DEAL SAVES £22M COUNCIL OFFICE BID

A COMPROMISE deal between councillors has saved a bid that could see a £22m investment and hundreds of public sector jobs for Bangor.

But the deal only came after Ards councillors attempted to exploit a controversial loophole veto in Ards and North Down Council’s rules to torpedo the idea. In the latest battle of the ongoing Ards versus North Down conflict that has split the council, a crossparty group of nine Ards unionists argued that investing in Bangor would unfairly privilege the seaside city. They wanted the beginnings of a move that could merge all of the council’s office staff together in Bangor city centre scrapped, insisting that it would hurt everywhere else in the borough. And even though council lawyers said they didn’t have a leg to stand on, due to the loophole veto the Ards councillors were still on the verge of blocking the bid before it could even get started.

It was only a rebellion of North Down councillors that resulted in the compromise deal, which sources say has seen Ards councillors drop their veto attempt in exchange for a promise that officials will look into getting more civic facilities and jobs into the Ards area. The result is that consultants will now get to work examining the pros and cons of bringing council staff together in Bangor city centre, though the project has been delayed by several months because of the battle. Merging all of the council’s office and administration staff in a single building has been a long-standing aim of local officials, who feel it would be a more efficient and potentially cheaper way of running local government than the current system that has employees split between buildings in Bangor and Newtownards.

The idea was discussed in a series of behind closed doors meetings and confidential documents in the second half of last year, often to an angry response from Ards councillors. At the end of September, politicians voted to spend 12 months working out the pros and cons of merging all of its office staff in a single location, before making a final decision on the matter near the end of 2023. But the vote specifically set down Bangor city centre as the preferred location for any new office headquarters, with Newtownards town centre only to be ‘investigated as a fallback’ if Bangor turned out to be too expensive or unworkable. Outraged Ards councillors viewed that as a plan to take jobs away from them to hand to Bangor, and tried to have the whole thing blocked. They lodged objections attempting to get September’s vote brought back to the local authority for a second debate – and this time, due to the loophole veto, the merger idea would need to win the explicit support of a supermajority of at least 80% of politicians on the body.

The nine Ards councillors who tried to block the merger together make up 22% of the council, meaning that by themselves they had the power to torpedo the bid simply by voting against it at that second debate. Confidential council documents seen by the Spectator show that the local authority’s own lawyers said the nine councillors didn’t have a leg to stand on, all of their objections dismissed as without merit. But the loophole veto would have brought the move back for the second debate and supermajority vote anyway. The cross-party unionist group argued that the merger, which they stated would involve £22m of council investment over several years, would unfairly privilege Bangor, thereby hurting citizens in every other district of Ards and North Down.

Picking Bangor as the preferred location meant that ‘a direction of travel’ had improperly been set towards the city for any new council headquarters, they argued, while also raising procedural issues around the way September’s debate was heard. However council lawyers stated that any idea of this nature has to pick a preferred location in order to properly consider the merits of the scheme, and there’s no problem with Bangor being that pick. Lawyers also dismissed the idea that September’s vote sets the direction of travel towards Bangor. The vote is not a final decision on the matter, they pointed out, but will only hire consultants to carry out complicated analysis of many aspects of the merger, including its potential location. They also stated that officials would not leave council office buildings in Ards empty, and had already flagged up the potential of the NHS taking them over, thereby bringing health sector jobs to town. Added lawyers: “It is trite, but worth reminding oneself, that council headquarters serve all residents, not just those in [the specific district] within which it is located.” Lawyers also pointed out that any public purse savings or increased spending as a result of the scheme would be felt by all ratepayers across the borough equally, not just in one single district. The second debate was dropped after Ards councillors agreed to back away from the veto in the compromise deal, allowing the consultants voted for in September to get to work.