A veteran UUP councillor warned that Causeway Coast and Glens Council risked being labelled a ‘Scrooge Council’ by penny-pinching over Christmas lights switch-on ceremonies across the borough.
Former Coleraine mayor and Portrush businessman Norman Hillis made the comment during a Leisure and Development Committee debate into Council’s celebratory arrangements for the festive season.
Earlier in the debate at Cloonavin some councillors had expressed misgivings over excluding rural areas from the festivities due to a combination of a lack of Council resources and cost.
However alderman Hillis said that the issue of deciding which areas were given Christmas events was not easy to solve. “We must not let the message get out that Causeway Coast and Glens Council is a Scrooge Council or niggardly when it comes to Christmas.”
In his report to the Committee, the Head of Tourism and Recreation, Peter Thompson, said Council had used figures from The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency to ascertain areas in the borough that had a population of 1,000.
Council’s Tourism and Recreation Events Team delivered a number of festive switch ons and associated events across the area in 2015 in Ballymoney, Ballycastle, Limavady, Coleraine, Kilrea, Portstewart, Portrush, Garvagh and Dungiven, along with a £250 contribution to the villages and hamlets in BallyKelly, Burnfoot, Drumsurn,Feeney, Foreglen, Greysteel and Magilligan, as part of the legacy Limavady Borough Council arrangements. The cost of delivering this was around £25,000.
Committee members were asked to consider three options: 1. The Tourism and Recreation Events team to deliver a schedule of activities with a Santa appearance and celebrations in Ballycastle, Ballymoney, Coleraine and Limavady. These would be accessible to everyone within 30 minutes drive by car. The estimated cost for this would be £16,000; 2. The Council Events team to provide a similar entertainment package to towns with a population over 5,000, namely Ballycastle, Ballymoney, Coleraine, Limavady, Portstewart and Portrush. The cost would be £24,000; 3. The Events team to provide Christmas celebrations as above to towns with a population over 2,500, namely Ballycastle, Ballymoney, Coleraine, Dungiven, Limavady, Portstewart and Portrush at a total cost of £28,000.
The report noted that it was not feasible to extend switch on festivities to areas of less than 2,500 people because the Events Team could simply not resource it.
If councillors opted for the first option 58 local settlements would receive £250 to run their own Christmas celebrations. If the second option was preferred 56 settlements would receive £250 each and if the third option was favoured 55 settlements would get £250.
Both Richard Baker, Council’s Director of Leisure and Development and Mr Thompson said that the NISRA figures had been used to try to reach a ‘fair and equitable’ assessment of the local population.
However former mayor Michelle Knight-McQuillan set the tone for the debate when she stridently contested using the NISRA statistics as a basis to decide which towns were given switch-ons. She said that two towns in the Bann DEA, Garvagh with a population of 1,274 and Kilrea with 1,679 did not take into account signficant numbers living in rural areas and hinterlands. By not doing so, she argued, “we are just taking away Christmas from the rural areas” and that they were, as usual, left to “do it themselves.”
She later added that a limited public transport system in rural areas after 6pm would discriminate against rural dwellers and schoolchildren from attending the signature events.
The UUP’s Richard Holmes, who lives in Garvagh, agreed that the proposals tabled would leave towns in the Bann DEA with no switch on at all. “What’s in this for me,” he snapped.
Councillor Kieran Mulholland of Sinn Fein also said that the figures were not a true representation of the Loughguile population area and said Council needed to properly engage with local community associations to find out what areas they served.
Richard Baker stressed that the data was the best figures that Council could use and that a move had to be made away from Christmas arrangements by legacy councils.
Councillor Hillis surmised that Council had the uneviable task of deciding the festive provision for each town and village but it was important to treat residents equally.
“Christmas is a special family time and people look forward to the switch-ons, particularly youngsters.”
Both councillor Hillis and councillor Margaret -Anne McKillop felt it would be unfair to take away celebrations from towns which were used to having them.
Councillor Trevor Clarke felt “there was no perfect solution” to the quandary but proposed that the Committee adopt option three to include the towns of Garvagh and Kilrea with £250 grants being offered to 55 settlements to hold their own facilities. This was seconded by the mayor, Maura Hickey and passed by members.