Axed football cash reinstated

Council admits it dropped the ball in ‘transitional year’ backtrack

By Iain Gray

AXED football cash is to be restored – for one year only.
Last week Ards and North Down Council decided to bring back a £60,000 soccer development fund that pays for local tournaments, summer camps and school leagues, agreeing that it had dropped the ball by scrapping the money.
But the fund will only be available for the current financial year, as the council still wants schools, clubs and the Irish Football Association to start paying for local football in 12 months’ time.
The council axed the football fund from this year’s austerity budget, part of an attempt to get sky-high rates rises down to manageable levels.
But the cuts were due to come into effect just six weeks after the budget was voted through, and politicians claimed they hadn’t been made aware of the full impact axing the football fund would have.

Council officials wanted the IFA as well as local clubs and schools to pay for tournaments, leagues and coaching – it then emerged they didn’t start negotiating with outside bodies until after the cuts were approved in the middle of February.
That left local football facing what was described as a ‘cliff edge’ deadline, where clubs and schools would have to agree to take over before the cuts came in at the start of this month or none of the schemes and tournaments would happen.
After weeks of outrage, officials backtracked and agreed to put £15,000 towards a series of small grants that could help schools and clubs cover the extra costs.
But now the council has voted to reinstate the soccer development fund in its entirety, stating that it’ll run for one last year while the council helps schools and clubs ease into the new system in which they’ll have to pay for leagues and cups.
The move was the brainchild of councillor Steven Irvine, who told a council meeting last Wednesday night that keeping the fund would create a transitional year that would save valuable and popular football programmes from cancellation.
Admitting that it would be the council having to find £60,000 at short notice, he said: “I don’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul; I’m sure that something is going to have to lose out, but in the council’s budget £60,000 is a drop in the ocean.”
Arguing that the council could spend several months trying to find central government grants and corporate sponsorship that could reduce the burden on the local authority’s finances, Mr Irvine added: “We need a transitional year, because what happens if no one comes up to deliver football development?
“The answer is nothing. If no one comes up, it will not happen.”
His idea won widespread backing from members of several parties as well as independents, with alderman Wesley Irvine agreeing that a transitional year is needed to give clubs and schools a chance to see how they’re going to pay for tournaments and schemes under the new system.
DUP alderman Naomi Armstrong-Cotter had a similar view, stating: “We’re letting people down if we don’t allow them [some transition time] before we implement massive and major changes.”
Independent councillor Tom Smith suggested the £60,000 could be scooped out of the council’s cash reserves, adding: “Some may say that’s not good practice, but the benefits far outweigh the downsides.”
The UUP and Alliance were initially split on the issue, with some politicians in each party urging caution while others felt that the fund needed to be brought back for one last year.
The cautious councillors argued that, instead of committing to extra spending right away, the council should instead ask officials to bring back reports outlining exactly how much money is needed for the programmes, what could be cut to make way for the football fund, and where any extra cash might come from.
But their fellow party members pointed out that commissioning reports would push moves to reinstate the fund back a month or two, by which point it might already be too late for some schemes and tournaments.
Two councillors, the SDLP’s Joe Boyle and independent Ray McKimm, both pointed out that all politicians had voted for the axe plans, apparently without spotting that they were in this year’s budget. “We did drop the ball here,” added Mr McKimm.
In the end the council unanimously agreed to bring the soccer development fund back for one final year, while clubs, schools and the IFA will be asked to take over in full in 2024.