The following is an opinion piece written by Councillor Stephen Nicoll, which mulls over some of the intricate issues are the Ballee land, perhaps the most controversial item mentioned in the memo released Jim Allister by Freedom of Information request by the NIO. It’s particularly interesting since it was written the day before the release, without, so far as we can tell, any foreknowledge of the release of that document. It’s a useful foil to some of the feverish speculation doing the rounds at the moment.By Councillor Stephen Nicoll
“The announcement that an enquiry will be held into the Ballee land issue goes to very heart of public confidence in the integrity of politics. The vesting of private land for public good has always been a difficult policy area and one where the sometimes devastating impact on individuals must be balanced against the greater needs of the wider community. In those instances where vesting does take place it is incumbent on the vesting agency to ensure that the need for the land can not be met in any other way and that the process has been open and transparent.
Value is of course a priority issue and for the land owner the use of what was previously the Valuation and Land Agency and is now Land and Property Services has ensured that the price is set at the fair market value. Where land has been vested and is no longer needed the principle should always be that first refusal on the land is given to the previous owners, again based on the current fair market value.
If Ian Paisley Jnr interceded on his constituents behalf to ensure this was the case then his intervention was justified and correct and should be supported by legislation to ensure that in future land owners have first refusal on the resale of previously vested land. Such legislation should also detail a time frame for the use of vested land, for example if vested land is not used for the purposes for which it was vested within say 5 years it should be declared surplus to requirement.
The significant area of concern is whether or not Mr Paisley interfered further in the process on the question of price. If as reported the price set by the relevant agency was £75 million then that is the price that should have been paid. It has been reported in the Belfast Telegraph that the original land owners had negotiated a deal which would have seen the land transfer to developers for an additional 10% of the purchase price thereby earning them £7.5 million pounds on the market value of the land.
If at this point Mr Paisley used his influence to have the price reduced to £50 million then there are two areas of concern. The first is that the NI Executive struggling with an inadequate budget have lost out on a further £25 million pounds which could have gone some way to addressing some of the infrastructure deficits or social housing need in Northern Ireland. Indeed given that any profit from the sale of the site has resulted from a lack of Government investment in Ballymena there is a case that all of it should be directed to projects in the Ballymena area. In that case Ian Paisley Jnr has argued for a reduction in Government investment in Ballymena. The second issue concerns the relevant land owners who having negotiated a fair deal with developers have seen the value of that deal drop from £7.5 million to £5 million apparently on the intervention of Ian Paisley Jnr.
The question any enquiry must look at is who has lost and who has gained from this episode. Certainly the developers have gained in that 96 acres of land which could have cost them £82.5 million will now only cost them £55 million a saving of £27.5 million pounds. On the other hand the people of Northern Ireland and especially the people of Ballymena have lost in that a vital £25 million is not available for investment in roads, hospitals, social housing or schools.
Under the terms of the agreement outlined in the Belfast Telegraph the land owners have also lost a not insignificant £2.5 million. Potentially however the greatest loss will be in public confidence in the democratic process. If people cannot have faith in propriety of those they elect then democracy, for which such a high price has been paid, is the loser. Those engaged in this enquiry have the responsibility to protect the structures of Government from those who would use such structures to the detriment of the people of Northern Ireland.”
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty