Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Freedom of speech

Last night's meeting of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council considered whether or not council should be represented at "Irish Fest" in Milwaukee next year. It was determined by the Chief Executive that this item should be taken "in committee" in order to prevent any Councillor publicly debating the issue after the decision was taken as to do so would be deemed to be in contravention of the Councillor Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct is not a mechanism to restrict the freedom of political thought or speech and so, recognising the potential consequences, I have published below my assessment of Council's representation at "Irish Fest" which was first sent to council officers on the 16th October 2016.

Any evaluation of marketing spend based on Council’s investment in attending the Milwaukee Irish Fest should consider a number of issues given the cost of attendance and the requirement to achieve a return on marketing investment of 30-40 times the value. In this case a clear return of £300000 - £400000 based on the cost to council of attendance in the region of £10000.
The first issue is whether Milwaukee Irish Fest represents the best opportunity to attract tourists to the Mid and East Antrim area. Mid and East Antrim has no historical or cultural connotation at this stage and building the brand will take a number of years. The Irish Fest is just one of a number of festivals held over the summer to boost the Milwaukee economy
Milwaukee hosts a variety of primarily ethnically themed festivals throughout the summer. Held generally on the lakefront Summerfest grounds, these festivals span several days (typically Friday plus the weekend) and celebrate Milwaukee's history and diversity. Festivals for the LGBT (PrideFest) and Polish (Polish Fest) communities are typically held in June. Summerfest spans 11 days at the end of June and beginning of July. There are French (Bastille Days), Greek, Italian (Festa Italiana) and German (German Fest) festivals in July. The African, Arab, Irish (Irish Fest), Mexican, and American Indian events wrap it up from August through September.[78] Milwaukee is also home to Trainfest, the largest operating model railroad show in America, in November. (Wikipedia, 16/10/2016)
Tourism and travel makes up a small proportion of the festival experience and while 147,000 visitors seems a significant number this must be considered in the context of the USA potential. The Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee attracts over 1,000,000 visitors, college football games attract 100,000 spectators with as many as twice this number congregating in the immediate area just for the fan experience.
There is no way of estimating how many of the 147,000 visitors have any intention of visiting Ireland, Northern Ireland or Mid and East Antrim in the near future. This year some 3600 pieces of literature were handed out. If each person who engaged with Mid and East Antrim representatives was given a leaflet then over the 36 hours of the event representatives spent on average 1 minute engaging with potential visitors. There has been no evaluation of the quality of interaction nor of the impact in terms of commitment to visit Mid and East Antrim.
The council committee decision to support this years attendance noted the potential of creating a database of contacts, essentially those who had expressed an interest in the area and/or coming to Northern Ireland. Those elected reps attending felt that e-marketing was not a way forward for the council and collecting emails was difficult. A simple solution would have been to use the status of the Galgorm Hotel and Spa and offer a prize of a days spa experience for 2 to those who emailed a special email address established by the council. In this way those promoting the area would have had another attraction to promote without any hassle in collecting names, addresses or emails, given the very limited engagement time.
It was noted that contact was made with a Dublin based tour operator and with the marketing manager of the Titanic experience. While perhaps useful, it is to be expected that engagement with all tour operators and all major attractions to develop joint initiatives will form a core element of the work of the professional tourism staff employed by council. An effective and efficient use of their time will mean that such meetings are facilitated here in a structured manner rather than at random in the US.
One of the main points in evaluating attendance at Milwaukee has been the contention that success cannot be measured given that people plan their holidays 1 or 2 years ahead. This is understandable in the context of this years event, however, this is not the first year that Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has attended this event and before that Larne Council attended. While anecdotal evidence suggests one or two people who attended Irish Fest have visited the Mid and East Antrim there is certainly no evidence of the £1,000,000 tourism spend by US visitors drawn to area based on marketing at Irish Fest which would be an indication of success.
In moving forward, particularly in the context of a co-ordinated approach to marketing supporting the tourism strategy there a number of issues to be considered. What events do Tourism Ireland and/or Tourism Northern Ireland attend in the US to promote tourism in Ireland? Are these events considered more or less effective at attracting tourists than the Milwaukee Irish Fest?

