Some 250 DAERA staff were located in Ballykelly House when it opened in May 2018. Since then, a further 87 DAERA staff have relocated to Ballykelly, bringing the total to 337. The Department also has plans to relocate a further 54 posts during the 2017-2022 mandate. When filled, that would increase the staff complement to 391. The need to relocate those further posts will remain under review.
I thank the Minister for his reply. The DAERA headquarters in Ballykelly, which I intensely lobbied for, is an impressive building. Using it to the greatest capacity is essential, but it also plays a significant economic role in job potential for Ballykelly and the wider north-west. Minister, will you undertake to optimise the use of the Ballykelly headquarters where possible?
Yes, we can do that. That has been the case to this point. It is operating well, and it has good numbers operating in it. We intend to utilise it fully. It is one of our more modern, environmentally friendly and economic buildings to run because it is built to modern standards and specifications. That is certainly something that we will look at for other parts of the estate.
There has been an effort from the outset to ensure that employees move to Ballykelly, without forcing people to do it against their will. That has proved to be very successful. As I indicated, the numbers there are a demonstration of its success.
I do not have the actual figure, but that is now where Forest Service's headquarters are. It has a substantial cadre — it is certainly in three figures — of staff based at Enniskillen. I view that very positively. A lot of DAERA forestry is in the west of Northern Ireland, so having the headquarters there is absolutely rational.
Minister, what preparations is your Department making for alternative or flexible working arrangements, including working remotely, post-COVID? What protections will be put in place for your staff to ensure that they do not suffer from living-at-work syndrome, where their mental health is hindered because of the amount of pressure they have from working additional hours?
I suggest that DAERA was probably the most flexible Department in dealing with COVID and in identifying means for people to work from home. We have a lot of experience because we had Ballykelly, Klondyke, Dundonald House and a whole series of buildings where we had digital communication already in place. We were very quick to ensure that people had the equipment to allow them to work from home. With the double vaccination, people are working in bars, restaurants, schools and other places, so getting people back into the Civil Service workplace should be happening. That was raised at the last Executive meeting, and the Civil Service is working closely and in conjunction with what is happening in Whitehall.
It is time for a lot of people to come back to the offices again. Working from home has worked to an extent, and there will be a lot of opportunities to work from home, which will be good for reducing our requirement for office buildings and reducing the cost of travel and the impact on the environment. Nonetheless, we need to ensure that we are getting maximum efficiency from our civil servants, and if that involves them coming into work, that is what should happen as opposed to working from home in circumstances where the impact is negative.