Was Strabane snub for DARD HQ political? asks local MLA

A STRABANE MLA has asked if the decision to snub the West Tyrone town as the site of a new Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) headquarters was political.

DARD Minister Michelle O’Neill recently revealed that Strabane scored 73 across a defined set of criteria including various socio-economic factors such things as unemployment levels, deprivation and earnings levels, as well as practical considerations such as the number of public sector and civil service jobs.

Limavady scored only 59, whilst Londonderry wasn’t even in the running with just 51.

In an echo of the Lockwood university controversy that erupted in 1965 when Coleraine was recommended as the location for a second university over Londonderry, SDLP MLA Joe Byrne asked the Minister whether Strabane was the preferred location but political considerations were the determining factor in choosing the site in Ballykelly.

She replied: “My decision to locate my Department’s headquarters at Ballykelly came at the end of a structured process which involved an assessment of 23 potential locations against a defined set of criteria.

“The criteria included socio-economic factors such as unemployment levels, deprivation and earnings levels. Furthermore, given that one of the objectives of relocating the Headquarters of DARD is to ensure a more equitable distribution of jobs across the north the shortlisting criteria also included the number of public service and civil service posts in each location.”

The Minister claimed that following this complex assessment the top two locations left standing were Strabane and Limavady.

However, “the availability of the Executive-owned site at Shackleton Barracks and the potential that some of the buildings on that site could be converted to civil service office accommodation was the determining factor that led to my decision that Ballykelly should be the site for the relocation.”

The Minister continued: “Using that site and the buildings available therefore has the potential to reduce the cost of relocating the Headquarters.

“In my view the relocation of the DARD headquarters represents an important first step to relocate a significant share of public sector jobs and could pave the way for a much larger programme of relocation in the public sector.

“It would naturally greatly enhance the economic and social development of rural communities and bring a greater realisation of the outcomes envisaged by Bain.”