Derry & Strabane Council to look at using reserves to ease cost of living crisis
Derry City and Strabane Council voted unanimously in favour of utilising money from a £3 million Covid reserve fund to address the cost of living crisis. However, the three-hour meeting which was called to find ways to address the cost of living crisis was marred by insults and accusations of politicking and electioneering.
Despite voting in favour of utilising the entire £3 million reserve, a number of councillors warned it could lead to job losses and possibly interfere with services.
The special meeting on Friday got under way with council staff presenting elected members with some of the potential immediate support that the council could provide.
Alfie Dallas, Lead Finance Officer explained that a £3 million Covid reserve had been retained to cover risks including the pandemic and other global factors and council Chief Executive John Kelpie said: “We are considering the wider pressures on council. Obviously the cost of living issues and some of the issues we are facing as individuals and our citizens are facing as individuals at the moment, council corporate is also experiencing some very significant forthcoming financial pressures.”
Sinn Fein Councillor Sandra Duffy, who called the meeting, spoke first: “I called the meeting because the cost of living crisis is the biggest issue we have been facing as a society for a very long time. The crisis is deepening and more and more people are feeling the absolute pain of what’s going on.”
As the Ballyarnett Councillor asked if her proposal could be put forward, one from People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin referring to the ‘war-time conditions’ and condemning the failure of the Executive to declare a Hardship Emergency months ago and for failing to agree ‘mechanisms’ to utilise the £300 million available, was shown to the chamber instead.
It also called for national insurance increases to be reversed and for the local council to utilise the £3 million Covid reserve for a Hardship Emergency Fund.
The Mayor, Alderman Graham Warke decided not to hear the proposal, asking Councillor Harkin to bring it before the next full council meeting.
The People Before Profit councillor described the Mayor’s decision as ‘completely unacceptable’.
The Foyleside elected representative stated: “This is a humanitarian crisis in our district.
“We cannot sit here and pretend there isn’t a crisis outside and then we have to do everything we can to help the residents in our district. That is our duty and we should be discussing how we can help people right now.”
Sinn Fein Councillor John McGowan questioned whether council could ‘legally’ spend the £3M saying: “If we spend it will there be job losses, do we cancel events?”
He added that the cost of living crisis started ‘with some parties backing Brexit’.
Alderman Hilary McClintock spoke of the ‘massive, massive issues facing people’ adding that Westminster and Stormont ‘have their part to play’.
Criticising the Mayor for not accepting Councillor Harkin’s motion, Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher added: “These are very complex issues but you have people coming in here and electioneering and jumping around and blaming this and blaming that and blaming Brexit but there was poverty in this city and district long before we had even heard of Brexit.”
Councillor Gary Donnelly said: “We are seeing people suffering while these people are talking rhetoric and all I can see here today is that this meeting is a pre-election box ticking exercise. Rhetoric and no substance.”
Speaking about helping people with some heating, Aontu Councillor Emmet Doyle said: “I would quite gladly sell this council’s family silver if I thought someone in another part of the city could have a fire on for the night.”
Stating the meeting had ‘descended into electioneering’ by some councillors, Councillor Duffy laid the blame for the Executive’s failure to utilise the £300M on the DUP.
She also asked for the city solicitor to look into what she claimed was ‘bullying and abuse’ of a Councillor before making a proposal which the Mayor also refused to take.
DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney suggested ‘Sinn Fein shouldn’t be throwing stones when they live in a greenhouse’, referring to the previous collapse of the Assembly before SDLP’s Councillor Martin Reilly spoke of his disappointment at some councillors using the meeting as an opportunity ‘to attack’ other parties.
Members then voted in favour of remaining in open business to discuss the proposed industrial action by council workers with the Chief Executive calling it ‘a fairly major issue for council.’
Following a previous decision not to hear any proposals, the Mayor, Alderman Warke allowed Councillor Harkin to table his refined motion.
He said: “This cost of living crisis meeting is probably one of the most important we have had.”
The motion called on council to utilise the £3 million unspent Covid reserve savings and campaign for match funding from the Department for Communities, energy companies and major corporations.
SDLP Councillor Rory Farrell spoke of council’s ‘legal obligation’ to keep money in reserve before an amendment, proposed by UUP Alderman Derek Hussey, to utilise ‘any unspent Covid funding held in reserve funds’ rather than specifying £3 million passed.
Members voted unanimously in favour of Councillor Harkin’s motion before Councillor Duffy tabled her motion criticising the DUP collapse of Stormont preventing the allocation of the £300M.
The motion also called for Westminster to scrap VAT on domestic energy and for the introduction of a windfall tax on energy generators and for the reversal of the planned national insurance increase.
An SDLP amendment to extend the Department for Communities £200 payment to all households fell before the Sinn Fein councillor’s substantive motion passed with 25 votes for, one against and six abstentions.
Gillian Anderson Local Democracy Reporter