Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has rejected claims that moving her department headquarters from Belfast to Londonderry is a party political decision which presents a “serious risk” to the organisation’s expertise.
The minister unveiled plans for the new Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) headquarters at the former army base at Ballykelly.
DARD said in a statement the construction cost is £20m – but later clarified the overall cost is £40m.
UFU president Ian Marshall said: “The union has always supported the creation of jobs in rural areas but has consistently questioned the appropriateness of spending a large amount of money on a single relocation project when there is already an existing network of DARD Direct Offices throughout Northern Ireland which could be used.
“Many of DARD’s existing, experienced, and qualified staff may not be in a position to move as they have based their families in the vicinity of the current DARD HQ at Dundonald House. There is a serious risk that DARD will lose a wealth of expertise, which will jeopardise the standard of service farmers receive.”
Ms O’Neill said the move would bring “a huge economic boost” to this rural area.
“DARD’s move to Ballykelly will demonstrate how we can locate a government department in potentially any part of the north and I hope it will inspire other government agencies and companies,” she said.
The new state-of-the-art headquarters will help improve the work-life balance for hundreds of civil servants in the north west, she said.
DARD went through “a long assessment process” and “a detailed analysis” before reaching the decision to move to Ballykelly, she added.
Stormont agriculture committee member Tom Elliott of the UUP believes the first 250 headquarters jobs should move to the now empty DVLA offices in Coleraine.
“It is much more central for commuters from Londonderry, Belfast and Antrim.
“We on the agriculture committee have questioned this decision at length and there is no business case for it. The Executive can ill afford £40m at this time of austerity.
“The decision was not backed by the Executive but only got through because the Office of First and Deputy First Minister approved it.”
East Londonderry Westminster candidate Gregory Campbell said the DUP has backed Ballykelly for years.
DARD’s current site in Belfast needs £25m refurbishment, while the Ballykelly site is costing the Executive £500,000 per year in security and maintenance, he said.
The north west has suffered badly from job losses and this move will be “a very significant boost”. DVLA offices in Coleraine are “totally unsuitable”, he said.
Only a very few of the most senior civil servants will be required to move to Ballykelly; others can transfer within the Civil Service, whilst there are staff who have already indicated a preference to move out of Belfast, he added.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew said the decentralisation of the DARD headquarters was a Programme for Government commitment endorsed by the UUP in the Assembly in March 2012.