In the summary of your submission, you say that you want to:

“develop a stronger working relationship, particularly around dissemination of European policy.”

Is that a gap that you have identified?

Ms Leonard:

We have a good working relationship with the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, and we have huge respect for its team. However, I believe that it is under-resourced. One cannot possibly keep abreast of all policies in every area that is relevant to here, from agriculture to fishing to urban issues. There is a gap in resources, and I believe that that must be looked at. I have a team of dedicated staff who are on that every day, but other councils and other sectors do not have the resources to use the Internet or to talk to directorates general in Brussels, so there is a gap.

Mr Shannon:

I am sorry that I missed your presentation, but I read the research material, which provides an insight. I noticed how you have managed to work the system, and that has been reflected in the questions that you have been asked today. In the Chairman’s initial comments, he spoke about how you have been able to be involved in Europe and to take full advantage of funding. The £12 million is an example of the resources and money that can come into the system.

My question follows on from what the Chairman said. How do you see the councils working together in the future to galvanise all the talents and all the resources? Other members may have a different opinion, but I feel that it is not necessary to have a European officer on each council. It might be better to have someone to look after urban and rural issues for councils. I suspect that two or three officers would be ample to deal with that.

All councils have economic development departments and officers, and — wearing my other hat as a member of Ards Borough Council — our officer has a fairly good grasp of European issues and seems to be well up to speed with what moneys are available.

Do you feel that, if economic development officers from all the councils acted together, they could strengthen our relationships with Europe? Do you feel that your individual role in Belfast City Council is a better way to strengthen that relationship?

Ms Leonard:

As I said, the European unit that I manage emerged from the economic development unit in which I used to work.

Mr Shannon:

Is that unit now separate?

Ms Leonard:

Yes it is, and it serves the entire council. Economic development officers are well placed and have the necessary skills to become our link with Europe. They already work on European regional development funding issues and receive a lot of policy documentation on Europe.

My unit also services the other five councils that cover the Belfast metropolitan area — Lisburn City Council, Castlereagh Borough Council, Carrickfergus Borough Council, North Down Borough Council and Newtownabbey Borough Council. We apply for funding collectively, I share policy papers with those councils, and, if I am asked and it is relevant, I share other matters. One issue to bear in mind is that, although there are many other funding opportunities, there are also many funding requirements; for example, if a council applies for funding from the LIFE programme, it still has to invest 25% or 50% of ratepayers’ money. Therefore, councils are better off applying collectively as we do: we have six councils, as opposed to one council, taking the hit. Therefore, there are implications for going after such funding, and I encourage partnership in that process.

Mr Shannon:

You mentioned that you work with five other councils, including North Down Borough Council. Is that because of proximity and urban spread? When RPA changes are implemented and Ards Borough Council takes over North Down Borough Council — as we intend to — will that relationship change?

Ms Leonard:

We discussed that issue at our recent AGM, and we still see the relationship remaining. The relationship began with a collective response on the Belfast metropolitan area plan (BMAP) exercise, and the chief executives of the councils still see value in maintaining the metropolitan circle.

I am also a secretary for the councils of the metropolitan area (COMET) INTERREG partnership. North Down Borough Council is part of the Belfast partnership and the partnership in the east border region. Newtownabbey Borough Council is part of the Belfast partnership and the north-east partnership. Therefore, councils can be members of different partnerships, but, obviously, I think that the metropolitan one is the best.

Mr Shannon:

I have one other question.

The Chairperson:

As long as it is not a declaration of war.

Mr Shannon:

No, North Down Borough Council will roll over. [Laughter.]

Belfast City Council has developed links with China. Has that been done through your European unit or through the economic development department?

The Chairperson:

China is a long way from Europe.

Ms Leonard:

I worked on that before I became the European manager. Belfast has a sister relationship with Hefei province in China, which includes work with universities and establishing strategic alliances with businesses, such as Delta Print and Packaging in west Belfast. That is the responsibility of the economic development unit, as is the development of relationships with North America. However, from looking at other models in the UK and Europe, it seems that development of European and international links are usually the responsibility of an external relations unit, which deals with both tasks together. In Belfast, responsibility is separate, which is a resource issue.

Mr Molloy:

I am glad to hear that Ards is being taken under someone’s wing.

Mr Shannon:

Easy now, boy.

Mr Molloy:

Larger councils would not benefit if councils worked together. Would Belfast City Council regard itself as one of the councils that could relay information on European issues to a wider group?

Ms Leonard:

We were approached by a particular council in that regard. I did some research to find out how we could assist that council on European issues. It was a completely rural agenda, which is not something that I usually deal with. We offered to set up a service level agreement, but that did not happen. Nevertheless, we would be willing to co-ordinate that if the required resources were made available.

