Ards North Down Council snubs environmental group after its labelled "political"

Crawfordsburn beach
-Credit: (Image: Graham Baalham-Curry/PressEye)


A Northern Ireland local authority has snubbed a frontline environmental organisation after elected representatives accused the body of being “political” and a “lobbying group.”

Ards and North Down Borough Council at its full meeting this week supported a DUP proposal to hold back on paying a £15,000 annual membership fee for Sustainable NI, despite being recommended by its council officers.

It reverses a decision proposed by the Alliance Party at committee level earlier this month to accept the £15,000 advanced membership.

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Sustainable NI, which started in 1998 as a joint project of the NI Environment Link, WWF and the Local Government Training Group, aims to promote the adoption of sustainable development principles by local authorities and other agencies of government.

The organisation has changed its membership structures and upped its fees this year. It will provide three levels for councils - Supporter Membership at £6,000 a year, Accelerator Membership at £10,000 a year and Accelerator Plus membership at £15,000.

An Ards and North Down Council report states: “The options of additional levels of membership would provide much better value for money than private consultants and provide the added benefit of working with an existing partner, knowledgeable of local council processes and remits.”

However, at the Ards and North Down monthly council meeting on Wednesday at Bangor Castle, DUP Alderman Stephen McIlveen proposed the council “does not commit to the Accelerator Plus membership and investigates all possible alternatives providers before making a final decision.”

He told the chamber: “I have asked whether or not we had gone through any process of finding a provider to carry out this work. This is an organisation that has been given various options of completing consultation papers, running conferences, and assisting with reporting things that are required under the Climate Change Act.

“We have used Sustainable NI for several years now. But whenever I ask whether or not we have gone through a process, the (committee) director indicated “no.” There was a vague assumption that perhaps this was the only organisation to do this - but we haven’t carried out any exercise to find out whether or not that is the case.

“This is a request that has come in from Sustainable NI rather than us approaching them.”

He said: “(My proposal) stems from a concern I have about Sustainable NI. I have been very clear for a considerable period of time that Sustainable NI is not only an organisation that provides these services, but also is a lobby group pursuing its own political objectives.

“I have a real concern that public bodies are funding an organisation that is pursuing alternative objectives. I am also concerned that there have been consultations completed by Sustain NI that we have had to go back and amend significantly because they are representing the voice of Sustainable NI and not the voice of this council.

“I am not saying we don’t get them in a future situation, but I would like us to explore all the alternatives so we can weigh this up and make a proper decision about it. Lets see what other providers there are and make an assessment as to who is the most appropriate.”

The council officer report states: “Sustainable NI has played a critical role in helping councils meet their statutory obligations on sustainable development through cross sector partnership work, policy analysis and development, provision of advice and peer to peer support through the Sustainable Development Forum, training and events.

“Sustainable NI bridges the gap between policy and practice on key environmental social factors at a local government level, working alongside NILGA allowing improved engagement with elected members. More recently it has added further support by guiding councils through the recent introduction of the Climate Change Act, NI.

“This led to Sustainable NI co-ordinating and hosting a Needs Analysis workshop at the end of 2023. The aim was to identify where councils' support would be needed in the months and years ahead to meet the requirements of the Climate Change Act.

"These asks will be difficult to meet for many councils (mainly due to resourcing) and a collaborative approach across all councils will be a much more efficient use of time and resource moving forward.

“A range of officers from across ANDBC and other councils from across NI attended this workshop to ensure full cross-service discussions were had. Sustainable NI have therefore tailored their service provision to meet that growing need.”

The Director of the council’s Corporate Services Committee told the chamber during Wednesday’s council meeting: “Whilst we haven’t done specific research, which we can do, into other organisations, really they are likely to be consultancy type firms who would charge us substantially more than Sustainable NI. However, we can do further market research in relation to that.”

Alliance Councillor Victoria Moore said: “I don’t in principle have any opposition to the suggested amendment. I do feel strongly that we need to be led by what the council needs, and not to pre-empt the outcome by having an aversion to a particular supplier, but that we are open to all potential suppliers.”

The Green Party made no comment at the full council meeting, and the DUP amendment was passed without objection.

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