Tourist marketing has moved on from handing out leaflets at festivals, with the rise of travel bloggers, social media, sites such as trip advisor and even e-marketing all delivering better contact with those planning to visit the area. Councils approach to all of these will also depend on the potential to improve the product and the ability to package such products into a sellable proposal. Investment of £10,000 over a range of platforms and initiatives has the potential to generate tangible benefits to those businesses relying on tourists to maintain their viability. Relying upon the return on investment from representation at Irish Fest will not sustain any business.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Authoritarian politics

The DUP conference at the weekend established without doubt that its primary objective remains the elimination of Ulster Unionism from the political map of Northern Ireland. Not a comment or harsh word against its partners in Government but plenty of antagonism against the UUP, all the more sweet for parading 3 “defectors”.
Of just as much interest was the increasing degree of internal control being exerted over its own members. The DUP equivalent of a “liberal” wing had started to stir under the last months of the Robinson regime but its leading voice Paula Bradley was reduced to stating in an interview when asked about same sex marriage which she is rumoured to be supportive of “I am a member of the DUP I will do what my party asks me to do” and on the signing the petition of concern “we have no other option but to do that”.
Those who are drawn to membership of the DUP seek the comfort of an authoritarian party in the hope of achieving an authoritarian state albeit that power is shared with another authoritarian party in Sinn Fein. That authoritarianism in the pursuit of power, supported by the opportunity to offer positions in political office is the regime which results in members stating “we have no other option”.

Freedom from authoritarianism has been hard fought for and hard won by many generations in many societies. The freedom of political thought, the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience are core values which the authoritarian nature of the DUP struggles to understand or accept. Minded of the words of Lord Acton “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” those who believe in freedom must continue to resist the desire of the DUP to eliminate their political opponents in unionism in order to rule with absolute power and authority over the unionist population.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Community Planning Theory and Practice

With the Review of Public Administration and the transformation of local government in Northern Ireland came a new power, that of Community Planning. The term taking power, rather than framing the process as taking responsibility, could allow some to argue that they are there to hold others to account. Such a view would limit a council's direct involvement in addressing issues at the same time as being flexible enough to both place blame where failures occur and take credit where positive actions happen.

Community planning is intended to be transforming, not just in getting agencies and communities around the table but clearly identifying where resources can be applied to greater effect. A reduction in duplication, an increase in early detection of problems and strategic intervention to deliver a better outcome for all. Each agency has its own agenda, its own budget and targets, a thread which runs through peoples lives. If each thread runs parallel to every other thread without touching then people fall through the gaps. Community planning is about weaving threads together, some run up and down others need to run left to right, over and under, eventually they form a net. This is the safety net which supports the weak in society. Over time these threads should become stronger and closer together delivering more effective and efficient services.

So what is the role of councils, is it just to point to agencies and allocate issues or is it to proactively scope the environment and the opportunities to do things differently. I strongly believe it is the latter and as community plans are being prepared I want to see the change they will bring. I want to see councils picking up on opportunities to interact and invest in and with communities. They need to be proactive, being prepared to put their resources on the table first, community centres, sports facilities, arts centres, development staff, even cash where necessary. Their role is not to "hold the ring" or "make space available", where problems arise they should be prepared to be first in and last out.

When a community plan is published will the council producing it have provided a mass produced loom on which others are supposed to work or will they have woven the fabric of the plan, painstakingly understanding where each thread crosses another and the pattern they produce. Councils need to be part of the fabric of society not semi-interested bystanders.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

