Travelling People: Monagh Wood Scheme

This report examines the development of a site for travelling people at Monagh Wood, Belfast and the design problems which led to the eventual abandonment of the project after expenditure in excess of £1 million had been incurred.

The project was undertaken by Belfast City Council (BCC) with grant aid provided by the Urban Regeneration Group of the Department of the Environment, now part of the Department for Social Development (the Department).

The main findings of the report are:

  • There was no evidence of a design brief or scheme design being presented to the Department. As a result the project was initially taken forward by BCC prior to any formal approach to the Department and without the establishment of any upper limit on expenditure.
  • Economic appraisals are an essential part of good financial management and government accountability, but no appraisal was prepared by BCC for this project.
  • The award of the contract was the subject of a complaint to the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints whose investigation revealed "gross maladministration in the handling and processing of the letting of the contract".
  • The approved expenditure was well in excess of the Department's delegated authority.
  • The absence of a proper Letter of Offer or a signed agreement by BCC exposed the Department to unnecessary risks, including the payment of grant to cover the cost of remedial work.
  • Legal opinion provided to BCC indicated that design faults were the responsibility of the consultants. New consultants appointed reported that the pitches were not fit for the purpose for which they had been built and that the overall site was unsafe.
  • BCC commissioned a report on the accommodation needs of the travellers from management consultants in May 1997. The provision of housing units was the preferred option but in view of the projected cost and the opposition of the travellers, this report was viewed as not offering a clear way forward. Nothing further was done to develop the Monagh Wood site and it effectively remained abandoned.
  • BCC's handling of the project was the subject of a complaint to the Commissioner for Complaints by a member of the travelling community. In addition, at the request of the Department, BCC's management of the project was the subject of an investigation by the Chief Local Government Auditor. His review culminated in a highly critical report which was presented to BCC in July 1998.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr John Dowdall, expresses concern in this report about the apparent deficiencies in the administration of this expenditure, the fact that there has been no benefit to the travelling people and that nothing of value has been achieved. While much of the responsibility for this scheme rested with BCC, Mr Dowdall says there are also lessons for the Department which is accountable for this expenditure.