Questions for Council and FOI Requests

Below are questions sent to the Chief Executive of Fermanagh Omagh Council on Sept 19th 2016. They have also been sent to the Councillors to encourage them to ask questions in relation to Necarne issues. We hope some of these questions will be asked and answered on at the Council meeting on October 4th 2016.
Mr Brendan Hegarty
Chief Executive
Fermanagh and Omagh District Council The Grange
Mountjoy Road
Lisnamallard
Omagh
County Tyrone

Monday September 19th 2016

Dear Brendan,

On behalf of the Ad Hoc Saving Necarne group seeking to ensure public funds already invested in Necarne go to benefit the community and improve of quality of life, protection and creating of access to quality places and delivery quality services to meet proven need with evidenced solutions and to protect vital heritage we need to raise questions regarding Necarne Estate and current processes being applied by the council.

Why would the director of Community Health and Leisure, / the Council apply scoring, systems, terms, requirements and criteria that clearly favour private investors / business to the Expression of Interest scoring criteria, for this community health and leisure facility, that may result in the community and it’s needs being excluded, equestrian purpose abandoned? The opportunities stated in the Council’s Corporate aims “to improve quality of life for citizens, protecting and creating quality places, and delivering quality services” for citizens” to also appear to have been abandoned, in favour of private investment or a “company headquarters”. Neither criteria nor scoring were set to ensure community access, continuation of equestrian purpose which huge investment of public funds provided for, or to allow for needs of most vulnerable and disabled groups to be met. Why were community needs and aspirations of the Council’s Community Plan also not given priority in Expression of Interest process?

In the Expression of Interest process, why did the council not set criteria and scoring that reflected that this facility was and is a community, health and leisure facility, and therefore is needed in the region to benefit wellbeing, when evidence shows that Fermanagh has highest rates of learning disabled, and in Western region, highest rates of children with disabilities, and highest rates of those requiring disabled access, and other mental health and wellbeing statistics that show very clear health and wellbeing needs in the Fermanagh community? Especially at time when millions have been taken from learning disabled and their carers. Can the council recognise real needs and potential for this facility to provide therapeutic benefit, ensuring quality of life, protection and quality services to those who most need it?

Given the huge potential benefits for heath and wellbeing for the community from Necarne, in developing their Expression of Interest process, why did the council not set criteria and scoring that factored in the strong evidence of realities of the very high levels of disability, long term health issues, segregation, PTSD and mental health issues that exist in the community in this area?

In their Expression of Interest process, why did the council not set criteria and scoring that would ensure that the Castle was going to be urgently repaired?

What was the process for decision making, in which the council reached the decision that it was happy to abandon equestrian use over the next 25 years, of this much needed equestrian facility, to anyone who wished to lease Necarne, one of the country’s top equestrian facilities ? Does the council realise that this may effectively mean the ruination of the equestrian facility as well as the ruination of the castle?

In their expression of interest process, why did the council not set criteria and scoring that ensured continuing local access and use of facilities that were funded with £4 million plus of public funds?

In developing their expression of interest process, and forming the criteria and scoring did the council screen their decision to set and score as they did, and prioritise corporate plan, against Section 75 requirements?

Do the council recognise that the process and requirements they set for the expression of interest were prohibitive to community needs, especially to those with health and disabilities, their carers, and the young and older people who need to use the facilities? Can they acknowledge that the process was put out of reach and discriminated against the most vulnerable of our community?

Has the council accurately assessed this community’s health, disability and leisure needs and what conclusions did it draw in relation to the realities of existing needs?

Does the council have an understanding and knowledge of equine therapy and the extend of its benefits?

Did the civil servants share fully with the councillors all of the many approaches it had over recent years from those wishing to establish equine, equine therapy, and meet local needs of young and older people exposed to cold and wet conditions whilst striving to develop and learn, and other local interests / needs, whilst Necarne lay empty? Did the council then not recognise the opportunity to bring all of those interests together?

Given the impact of the decision on those with disabilities and the RDA who need the facility to meet acute needs of our most vulnerable people, why did the Council decide to not include their needs as a criteria and appropriately score these in the Expression of Interest process?

Given they put the castle up for Expression of Interest leading to tender, without any requirement for the repairs to it, how is the council going to ensure that the castle is going to be preserved?

Now that BBC put a spotlight on the Council’s neglect of the castle, and it stated that it is now in Sept 16 for the first time, going to remove ivy and trees from castle, is it going to employ professional structural surveyor expert in old buildings to assess the impact – if they do that without actually providing stability to the structure? Will they ensure that if they remove the ivy, which covers the internal walls – without roofing, pointing and structurally stabilising the castle, that it will not create more risk of the castle falling? and becoming beyond repair?

Why has the council allowed the castle to fall into disrepair and be listed by Ulster Architectural Heritage as in “critical” need? Who will take responsibility if the Castle falls in this winter’s storms?

