Make Ballee new HQ for Education Authority - Reader’s opinion

The County Hall. BT49-005JM.
The County Hall. BT49-005JM.

With the debate on local employment prospects and the implications for the economy in this area, we have opened up our cyberspace to those who want to express their opinions.

This submission, from a verified local source, concentrates on the public sector which is, by any stretch of the imagination, a big economic factor in the Mid-Antrim area.

If you have a carefully considered article on the problems which are facing this area in the very near future, simply submit to dessie.blackadder@jpress.co.uk

Public Sector jobs and the Ballymena economy.

Background

In the wake of the job loss announcements from JTI and Michelin, many politicians were quick to offer their sympathy and declare their willingness to do everything possible to address these devastating blows to Ballymena. No doubt their remarks were sincere, but to date we have seen little come of them. Although attracting new industry and commercial investment to the town may be something of a long-term uphill struggle, there are certainly things which our political leaders can do in the short term.

While they may not have control over the commercial pressures which affect international trade, they do have significant influence over the locations of public sector jobs. I am not suggesting for a moment that public sector jobs alone will resolve the huge financial pressures ahead of us, however there can be no doubt that these jobs make a substantial contribution to the local economy. It is often said that there is a huge imbalance between public and private sector jobs in Northern Ireland – this is completely true, however reducing the number of public sector jobs will not redress the balance, nor will taking work from the public sector and having it performed by the private sector. The only way to address the imbalance properly is to attract more private sector investment – in the meantime however, we need to consider how the necessary public sector jobs can deliver their required functions efficiently, and at the same time contribute to meeting needs where they are located.

Civil Service Jobs

The Northern Ireland Civil Service employs around 25,000 people. I would suggest that locating the majority of public sector jobs in and around the greater Belfast area is neither good for the economy in general, for the staff who travel there every day to work, or for the environment with the pollution caused by their cars! Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this location policy (or is it a lack of policy?) is Stormont estate. A quick look at Bing maps “birds eye” view reveals very clearly that the entire area East of the Ulster Way is awash with “portacabin” type temporary buildings. They demonstrate the long-standing tradition of locating civil service jobs at Stormont, even if the staff have to be housed in such low-grade accommodation. There are not many Civil Service jobs available at present, however of those being advertised at the time of writing, every single job was in Belfast!

The Public Service Commission recommended as part of the Review of Public Administration that, “in consultation with Trade Unions and other staff representatives, the Executive should develop an overarching location framework strategy for all public services. In developing such a strategy, full consideration should be given to safeguarding the interests of staff. The Commission considers that any decision on the location of a workplace must be objectively justified and reflect, as far as possible, an equitable distribution of Public Sector jobs.”

Perhaps some of our political leaders, who will no doubt soon be canvasing for votes, can explain how a concentration of civil service jobs in Belfast, rather than in rural communities such as Ballymena, reflects “an equitable distribution of Public Sector jobs”? The distribution is very obviously far from equitable, and I would call on politicians to publicly declare what practical steps they intend to take to redress the imbalance.

Stressed Civil Servants

Not a single public sector worker should be accommodated in a Stormont portacabin, while buildings such as Co. Hall, Kilpatrick House, Twickenham House etc. have any vacant space. Relocating jobs to better quality accommodation in rural areas might even affect the appalling sickness records in the civil service (in 2014/15 the absence due to sickness cost us almost £32 million!) By far the most significant absences are due to stress and similar conditions, and just over one third of the working days lost in this illness category were recorded as work-related stress. Having had the misfortune of travelling from Ballymena to Stormont and city-centre government properties for early morning meetings, I can understand how the time spent travelling to and from these locations on congested roads, and trying to find a space in inadequate car parks, would contribute greatly to work related stress.

The Ballymena factor

What you may ask, has this to do with Ballymena? Well quite a lot actually! Many of the stressed drivers travelling to Stormont and other Belfast locations are from Ballymena and other rural areas. The money they pour into their petrol tanks, or pay out for public transport fares, represents thousands of pounds NOT being spent in local shops. For those who can afford to eat-out or shop at lunchtime, Belfast does very nicely from this public-sector job concentration, while rural areas suffer.

It is vitally important for towns such as Ballymena, that this inequitable job distribution be halted, and indeed reversed. Is this possible? I would suggest that not only is it possible, but would actually reduce costs, particularly if a long-term strategy of “rural first” allowed the sale of valuable city-centre properties.