My paper to Antrim and Newtownabbey Councillors on their ARC 21 consideration

On the 2nd of June Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council will meet to determine whether or not to support the ARC 21 decision to refer the former Minister of the Environment’s Notice of Opinion to refuse planning permission for an Energy From Waste plant at Hightown Road in Mallusk to the Planning Appeals Commission.
The Minister’s opinion to refuse was based on two factors
1. The proposal is contrary to the DOE’s PPS 11 in that it has not been clearly demonstrated that the proposed method of treatment will not result in harm to human health.
2. The proposal would result in an additional waste treatment facility that is not considered necessary in light of other approved developments in the region and would run contrary to the program of encouraging recycling through “zero waste”.
The Planning Appeals Commission does not have the power to overturn the Minister’s opinion, their purpose is to determine whether the Minister’s reasons are robust and justifiable.
Confirmation of a planning refusal/approval would still be required from the current Minister irrespective of the decision of the PAC yet their involvement is considered a vital part of the process.
Clear grounds to challenge the Minister’s reasons exist both in terms of the advice provided to him in advance of his decision by Government Departments locally and also international best practice.
The use of incineration to thermally treat municipal waste is a common and accepted practice across Europe. It is considered a safe and environmentally acceptable treatment option. The Health Protection Agency in the UK has determined that the process has such a limited and immeasurable impact on air quality that trying to measure the impact of such a facility on public health serves no useful purpose.
“The Health Protection Agency has reviewed research undertaken to examine the suggested links between emissions from municipal waste incinerators and effects on health. While it is not possible to rule out adverse health effects from modern, well regulated municipal waste incinerators with complete certainty, any potential damage to the health of those living close-by is likely to be very small, if detectable. This view is based on detailed assessments of the effects of air pollutants on health and on the fact that modern and well managed municipal waste incinerators make only a very small contribution to local concentrations of air pollutants. The Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment has reviewed recent data and has concluded that there is no need to change its previous advice, namely that any potential risk of cancer due to residency near to municipal waste incinerators is exceedingly low and probably not measurable by the most modern techniques. Since any possible health effects are likely to be very small, if detectable, studies of public health around modern, well managed municipal waste incinerators are not recommended.”
The Impact on Health of Emissions to Air from Municipal Waste Incinerators, Health Protection Agency (September 2009)
On the 12th January 2016 Tim Irwin Director of the DOE Environmental Policy Division wrote to Carol Ramsey Director Strategic Planning Division in response to a query about the need for additional thermal treatment capacity. He stated:
“Since the issue of the Notice of Opinion, the publication of the EU Commission Communication on the Circular Economy, on 2 December 2015, has signalled a significant shift in the future direction of travel for waste management. Proposals to increase recycling rates from the current requirement of 50% by 2020 to 65% by 2030 coupled with a reduction in the permitted waste to landfill, down from 35% by 2020 to 10% by 2030, will have a major impact on our waste infrastructure requirements.
While it is clear that the required increase in recycling rate from 50% to 65% would reduce the treatment tonnage and thus the overall residual treatment infrastructure needed, the significant reduction in waste to landfill from 35% to 10% has a disproportionate effect the other way, that is to say more treatment capacity would be required.
A rough assessment of the impact of the Commission proposals would suggest that the requirement for thermal capacity would expand from the present estimate of between 200,000 – 305,000 tonnes to around 668,000 – 759,000 tonnes, that is to say around two to three times the current assessed need.” (copy attached)
In referring to “other approved developments in the region” in his opinion the Minister will have included the approved EFW plant at Bombardier.
The Environmental Statement included in the application for the Construction and operation of a combined heat and power generating station for the treatment of refuse derived fuel (RDF) at Bombardier states
3. Section 4 page 23;
“Finally, arc21 has sought clarification as to the Applicant’s position that it is proposed to treat some MSW as market demands. As MSW includes C&I waste it is assumed that arc21 is seeking confirmation on how and if the applicant intends to process RDF from local authority collected waste. For clarity, the proposal is not reliant on Local Authority collected waste as demonstrated above and does not seek to compete with the arc21 Becon Project at Hightown for such material.
Comments as to MSW are included for robustness in light of legislative changes which define C&I waste as under the MSW umbrella.”
4. Section 5 Page 4;
“As set out in Chapter 4, the Applicant is aware that arc21 has, in conjunction with the Becon Consortium, commenced pre-application discussions in respect of the proposed waste treatment facility at Hightown Quarry for both a Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) plant and an Energy from Waste (EfW) plant. It is intended that the Bombardier facility will rely primarily on RDF comprised of C&I waste arisings which will be sourced from NWP and IRS at their Glenside and Duncrue facilities, respectively. The Applicant does not therefore anticipate that the Bombardier scheme would compromise or hinder an arc21 scheme.”
It is the right of a private sector operator to modify its intended commercial operation and having done so there has been extensive lobbying to the effect that the Bombardier plant can treat all of the municipal waste in the Arc 21 region thereby removing the need for the Becon proposal at Hightown Road. A number of elected representatives from various parties have repeated publically that the municipal waste from Arc 21 should go to the Bombardier plant. This raises a number of issues:
·         the operators of the plant at Bombardier have not entered any commercial tendering process to treat Arc 21 waste,
·         such a process would only be started with the collapse of the current process,
·         companies linked to the proposed facility at Bombardier are actively engaged in opposing the Arc 21 proposal,
·         those elected representatives who have advocated that Bombardier should have the contract for the thermal treatment of municipal waste could be deemed to have a conflict of interest when determining the next stages of the process,
·         as per the DOE assessment of the impact of the Circular Economy Communication the development of both the Bombardier and Hightown Road sites to thermally treat municipal waste will not be enough to meet demand.
Individuals who have advocated the awarding of a contract to a private interest and then proceeding to take decisions which collapse a 10 year £10 million procurement process which subsequently facilitates the awarding of such a contract to that private sector interest could be at risk of significant reputational damage.
Arc 21 and its member councils have a £1 million contingent liability to the bidder in the event that the planning application fails, though it is to be expected that the contingent liability agreement was negotiated based on all parties acting in good faith.
Some elected representatives have queried the proposed length and/or cost of the contract and view the decision on supporting the appeal to PAC as an opportunity to halt the process on economic grounds. This is a difficult decision to justify given that contract negotiations and the development of the final business case will only commence once planning approval has been obtained. ARC21 and each of its constituent councils will have opportunities to consider the awarding of the contract on financial and value for money grounds over the next few months, this is not the final decision point and collapsing the process at this point would be premature.
In summary, should the Minister’s reasons for his opinion to refuse the application stand unchallenged then approving any future private or municipal proposals for thermal treament will be extremely difficult potentially leading to significantly higher waste management costs. Antrim and Newtownabbey will be committing all partner councils to the payment of a minimum £1 million liability without exhausting due process. Elected representatives from all parties who have advocated for a private sector alternative have introduced doubt into the decision making process and on the basis of value for money consideration the decision point on this issue comes later in the process and no decision can be taken on this point, at this stage, in the absence of a negotiated contract and business case clearly detailing cost.

