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Neighbourhood Renewal Projects in Belfast

Private Notice Question – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 am on 13th October 2008.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 4:00 am, 13th October 2008

I have received a private notice question, in accordance with Standing Order 20, for the Minister for Social Development.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

asked the Minister for Social Development (i) whether the recent review that she instructed departmental officials to conduct into neighbourhood renewal projects in the Belfast area will result in services and jobs being lost in this geographical area and (ii) whether those projects that are waiting on overdue payments from Belfast regeneration offices will be paid immediately.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

First, let me be clear that I have not ordered any review. Those who suggest that I have ordered a review are only creating unnecessary anxieties.

I will, however, answer the questions raised. I asked for some financial information about the current neighbourhood renewal process in Belfast. I want to satisfy myself that best use is being made of available resources, and, given the pressure on funds across my Department, to make sure that sufficient funds are in place in order to complete the programme.

I will be spending some £30 million on neighbourhood renewal in Belfast over the next three years. It is only right that before the first major tranche of contracts are issued, I satisfy myself that the resources are in place in order to complete the process, and that resources are sufficient for purpose and properly targeted in line with the appraisal processes that officials are required to follow.

Neighbourhood renewal is about closing the gap between the most disadvantaged in Northern Ireland and the rest of our society. I want to see important services delivered to people on the ground, whether by statutory agencies or by voluntary and community organisations. The role of my Department’s neighbourhood renewal investment fund is to ensure that such services are delivered, not to sustain jobs in voluntary and community-sector organisations.

I hope that when the process is completed, we will have a stronger focus on services. I have said on the record that individual appraisals and approvals of local neighbourhood renewal projects will be conducted by officials. I will not get involved in those decisions, and I expect that the majority of existing posts will continue to be funded. However, I can give no guarantees.

Payments under contracts for funding will not fall due until those contracts have been approved, issued and signed. I am bound by Government accounting rules, commonly known as managing public money, which prohibit advance payments. I can assure the Member that, when contracts for funding are in force, payments will be made in a timely manner.

I expect to be able to make an announcement in the next few days about the clearance of contracts. I wish to remind Members that neighbourhood renewal is the Executive’s main programme for tackling disadvantage. There is an onus on other Departments to match the commitment and, perhaps more importantly, the resources of the Department for Social Development with regard to projects.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. If it walks like a review and looks like a review, it is a review. Forbye all that, the Minister did not answer the question about jobs and services being lost with regard to the outcome of this review. For example, in the Crumlin and Ardoyne wards in north Belfast, the neighbourhood renewal partnership has been suspended and workers are in receipt of redundancy and protective notices. As a result of the Minister’s political interference and, indeed, political vetting of that project — [Interruption.]

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

All the economic appraisals for each of the partnerships have been conducted, and the panels recommended that most of those projects be funded. What, therefore, is the reason for the delay? These services, which are for the most deprived areas in the North of Ireland, are now at risk.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am deeply disappointed at the comments made by the Member. I emphasise, yet again, that I have not ordered any review, and those who have suggested that I have ordered a review are the ones who are creating anxieties and uncertainty on the ground.

I again emphasise that I have asked for financial information about the current neighbourhood renewal process in Belfast.

I want to be satisfied that the best use is being made of available resources and also, given the pressure on departmental funds, to ensure that they are sufficient to complete the programme. Furthermore, I understand the difficulties of groups whose money has run out. I hope to have some good news for them in the future.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I urge you, Mr Speaker, to reflect upon the comments of the Member for North Belfast, who said that there has been political interference and vetting. I ask you to rule on those comments at another time. If true, they would be a breach of the Minister’s Pledge of Office, her commitment to political impartiality and, even more fundamentally, of her proven input —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I ask the Member to put his question.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have raised a matter about the comments of the Member for North Belfast, who has strayed beyond political convention in the Chamber and has made serious allegations of political interference and vetting.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. I insist that the Member put his supplementary question to the Minister.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I look forward to your ruling on that matter, Mr Speaker.

I ask the Minister whether she agrees that, given that she has demonstrated an unambiguous commitment to people who are in social and housing need, it is a bit rich for certain people to come to the Chamber and make ridiculous allegations that she has created undue anxiety in the community. [Interruption.]

Will you call to order those who interrupt me, Mr Speaker?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. I remind the Member that I have given him considerable latitude on the issue. He must ask the Minister a supplementary question. I have already prompted him twice. Let us try to get to the supplementary question.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am mindful of what you said, Mr Speaker.

Given that the Minister has stated in the Chamber today that the responsibility for neighbourhood renewal does not fall exclusively to her Department and that it is a shared responsibility across Government and the Departments of other Ministers, I ask her simply to tell Members what commitments have come from her ministerial colleagues, including those from the party from which the question emanates.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. Members may find some background information helpful.

As one who is deeply interested in social disadvantage — who puts need and the delivery of services to meet that need at the centre of everything that I do — I want to emphasise the point that there is a budget for neighbourhood renewal that will be spent in neighbourhood-renewal areas. The £30 million that has been allocated for Belfast’s neighbourhood-renewal areas during the next three years will be spent in those areas. Therefore, people who live in disadvantaged, neighbourhood-renewal areas need not worry on that score.

As regards my colleague’s question about the Executive’s and ministerial colleagues’ commitment, I remind Members that neighbourhood renewal is the Executive’s main programme for tackling disadvantage. There is an onus on other Departments to match the commitment and, perhaps, more important, the resources of the Department for Social Development (DSD) towards projects.

I understand that the Member for North Belfast Ms Ní Chuilín has asked various Ministers about their commitment to neighbourhood renewal. I will provide the House with some detail. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development said that her Department:

“has no direct involvement in the Programme, and would have no remit to fund posts and services in connection with it”,

even though her Department has a representative on the partnership body. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister said:

OFMDFM as a Department has a role to play across a number of activities which form part of the overall Neighbourhood Renewal network but does not directly fund Neighbourhood Renewal posts and services.”

OFMDFM is also represented on the Minister-led partnership body. Therefore, Mr Speaker, I must ask what other Departments’ commitment and buy-in are when neighbourhood renewal is an Executive-led initiative.

All Members of the Assembly — and of the Executive, were it allowed to meet — should ask those questions, try to tackle that issue and demonstrate real care and commitment on the ground, particularly in disadvantaged areas, instead of engaging in petty political point-scoring and trying to undermine certain individuals.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I recognise the Minister’s point that this is a significant amount of funding and that processes have to be followed.

I have corresponded with the Minister concerning an issue that arose in my constituency. I understand her point that the funding is not intended to provide jobs for people. However, last week, half the staff engaged on that project went without salaries; this week, all the staff will do so. If interim arrangements are not put in place, is there not a risk that, by the time final decisions are taken, delivery of service will have been negatively impacted upon by the loss of qualified and experienced staff?

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Mrs Long for her question. Unlike others, she has written to me directly about this matter. I understand the difficulties faced by the group whose money has run out, and I hope to have some good news for it later in the week. However, I am bound by Government accounting rules in relation to gap funding and — [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. The Minister has the Floor.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

Therefore, I want to pursue all the issues relating to that matter.

I emphasise to the House that for me, need takes priority. That is the most important thing. I want services delivered where there is need.