What is the council’s plan to ensure the Castle is urgently assessed by expert in structural needs of buildings of its age? and as owner of the castle ensure immediate action on recommendations of expert to ensure it is repaired?

Can the business plan that was produced by council to justify the £4 million spend on Necarne be produced and the needs to justify the expenditure shown? Do the council consider that those needs have now disappeared?

Why have the council not encouraged release of the castle to the community who could have applied for grants to restore it?
Why have the council not encouraged the release of the equestrian centre who could have applied for grants to operate it, maintain it and instal renewable energy provision via many grants available?

Is there any conditions or written responsibilities that could make council either repair castle? or if they or anyone lease holder fail, as they have done, to care for this vital community heritage, then will they allow it to be passed it to community who do care, and could under social enterprise or trust apply for grants to restore it?

How can the council justify handing over the benefit of the investment of £4 million plus of public funds put into Necarne to any private business to generate private profits, instead of handing it to the community who need it and all the benefits of that public funds investment for quality of life, wellbeing and many of the council’s stated aims?

Why should a private business benefit from that £4 million plus of public funds instead of the community?

Could the council release Necarne estate to an appropriate community interest group formed from three key areas of potential benefit, a. health and wellbeing, b. historic interest and c. equine knowledge and skills, who could register as a charity, be exempt from rates and in a position to apply for grants and operate the estate for health, historic care and repair and equine needs? Can the council recognise that the lower overheads and wellbeing benefits would put such a social enterprise in a prime position to build a sustainable project firmly rooted in genuine needs and benefits?

Would the council listen to a presentation from an interim bridge Ad Hoc group broadly representing these needs to explain how this might work if the council released Necarne under peppercorn lease to the community, meet local needs and restore the Castle?

Could this happen before the council progressed the current ‘non binding’ Expression of Interest process which was so biased to corporate aims, and before the council votes on advancing any private interest ? If not why not?

In the light of a widespread concerns about the current Expression of Interest process and extensive public funds going to benefit any private investor and with so much potential loss or exploitation to / off the community, can the council delay progression that process until all community concerns have been fully heard and addressed, all needs and health statistics and potential benefits of handing Necarne to an appropriate supported community trust or social enterprise assessed? As public investment must best be used to optimise community benefits and there are clear needs and clear potential from evidence and statistics which can be provided.

Would the council support and assist with the development of such a unique group from the community and asset with scoping exercise of needs and funding potential to support community ownership? thereby ensuring that the £4 million of public funds appropriately benefited community needs, health and wellbeing and ensured repairs to castle were urgently secured, via fundraising events and applications, in the most sustainable way forward as it avoids rates, and enables all funding to flow appropriately to needs rather than current direction of private profit?

Can the council confirm that as per the clause in the Instructions, Terms and Conditions “Fermanagh and Omagh District Council does not bind itself to accept any submission”, the council does not have to proceed with this Expression of Interest process to lease Necarne? And that the council is still free to consider more sustainable options that would more definitely benefit the community and ensure pubic funds were put to best use?

REPLY FROM CHIEF EXECUTIVE TO QUESTIONS ABOVE-

As you know the current process closed last Friday and any community proposals will be assessed on the same terms as all other expressions of interest received. There is no presumption in favour of the private sector in the assessment criteria. Nor is there anything that would prevent options around equine use“.

However if you go to our tab Important Documents – you will find a link to FODC Expression of Interest (EOI) Doc showing how EOI are scored / evaluated by Council. (Broadly) – Top marks for each of – amount of Rent Paid to council (25%) Business case and Assured Financial Package (15%) How much of property used (20%) How many jobs created from Tourism (20%) Aligned with Council aims (10%) The highest ££s Deposit paid (5%) The highest £££s Bond paid (5%) (Zero score for Community needs, health wellbeing, equestrian use it was funded for, or plan to save Castle from falling.)  Any community needs would be assessed the same but the way the Council set the scoring – for essentially Money, Money, Tourism and Money it would discriminate against any community group from the many in need and who could benefit from ever being successful.  We believe the scoring system clearly benefits the private sector.  There is nothing to prevent equine use but there is also a clear statement saying the council are happy to abandon any proposal allowing use of the equine facility – which received over £5 million of public funds. Also the Council’s scoring is not compatible with Government policy in relation to architectural heritage (see our website tab Castle at Critical Risk)  which states “it is Government policy that the maximisation of receipts should not be the overriding objectives in such disposals” There for setting criteria with maximum score for for top rent, top financial package, top number of jobs from tourism, top deposit and bond paid is neither appropriate for community needs or architectural heritage.