Mr Molloy:

Do you think that other councils, particularly rural councils, have lost out as a result of not having ties with Europe?

Ms Leonard:

Yes, I think that they have. Rural council and MEP representation has been particularly strong on the common agricultural policy and other rural issues, and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development has also been strong on European issues. However, opportunities have been missed. The seven themes and budgets of the sixth environmental action programme (EAP) could be tapped into, but that has been ruled out. No one is carrying out that work.

Mr Molloy:

Martina mentioned the report of the task force earlier. Has that report enabled Belfast City Council to identify opportunities in areas that it may have missed in the past?

Ms Leonard:

We were already aware of all the different thematic areas that the report identifies. It is our job to have a daily watching brief so that we know what programmes are out there.

Mr Molloy:

Was the report of the task force not of any real benefit to the council on that occasion?

Ms Leonard:

The report of the task force is a welcome document in that it co-ordinates Departments here for the first time to focus on Europe and identify the associated opportunities. An action plan will be the outcome of that, so we support the report.

Mr Spratt:

I apologise for being a bit late and missing the start of your presentation. I also declare an interest as a member of Castlereagh Borough Council. I want to make two points in relation to the Belfast metropolitan area and the councils outside Belfast, including Castlereagh, that are serviced by Belfast City Council.

First, what benefits have there been for Castlereagh, for example, as a result of the work that has been ongoing for the past few years? My second, and more important, point relates to Queen’s University Belfast. On one of our trips to Brussels, we met representatives of universities in the South. Those universities have folk in Brussels who network in order to acquire research money, and so on, and I note that some of those universities have acquired money from Europe for research and development.

Have you had any talks with Queen’s University and the University of Ulster to encourage them to network in a similar way? I tried to encourage Queen’s to have someone out there networking and tapping into those opportunities. It appears that networking is the way to go about acquiring European funding. Indeed, given that the economic climate is more difficult now, such networking is probably more important than ever before. How much consultation do you give to Queen’s and the Belfast metropolitan area on EU issues?

Ms Leonard:

We meet representatives from Queen’s University and the University of Ulster regularly to discuss European affairs. Queen’s is pretty strong on accessing the sixth and seventh framework programmes, and it brings in consultants to help. Belfast City Council recently helped Queen’s University to secure INTERREG IVa moneys to work through the Northern Ireland Centre for Competitiveness.

We meet representatives from Queen’s regularly to inform them of the available opportunities. We also held an information roadshow recently to examine the seventh framework programme and the competitiveness and innovation programme. Queen’s brought its key researchers to that roadshow to assess potential applications. The University of Ulster has also secured INTERREG IVa funding through us recently, and we regularly meet its representatives to highlight the available opportunities. We also engage with Belfast Metropolitan College, which now includes the former Castlereagh College.

You asked how Castlereagh Borough Council has benefited from the work that has been going on. A member of that council is currently in Brussels. Economic development managers are currently meeting officials from DG enterprise and industry and DG regional policy in Brussels to consider the opportunities for the metropolitan area. We jointly lobbied DETI to look at the future role of local economic development, and we submitted a joint paper. We are currently in discussions with DETI to ascertain how each member state can avail of the new JEREMIE initiative.

Through that initiative, we can work with the European Investment Bank to put together a cycle of loan funds for small businesses using the European regional development fund money that Northern Ireland has in its pot. There are few grants available in the current climate, but, through that initiative, businesses can get low-cost-value loans. It will provide a continued cycle of funding for small businesses. DETI is scoping that at present, and there might be a pilot scheme. We are pushing to have that pilot in the COMET area.

Belfast City Council was engaged with Castlereagh Borough Council in a Peace-funded project, which lasted for two years. We examined good waste management practice. That best practice was brought back into each of the six councils in the metropolitan area. We looked at urban regeneration practices, civic engagement practices and local economic development. In that project, we linked up with Stockholm, Valencia, Rybnik in Poland and another location. We also took officers and members to look at the projects in those areas. Collectively, we funded manufacturing research and examined the state of play of manufacturing in the COMET regions.

Currently, we are considering how independent retail is protected elsewhere in Europe, given that independent retailers are suffering greatly. That project is being co-ordinated through my unit. Our work ranges from funding to research to information to best practice.

Mr Spratt:

The banking issue, particularly in respect of the European Investment Bank and the business sector, has come up many times. It was raised by some officials on previous occasions, so we should probe further into that.

The Chairperson:

Thank you, Laura, for your presentation and for the clarity of your answers. You may contact us if you want to submit further related information; likewise, we might contact you with a query.

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