Practical Steps – Education Authority jobs

Before Christmas, there was speculation in the local press that a move of the Education Authority staff from County Hall to the former Ballee High School site might displace the youth club located there, but as many of our local politicians correctly pointed out, the huge building is of a size that it could easily house EA and allow the Youth Club to stay where it is.

A move of Education staff to Ballee can only be good for Ballymena. The enormous site which is owned by the Authority could accommodate all EA staff in the Ballymena area and if utilised would lead to more efficient operation of the organisation itself, and may even create capacity for additional EA jobs to come to Ballymena. It is my understanding that the Education Authority senior management team still occupy rented accommodation close to Forestside shopping centre, where they have been for many years. Would it not be more efficient use of public money to use premises which the authority owns, rather than continuing to rent? (Presumably they are not considering some up-market rented accommodation in the centre of Belfast for the new authority HQ!)

If Education were to move to Ballee, this would of course leave a vacancy at County Hall. Far from being a problem, this should be grasped as a perfect opportunity to rejuvenate the building which is now showing its age. Having a complete floor fully cleared would allow the building to be upgraded to what assemblyman Robin Swann recently called for, as “Grade A office accommodation”.

Health and Social Care

Concerns have recently been raised about the possibility of losing Health and Social Care jobs from County Hall to Belfast (p9, Antrim & Ballymena Times, 16th Feb 2016). I would suggest that the space vacated by education would allow for the opposite to happen – County Hall could become a major centre for Health administration. (Simon Hamilton – what do you think?)

Electoral Office

We recently learned of the plans to close Ballymena Electoral Office in October, with jobs going to Newtownabbey, and then inevitably to Belfast. How about a more radical plan – move the entire electoral office out of Belfast to Ballymena! (I dare say that an office in the Cathedral quarter would be a lot easier to find a tenant for than anything in Ballymena!)

Political Commitment

Let me remind readers of some of the comments made by politicians in the wake of the Michelin announcement:-

“The Executive will make every effort to alleviate the impact of the job losses and ensure the necessary support is available to those affected directly and indirectly.” OFMDFM

“North Antrim must now become a priority for Invest NI. The job creating need in this constituency is now critical”. Jim Allister.

“I will be engaging with the NI Executive and colleagues in government on this issue.” Theresa Villiers.

“It is understandable that the unions want to draw attention to the job losses, but this is the time to concentrate on practical action, not words”. Declan O’Loan.

These are just a few examples – EVERYONE acknowledges that something needs to be done for Ballymena, and it needs to be done urgently.

Action needed now!

It is within the gift of our current leaders to do something now. They can confirm their commitment to the RPA principles. They can declare their support for the Education Authority move from County Hall to Ballee. They can give commitments that they will ensure Co. Hall and other government owned buildings in Ballymena are fully occupied, even if this does mean bull-dozing a few temporary buildings around Stormont. Those with the powers to do so can instruct their civil servants to produce an effective strategy for relocation to accommodation in areas such as Ballymena, and to implement it as a matter of urgency. In short, what we need is action rather than platitudes on the part of our leaders.

It is of course, not only political leaders who need to act. The Board of the Education Authority (which includes 8 political representatives) can be proactive in protecting and enhancing public sector jobs in Ballymena. They control a valuable asset in the form of the former Ballee High School, and have within their powers, the opportunity to transform it into a first class administration and resource centre, which will underpin their work in the Ballymena area, and assist them in fulfilling their RPA obligations for equitable distribution of jobs.

It is my understanding that the current Chief Executive of EA, Mr Gavin Boyd, has visited the site and was impressed by its potential. I would call on Board Members and the Chairperson of the Authority to endorse his opinion, and to publicly state their commitment to the use of this site for the work of the authority. They might even want to go a step further, and consider making it their headquarters! Perhaps the Chairperson of the Education Authority, Ms Sharon O’Connor, would take the opportunity to respond and explain how the fledgling organisation’s location strategy will protect jobs in Ballymena, and how quickly they can move to utilise their property at Ballee to provide a cost effective base in the town?

Responses?

I am sure the people of Ballymena would very much welcome responses from political leaders and the Board of the Education Authority to this plea for protection and enhancement of public sector job opportunities in the wake of the devastating blows the town has received. JTI and Michelin they may not control, but the Public Sector must surely be within the grasp of our elected public servants?