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUESTS SUBMITTED TO COUNCIL ON SEPT 19TH 2016

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives the public a general right of access to many kinds of information held by public authorities. The aim of the Act is to increase openness and accountability in the public sector.
This morning we are submitting this request under Council’s Freedom of Information duty to provide Information.
On behalf of the Ad Hoc Saving Necarne Group;
In the interest of safeguarding huge public investment already lodged into Necarne (and the potential for a private business to drawn down even more public funds) from going to benefit private business, instead of benefiting and meeting community needs to improve community access to Necarne, to ensure our quality of life, our protection, and preservation of our heritage, and quality places to benefit community, and the delivery of quality services to meet community needs, we nearby make the following requests under

The Freedom of Information Act 2000.
1. Can the council please detail the total of public funds spent on Necarne estate, to include, what the council spent in total, broken down by purchase price, works completed and any other costs associated with it as well as how much DARD invested in the site so the community can know exactly how much public money the council plan on passing on to benefit a private investor over the next 25 yrs, and possibly longer, (who the council may also support with further bids for more public funds), rather than ensuring the huge public investment benefits the public who paid for it. Please also supply any accounts detailing full income and expenditure relating to Necarne Estate from when records began to present.

Reply from Council on October 17th 2016

The purchase price of Necarne was £210,810 with further capital expenditure works of £3,912,200 some of which was subject to grant aid. The income and expenditure for Necarne is included within the Council’s Annual Financial Statements, separate accounts are not prepared. The net revenue maintenance spend from 2003-2016 is £144,000. Please note that this information has been extracted from the records that are available within the Council’s Records Retention Policy.
2. We require copies of all Expressions of Interest received by the Council in relation to Necarne estate – the recent process which closed on Friday the 16th of September 2016, which stated in its Terms and Conditions that
“Fermanagh and Omagh District Council is subject to the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Bidding organisations should be aware that the information provided in the completed tender and contract documents could be disclosed in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act. We will proceed on the basis of disclosure unless an appropriate exemption applies. No information provided by bidders will be accepted “in confidence” and the Council accepts no liability for loss as a result of any information disclosed in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act

Reply From Council on October 17th 2016

Section 36(2) of the Freedom of Information Act has applied to request for information under (2) which states that: “Information to which this section applies is exempt information if, in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, disclosure of the information under this Act- (b) would, or would be likely to, inhibit – (i) the free and frank provision of advice, or (ii) the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation or (c) would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs”.
In considering the application of this exemption, we have considered the public interest test and concluded that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in making the disclosure. We recognised that there is a legitimate public interest in ensuring the transparency of decisions about how public funds are allocated, spent and accumulated and that departments are getting value for money when purchasing goods and services. However, there is a strong and countervailing public interest in ensuring that the commercial interests of any company who wishes to provide a service to the Council are not prejudiced by disclosing information of this nature at a premature stage in the process. This in turn would be both prejudicial and detrimental to the integrity and effectiveness of the Council’s process of seeking expressions of interest going forward.

3. We require copies of all business cases written by the council, (which illustrate needs) when they applied for funding to purchase Necarne, to complete major and minor works and all associated costs drawn down from public funds. We need sight of the stated reasons / need used to justify pubic funds being spent on Necarne, as we believe the same needs used to drawn down millions to benefit the community, will still exist.

Reply From Council on October 17th 2016

This section of the request is seeking information which is not available as it is outside the records retention period for the Council.
When things are going wrong we need to open the situation up to allow light in.

https://www.fermanaghomagh.com/your…/freedom-of-information/

Update December 16th – despite the Council’s response to No3 request in red above that they information we requested was “not available as it is outside the records retention period for the Council” ,  and unprompted email arrive on Dec 16th 2016 that supplied information from this period of time.

Click here to view FOI info sent by Council in Dec 16

It seems that the needs for Necarne to be all that the council once envisaged it to be still exist. That there were obligations under that funding that need to be adhered to. That there were meant to be beneficiaries locally that still need to benefit. This FOI request raises more questions – and shows the need for full information to be made available and considered before the current Council decide on an appropriate path for Necarne.

Terms of the current Tourism Strategy for the area by Fermanagh Omagh Council also need to be considered as commitments to tourism are so clear in this attached documents.

EXTRACT FROM RELEVANT COUNCIL POLICIES PAGE OF THIS WEBSITE

3. Tourism Strategy

Extract. from Tourism Strategy
Horse-Riding
In the UK, the overall number of those who ride has fallen, from 3.5 million in 2011 to 2.7 million in 2015; there has been a decline in regular riders, from 1.6 million in 2011 to 1.3 million in 2015, but there has been growth in the number of riders aged between 16 and 24, rising from 368,000 in 2011 to 403,000 in 2015.
Fáilte Ireland’s 2013 survey estimated the direct economic value of horse-riding as €76m p.a. The survey also identified that equestrianism is of greater interest to the British than to the mainland European markets. Because it is a specialist interest activity it would need careful targeting.
22 Which don’t differentiate between residents and visitors
Fermanagh & Omagh Tourism Development Strategy Final Report, June 2016 14 ROI) offers more interest in horse riding/ pony trekking than mainland Europe, with a core potential of around 400,000 offering a good opportunity to develop this niche for Fermanagh and Omagh.
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