There is clearly a difference of opinion between government agencies and most councils on one side who believe we have an urgent need to increase thermal treatment capacity and private sector interests on the other who contend current capacity can cope with demand. The risk to local government is that in taking the wrong option we increase our costs of waste management and hence our rates by many millions of pounds. We all need an independent authoritative voice which can review the arguments either way and determine which is correct. That independent voice is the Planning Appeals Commission, this is the process to determine the factual position, we all need to hear their view; the risk to local government is too great not to.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

When the game is not straight

As a society we promote growing our economy as our priority. Such a policy represents clear political thinking that a growing economy will improve the quality of life of all our citizens. To ensure this our government must manage expectations and investments to ensure that all our citizens have an equal opportunity to benefit.
In Northern Ireland we continue to struggle with the concept of ensuring a return on the investment we make or indeed recognising the value of the investment that others make. Investing in health, education, further and higher education represent areas where we know the cost of everything and the value of very little.
Occasionally we have the opportunity for others to invest in us, in Northern Ireland. We ask them to come here, to invest money on the basis that, rightly, all things being equal they will receive a return on that investment and we too will benefit, through employment, taxation or services. Sometimes it works.
Sometimes we get it wrong, sometimes we invite people to invest, we present them with the rules they must abide by and then when they have made the investment we change the rules. We say sorry but we really aren’t a mature society, we want to grow our economy but while we know the slogan we don’t know what it means. NIMBYism is alive and well, Luddites take to the airwaves and laneways.
If we establish clear, robust environmental standards which are met by investors then we are surely bound to uphold our side of the contract. Neither as ecowarriors nor Ministers do we have a right to change the rules in the middle of a contract just to block development on a whim. If we continue to do so then the consequences are clear, those who have resources to invest will go elsewhere, they will go where the rules are clear and decisions are straight.

With them will go the hope of growing our economy, our hope of improving our quality of life through investment. By all means we should have robust protection for our environment but those who undermine investment in a battle against imaginary ghosts and shadows have stepped outside the real world we live in.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Manufacturing Task Force press release

Image result for jti ballymena

Image result for michelin ballymena

The Manufacturing Task Force established by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and supported by three Government Departments cannot exist as a mere talking shop. Instead it must focus on developing a key list of actions to present to the Northern Ireland parties in advance of the development of the new Programme for Government. I believe the Task Force needs to take the following actions:

  • We need to quantify and identify the scale of manufacturing within Mid and East Antrim in order to understand the risk to our local economy.
  • We need to engage with employers and identify the risks to manufacturing businesses, whether those are energy costs, skills development, transport to overseas markets or whatever undermines the ability of business to survive, grow and develop.
  • We must develop an action plan of the interventions required to support business in this area, those interventions need to be included within the programme for government.
  • When challenged about the lack of inward investment requests for visits to North Antrim, DETI Ministers have said visits are facilitated at the request of the investor. If that is the case then Mid and East Antrim Borough Council must develop the ability to sell the region as a place to invest in. If it is not the role of Invest NI to do this then it is a role we must take on.

Time is of the essence, having an input into the Programme for Government before it is finalised will be much more effective than trying to change it to meet our needs after it is agreed by the parties.

The original Task Force was originally set up to address issues arising from the announcement of the closure of JTI. It took 13mths from that announcement until the first and only meeting of the group was held. The first meeting of the new Manufacturing Task Force has already been postponed once. Government Ministers were very quick to pass responsibility for this issue down to a local level. It is off their desks, it is now on ours. It is not our role to wring our hands and mourn the loss of 1000’s of jobs over the next three years. It is our role to deliver a new economic base for the region, it is our role to fight to replace them. No more delays, sustained action and commitment must define the role of this Task Force

Monday, 18 January 2016

Setting the rates

It's the time of year when Councils set the rate for the incoming financial year. For press, public and indeed many councillors the percentage increase or decrease is the defining issue. For some councillors their interest in the process begins and ends with that figure. For others the process represents the budget setting process for the next year and in Mid and East Antrim that represents just under £60 million of expenditure. Any budget process must answer fundamental questions, what are we committing resources to, why are we committing resources and what do we intend to achieve? Does our use of ratepayers' money represent good value and contribute to improving their quality of life? Over the next few weeks I hope to get the answers to these and many other questions to give me the confidence that council is focused on the right issues.