Over 1,300 civil servants would like to work in the new Department of Agriculture headquarters in Ballykelly, more than double the 600 jobs earmarked, with suggestions it could even become a new multi-departmental civil service hub in the North West.
That’s according to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) HR boss Tracey Teague, who during a briefing of the Agriculture Committee last week, revealed there’s been huge interest in a move to the new HQ, from right across the civil service,
However, it’s not all plain sailing. The Department has an issue in that not all staff who want to move have the necessary background skills in rural and agricultural affairs that will be needed at the new base.
Ms Teague told the Committee the Department could fill 300 posts today but due to the reluctance of ex-DARD staff elsewhere moving to Derry it could take until 2029 to reach a full staff complement.
“It is safe to say that we have about 1,300 expressions of interest from other staff in the NICS who would like to work in Ballykelly,” said Ms Teague.
“The vast majority of those are already in and around the North West. It is difficult and challenging, but it is a
very careful management because we know that our staff do not want to go. We are trying to match skills with people who want to go, if you get my drift.
“We know that we are safe in that 300 arena, but it will be more difficult thereafter.”
Committee member David Ford observed that before the summer recess the Committee was told that it could take until 2029 to fill Ballykelly due to concerns from staff who did not want to move.
Ms Teague acknowledged this, stating: “We know that we are safe in that 300 arena, but it will be more difficult thereafter.
“The 2029 plan was a much more phased approach. It was about 30 per year based on the principle that, as people left, we would recruit to the North West.
“The Minister is, rightly, reconsidering that, now that all the facts are in front of her, and she is considering what she needs to do to meet the business needs of the new Department.”
UUP MLA Robin Swann asked if the Ballykelly project was evolving from an agricultural headquarters into a multi-purpose civil service base in the North West.
“Is there an idea now that Ballykelly will become a Northern Ireland Civil Service office block rather than just DAERA?” he asked.
Ms Teague’s colleague, Louise Warde Hunter, replied: “Although it was conceived as a relocation of DAERA HQ, she is now looking - this is my language, not the Minister’s - at a mixed economy, with a substantial proportion of DAERA people. That would depend on the appetite and, indeed, needs of other Departments to populate the building.”
During the same briefing Ms Warde Hunter indicated Ballykelly is now among three issues, alongside financial management and the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, which are front and centre of the Department’s thinking.
“Going back to the overarching key priorities for the central services and rural affairs group, I would
summarise them as the three Bs: budget, Brexit and Ballykelly,” she said.
She later added: “It is not simply about the relocation of DAERA staff; it is about looking at how it might impact on other NICS Departments, engaging with them and taking that forward for the Minister.
“We are charged with looking at that and taking it forward for the Minister. We are in the early days of that since the Minister expressed her view on it.”