The Chief Executive presented the above report, a copy of which had previously been circulated. He advised that the purpose of the report was to provide Members with an update outlining progress and key issues in relation to funding, projects, governance and process.
Councillor Cooper welcomed the report and pointed out that the process had progressed to a very strategic stage where all of the partners were dedicated and committed. He referred to concerns regarding the possible relocation of the innovation projects for the Magee Campus and pointed out that assurances had been forthcoming from the University that such a situation would not arise. He referred to the efforts and focus of Sinn Fein’s Foyle MP not only in securing the City Deal but in regards to the Strategic Growth Plan in general. It was vital that this work was sustained in going forward to ensure that the work begins on the various projects as soon as possible.
Councillor McLaughlin, whilst welcoming the report, expressed concern at the lack of a functioning Executive at Stormont in respect of confirmed funding. She pointed out that match-funding would be needed from Belfast if the City Deal was to be successful. She admired the former speaker’s “blind optimism” in regards to the City Deal stating that, as a realist, she had serious concerns regarding the risk issue in regards to funding. She referred to confirmation given to Council that no match funding would be forthcoming without a functioning Executive and said it was clear that the City Deal Working Group was working on the assumption that funding would be made available. She pointed out that the Committee had been advised that match funding would be based on availability and overall governance and that match funding was dependant on political and strategic availability. She referred to the fact that no match funding had been secured at this stage and stated that it was false and misleading to suggest otherwise. She stated that Council had a responsibility to indicate when risks had been identified; suggesting that it was currently at risk because of the lack of a functioning Executive. She stated that promises made were not always delivered and nothing was definite until the funding had been secured. Whilst not questioning if the job would be carried out by Council, she reminded Members that there was a considerable way to go before the Deal was delivered.
Councillor Harkin said it appeared that Sinn Fein wished to take credit for something which had never taken place. He expressed apprehension regarding the entire City Deal concept questioning why a Tory government were so keen to distribute monies to regions through the mechanism of a City Deal, whilst their Welfare Reform policy continued to inflict hardship of those in greatest need. He questioned what the Tory government had to gain from the City Deal. He suggested that the only realm of hope would be if the current Tory government were defeated in the forthcoming general election and a more sympathetic administration were in power who would end the ongoing austerity. He did not consider that significant progress could be made in this area without a redistribution of wealth.
Alderman McClintock welcomed the report which she regarded to be positive for the City and region and commended Officers on the task carried out. Whilst acknowledging that it was a matter of opinion, she did not consider it futile to approach Westminster. She looked forward to the signing off of the Heads of Terms and the completion of the detailed Outline Business Cases.
Councillor Gallagher acknowledged the work carried out by Officers in regards to the City Deal and their optimism in terms of the success of the Deal. He referred, however, to the doom and gloom apparent among elected representatives in this regard. It was easy to become disillusioned when, regardless of agreeing the Heads of Terms, no assurances of match funding had as yet been forthcoming. He stated that based on the experiences of the past sixty years, particularly in regards to the University, it was difficult to remain optimistic regardless of any assurances which had been given. He pointed out that the Heads of Terms were based on interpretation and in regards to the University he suggested that these were worthless and their proposals would not be delivered upon.
Councillor Duffy expressed concern at the negativity which was evident among Members regarding the proposed £105 million City Deal and Inclusive Future Fund for major new investment. She pointed out that this was a positive news story for Council. She referred to the fact that the announcement for the City Deal had only been made in May 2019 and Council was in the same position as Belfast City Council, however, they were not being subjected to the same level of negativity regarding the success of the Deal. She pointed out that such a process had not previously been carried out and Council Officers had worked extremely hard in setting out the Heads of Terms. Such negativity would have a detrimental effect on investment into this area.
Alderman Guy referred to comments by Lord Alderdyce that a funding package would not be made available until a final Outline Business Case was submitted.
In response to concerns expressed by Alderman Guy in regards to the submission of the Outline Business Cases by the University, the Chief Executive said he was unable to comment on behalf of the University.
In regards to governance which she considered key, Councillor McLaughlin enquired as to the role of elected Members and at what level this would be set. She enquired if it would be as a reporting function or if a specific Committee would be established to analyse and appraise the economic impact of the City Deal. She continued that as an elected representative she considered this a matter of great significance and hoped to be in receipt of all relevant information and data to consider the potential impact thereof.
The Chief Executive advised that at this stage the structures were delivery structures and Councillors would be engaged through the mechanism of the Governance and Strategic Planning Committee. Through this forum non-Members of Committee could also participate and be privy to all information being made available. He stated, however, that this could be reviewed going forward and any Strategic Outline Cases prepared by Council would be presented to Committee.
Councillor McLaughlin suggested that, given the business already being dealt with by Committee, and the importance of the City Deal, this matter be addressed through a different mechanism from the Governance and Strategic Planning Committee. She said she would welcome being furnished with the Business Cases. She believed, as elected representatives, Members required greater insight into what was being put forward and the costings and economic and business impact thereof. More insight was also required into the governance of the process.
Councillor McCann referred to the negative comments opposed by Councillor Duffy and stated that whilst Members did want to be optimistic, concerns did exist based on past experience particularly in regards to the lack of commitment from the University. He also expressed concern that sufficient information was not being made available and Members did not have sufficient detail to make a clear judgement. He also agreed that a separate mechanism be established through which the issue of the City Deal could be addressed. He referred to an earlier Motion proposed by him requesting that alternatives to the Magee Campus be considered for the delivery higher education in the North West together with identifying other sources of funding. He stated that such a possibility had never been examined and referred to the Derry University Group who were lobbyists for such a campaign.
He questioned Sinn Fein’s optimism regarding monies which had not yet been made available. He queried where was the evidence to assure that the University would deliver for the City referring to its recent decision to relocate from Jordanstown to Belfast City Centre and the costs involved. He also referred to the Secretary of State’s comments that City Deal monies would not be released without a functioning Executive at Stormont, however, this may not materialise in which event no monies would be forthcoming. He queried the constitutional basis for his comments.
The Chief Executive said he was not in a position to comment on the quote made by the Secretary of State regarding the release of funding nor could he provide a legal opinion in relation thereto.
The Chief Executive undertook to consider the overseeing of this matter beyond the Governance and Strategic Planning Committee. He said he would be happy to provide Members with any information which they considered would be relevant or beneficial in the coming weeks prior to the introduction of any alternative governance arrangements.
Recommended that on the basis of the information in this and preceding reports, Council continue to endorse and support the substantial progress being made and to promote an early resolution to the key funding issues.