THE council is set to progress a procurement process that will allow for the development of a full business case for the Mourne Mountains Gateway Project. On Thursday, the Strategy, Policy and Resources (SPR) Committee – by 12 votes to two – endorsed a recommendation to procure an integrated consultancy team (ICT) to allow this to happen, and this will now go before November’s full local authority meeting for ratification. Beginning the discussion on the issue, Economy, Growth and Tourism assistant director Andy Patterson said that the procurement process would last six months, and that an ICT appointment would be “subject to council approval at a later stage of a contract for funding/funding agreement”.
Adding to this, council chief executive Marie Ward stated that she has asked that a special meeting of the gateway project board be held prior to November’s SPR Committee meeting to discuss aspects of an Alliance notice of motion, “particularly in relation to alternatives” to the project’s gondola element. “At that meeting, officers will present the details of the seven options that were considered in the development of the Mourne Mountains Gateway Project, and will also further provide to members the alternatives that have been put forward by other people,” she added. “Most importantly, within that, officers will set out the process of how we have arrived at this project, and how it was decided from formation in 2016. “Indeed, actually, the gateway project was considered, believe it or not, back in 2004, so we are nearly in the 20th anniversary of it.”
On the ICT appointment, Cadogan Enright (Alliance, Downpatrick) said that “spending potentially tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands on this at this stage, by going through a procurement process, is a bit of a red flag for myself and for my group”. “I understand from the last programme board meeting that the Department for Economy did ask for a number of things, including updated costs, updated timelines, and, most particularly, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the National Trust, who is the landowner,” he continued. “To the best of my knowledge, the National Trust is not yet on board with this project.” The local representative then proposed that any appointment be deferred “until we see an MOU with the National Trust”, and this was seconded by his party colleague Tierna Kelly (Rowallane).
Oonagh Hanlon (Sinn Féin, Downpatrick) said that she was happy to proceed with appointing the ICT, and welcomed Ms Ward’s comments about the meeting on alternatives. She accused Cllr Enright of “going round in circles” in terms of calling for pausing of the project, and highlighted that £30m of Belfast Region City Deal funding is at stake. “I was at the first city deal meeting that I have attended as an elected member a couple of weeks ago, and, believe it or not, we are up against a lot of stiff competition across the region, in terms of projects that are maybe more ready or have moved ahead at pace ahead of us, so we risk losing a lot of funding here,” Cllr Hanlon said. “We do need to look at what the alternatives are, we need to look at what has went before, and we need to look to see if those alternatives are potentially environmentally damaging as well.”
Pete Byrne (SDLP, Slieve Gullion) stated that he was happy to second the proposed ICT procurement, adding that moving to that stage would “actually help us dispel some of the false news that is going about about the project”. He acknowledged that there are “genuine concerns and fears” about the gateway project, and stressed the importance of leaving “no stone unturned in terms of environmental impact” and the importance of full stakeholder engagement with groups and residents. “We must engage throughout the entirety of this project,” Cllr Byrne said. “There will be changes to projects, whether it is minor or major changes. “We will discuss that as a programme board. “Without signing off on this paper, we can’t move to that stage.” Henry Reilly (DUP, Mournes) stated that the project had gone through significant scrutiny before being chosen as one of the district’s city deal projects ahead of his preference for the redevelopment of Kilkeel Harbour. “The misinformation that is out there at the moment regarding the project is stunning,” he added. “I got an email today saying that it was going to cost £120m and that it was going to cost the ratepayers £20m a year to run, and I’m wondering who is putting this stuff out there.” Declan McAteer (SDLP, Crotlieve) suggested that clarity around stakeholder engagement for the project would be helpful. Enterprise, Regeneration and Tourism director Conor Mallon highlighted that the project board had, on 6 October, agreed to the establishment of a stakeholder forum, similar to that established for Newry’s Albert Basin Park Project.
Cllr Enright then advised that he would be seeking a vote on his proposal to pause the process, which he described as “the prudent way to look after council finances”. “I am an old-fashioned accountant and an ICT will inevitably commit us to a large amount of money, and we haven’t seen yet what the position of the National Trust is,” he said. His party colleague Jill Truesdale (Mournes), a noncommittee member, stated that “about 50 per cent” of her comments and questions from the recent project board meeting had not been included in its minutes. “I sent them back with edits, and they have not been seen since,” she continued. “For this committee and council to put such store by the project board and then, with no idea of what went on in the project board on 6 October, to proceed to an ICT procurement – which is going to cost the ratepayers hundreds of thousands, millions, of pounds – is extremely bad governance, is frankly unbelievable, and is a total disservice to the ratepayer.”
Ms Ward responded that proceeding with the ICT procurement “doesn’t actually commit the council to any cost at this point”, and that “there will be no commitment to actually signing a contract with that ICT until such times as we have a contract for funding in place”. Gareth Sharvin (SDLP, Downpatrick) said that Cllr Truesdale’s comments had been “disingenuous” in “alleging that committee members on SPR are not fully briefed”. “We are; we speak to our colleagues and I certainly hope your own party does the same,” he added. A vote on Cllr Enright’s proposal was defeated by 12 votes to two, and this was reversed for Cllr Hanlon’s proposal, which will now go to full council.