NEWS that Cookstown will not be the new home of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) headquarters has been met with huge disappointment.
On Monday DARD Minister Michelle O’Neill confirmed that Ballykelly’s former military site would be the location for the new department.
Cookstown’s Loughry College site had been a prime contender in the department’s relocation programme which aims to decentralise a significant share of public sector jobs to rural areas by 2015.
But now over 800 staff will move to the north-west despite Loughry College and Food Incubation centre’s extensive facilities and readily available services on top of a huge range of development land.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s current headquarters are located in Dundonald House in the Stormont Estate. The physical relocation of DARD staff to the new Headquarters is likely to commence during 2015.
Cookstown District Council had made significant efforts in preparing and presenting a business case to the department for the area to be considered a priority in relocation. Cookstown District Chair, SDLP councillor Tony Quinn outlined his disappointment with the move.
“As Chairman of Cookstown District Council, I wish to express my disappointment with the Minister’s decision to relocate DARD headquarters to Ballykelly by 2015,” he said.
“Significant efforts were made by Cookstown District Council to secure the relocation of DARD headquarters to Loughry College (CAFRE and Food Incubation Centre), which has extensive facilities and services readily available, as well as having the necessary development land for current and future requirements.
“Council has previously prepared a comprehensive submission to DARD proposing the case for relocation to Cookstown and also reinforced this message through its response to DARD’s Land Use Survey outlining the rationale for Cookstown and the significant
benefits this relocation would make to the Cookstown District and Mid Ulster as a whole.”
Councillor Quinn said that Cookstown remained to be the district with the lowest level of public sector jobs, which would continue to have an impact on people’s incomes.
“The small levels of public sector jobs in Cookstown is a critical factor in keeping local wage levels low. The relocation of DARD headquarters to our district would have brought a significant range of economic and social benefits,” he said.
“However we in Cookstown District Council will continue to be proactive towards attracting future investments into our district, building upon our success in attracting the Joint Public Services College.
“We are determined to build the local economic and social fabric, and although disappointed in this decision by the DARD Minister, I and my colleagues will not be deterred from continuing to attract much needed public and private sector job opportunities for Cookstown and indeed Mid-Ulster.”
DUP MLA Ian McCrea also expressed his disappointment at the news, but commended the work of council officers in trying to secure the relocation for Cookstown.
“I was extremely disappointed to hear the news that the new DARD HQ will be relocated to Ballykelly.
Whilst it is welcome news that the new HQ will be outside of Belfast however it is disappointing that Mid-Ulster was not the preferred option.
“During the past number of months the Agriculture Minister has been considering a number of places for the new DARD HQ including Loughry College in Cookstown which is currently owned and run by DARD which I believe would have been a better choice.
He added: “I want to commend the officers and staff at Cookstown Council for the efforts they put into bidding for the new DARD HQ we might have lost this fight however we will continue the battle.”
Ulster Unionist Councillor Trevor Wilson described Loughry as having “all the necessary attributes” for the departmental headquarters, and was too disappointed by the news.
Councillor Wilson said: “It was very disappointing that Loughry College is not going to be the new DARD HQ. Cookstown is ideally situated at the centre of Northern Ireland and had all the necessary attributes to facilitate the centre.”
Announcing the new son Monday, Minister O’Neill said: “The relocation of the DARD HQ will stimulate the local economy through increased local spending, provision of high quality and well paid public sector jobs and potentially jobs associated with the construction and ongoing servicing of the new HQ.
“The relocation will also help to share wealth across the wider economy and contribute to better-balanced economic growth, by starting to address disparities in the distribution of public sector jobs in the north of Ireland.”
It had been hoped Minister O’Neill’s Mid-Ulster connections, as well as her Loughry College office had placed the Loughry CAFRE site as a priority. The college and surrounding grounds are already owned by DARD and Minister O’Neill currently works from an office in the Cookstown campus once a week so she can be close to her Coalisland home.