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Tempers flare as cost concerns again raised around Mournes Gateway project

Cost concerns over the £44m Mournes Gateway project have flared as an agreement with the National Trust was brought to council chambers on Thursday night.

Newry, Mourne and Down District Council’s (NMDDC) strategy, policy and resources committee voted to approve a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the National Trust, despite Alliance “raising an alarm” on growing costs of the project by abstaining.

Alliance had previously requested a deferral on procuring a consultancy team until dialogue was opened with the National Trust, which owns the Thomas Quarry site for development in the Mournes.

Downpatrick Alliance rep, Cadogan Enright, said: “My party has some governance concerns over this and we intend to abstain.

“There are things I am not happy about; we haven’t seen the risk register for what is now a £50m project, costs are escalating, money is being spent and this MoU far from guarantees acquiring the land for the project and we don’t have any alternative projects to take its place.

“I am aware the Department for the Economy (DfE) says it is going to cost £6m more for the project.

“I have grave concerns about this, we want to be abstaining on this to show that we have raised the alarm.”

Rowallane Alliance cllr, Tierna Kelly, added: “Giving all the concerns our party has raised on this project, when will council members choose to reconsider their position on the progress of this project?

“How much cost increase do we have to incur on this project before we rethink how far this project is going to go?”

NMDDC is seeking a £30m investment from the Belfast Region City Deal (BRCD) for the Mournes project, with the local authority putting up the remaining cash to fulfil the major tourism project.

The paper before the committee this week states, that the MoU exists as a statement of intent about how the National Trust and NMDDC will communicate and engage effectively in relation to the Mourne Gateway project.

The paper adds that the MoU does not represent a formal commitment by either party to enter into any future legal agreement.

A council officer has clarified a budget update following a recent estimate report in the media.

He said: “I think it would be very useful to read the following to members.

“In a response from the Department for the Economy to a media query, a DfE spokesperson said ‘NMDDC’s cost estimate for the Mourne Gateway project is £44m. The department has been engaging with the council to establish what additional allowances should be built into the project budget to cover future construction costs, inflations and other risks. That work has not been finalised’.

“I have not seen this in printed media since it was released.”

Alliance committee members came in for criticism across the chamber for potentially turning the process in to a “sham”.

Downpatrick Sinn Fein cllr, Oonagh Hanlon, said: “It is quite clear that the Alliance members came in here with an agenda tonight.

“They stated that they were abstaining before we even had a chance to listen to the officer’s report or to what other people in the chamber had to say.

“They have totally misread the paper, they’ve brought in things that are not related to the paper.

“I’m also going to note that they were totally disrespectful to the chair, talking over the top of you.

“There is nothing other in the MoU, than an agreement to work together with the National Trust, which is what the Alliance party asked for and yet they are going to abstain on this.

“It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”

Mournes gateway

Slieve Gullion SDLP rep, Pete Byrne, added: “People should not be bandying about finances and throwing figures out there, they should learn from the past, it’s actually about trying to grab headlines and probably against the code of conduct.

“People coming out of this chamber trying to grab a headline about something outside the paper that is in-front of us and throw out figures of £50m or to say that a project won’t get a lease, they should be drawn over the coals.

“The Alliance party asked for a relationship with the National Trust, which is in-front of them tonight and they go against it.

“This is about just stopping the project.

“We are there on the project board trying to deliver the project and it is the will of this council.

“We are there to support officers on this project and if we are not doing that, we are honestly undermining them and that turns this whole thing into a sham.”

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