Belfast City Council is considering using ratepayers’ money to directly fund political parties to the tune of £175,000 a year, the News Letter can reveal.
In what would be an unprecedented move for a Northern Ireland council, money collected via the rates — which most people assume is used to pay for services such as bin collections, leisure facilities and the upkeep of parks — would be paid directly into political parties.
Sinn Fein, which appears to be the strongest supporter of the proposal, linked the move to the additional powers being given to councils under the reorganisation of local government — despite the fact that that process was meant to save ratepayers money.
Over the four-year term of the council, political parties would collectively receive £700,000 under the plan, at a time when the public sector is apparently under unprecedented financial strain.
The Alliance Party has now come forward to condemn the proposal, something which it said would make City Hall more like a mini-Stormont, with the political money being used to employ the equivalent of ‘special advisers (Spads)’.
Stormont has 19 Spads, who are each paid up to £90,000 a year.
The proposal is referred to in a report for the strategic policy and resources committee of the shadow council (which is about to take over running the enlarged council area) as it considers the level of the rates for next year.
The draft budget set out — which has yet to be approved by councillors — says: “The draft estimates include growth of £175k for political assistance. This will be used to the work of party groups and not individual members.”
Alliance councillor Michael Long said that at a recent meeting where the issue was discussed he was the only councillor to argue against the proposal.
“Given the fact that the news has been full of budget cuts and potential job losses I assumed that this idea would have been dropped,” he said.
“I am therefore amazed to see that when the council is trying to cut its cloth to meet the new economic circumstances, that £175,000 has been included in this year’s budget for what many may describe as Spads for City Hall.
“Alliance will be opposing this proposal as we want to see ratepayers’ money being focussed on providing frontline services for ratepayers and not on providing support for parties.”
Sinn Fein’s group leader on the council, Jim McVeigh, defended the proposal.
“We’re in favour of it,” he said, pointing out that with 19 councillors Sinn Fein “do need some research support to manage the team”.
Councillor McVeigh highlighted that the new councils are taking on additional responsibilities such as control of planning applications (councillors’ allowances have been increased as a result) and that he envisaged the money being used to pay for research, administrative support and policy advice.
When asked if he could understand why many members of the public may prefer to see funding for frontline services rather than political parties — particularly against a backdrop of austerity — Cllr McVeigh insisted that Belfast City Council is not making any budget cuts.
“We’re not making any cuts — in fact the council intends to strike a zero rate for a second year in a row...we’re not talking about cutting anything and have invested in front line services and employed more people.
“If the council was having to implement an austerity agenda, it probably would be inappropriate — but we’re not.”
Christopher Stalford, the DUP chairman of the committee, said: “There are a wide range of views in council on this issue. “We will be pursuing options that are cost neutral, whereby the operation of council business can be improved at zero cost to the ratepayers.
“We are a low tax party, after all. The DUP in Belfast will continue to pursue efficiencies and savings at every level of the organisation.”