LARNE councillors are at odds over a dispute which could result in closure of Seacourt Youth Club and the permanent loss of two youth worker posts.
The North Eastern Education and Library Board, which helps to fund the club run by Seacourt Community Council, has said it cannot continue to do so without a tenancy agreement being in place. The youth club meets in the recently built community centre attached to The Cliff multi-sport facility. No tenancy agreement exists for the community centre because of a bitter disagreement over management and governance between the board at The Cliff and the council.
Recently, Sport NI – the main funder of The Cliff project – offered to mediate in the dispute in which both parties have said they have taken legal advice.
At Monday’s monthly meeting of the full council, DUP councillor Drew Niblock failed in a bid to put forward a proposal aimed at setting aside the governance issue temporarily to address the crisis facing the youth club. DUP mayor Cllr Bobby McKee, who had earlier exercised his discretion to enable the “emergency” motion to be put on the agenda at the last minute, said in open meeting that he had to rule against it being discussed.
Cllr McKee pointed out that both Cllr Niblock and his seconder, SDLP’s Martin Wilson, as directors at The Cliff, had non-pecuniary interests which meant he could not permit them to put forward the resolution.
The draft motion did, however, appear on the agenda. It stated that the NEELB’s £14,654 grant had been withdrawn, adding: “As a result, two staff have been unemployed and the youth club is in serious financial trouble.”
In the draft, Cllr Niblock said he had been assured by NEELB that if the current lease agreement at The Cliff was amended to facilitate a tenancy agreement with Seacourt Youth Club, then the funding would be reinstated with immediate effect.
Councillors argued over whether or not the fate of the youth club and the youth worker posts were in the local authority’s hands.
Cllr Wilson declared that the people who would suffer most are the post holders and the young people who attend the club. “For any council to be in the position of putting people out of work when they could do something about it, I find to be – and I have to choose my words carefully – but I find it to be regrettable because in times like these, when people are suffering, no one needs to lose their job,” he said.
However, Ulster Unionist alderman Roy Beggs said he could not accept Cllr Wilson’s claim. He said: “This council is not and does not share or accept any responsibility for a situation that has been created by others, but I have always sought to forward a solution and at this point in time, as the council’s representative on the (NEELB) board, I am prepared to make contact with the chief executive of the board to ask for some understanding and to enable the current employees and the children to benefit from the provision there until such time as the other issue is resolved, which would be the best intention of our own chief executive and the council.”
DUP councillor Gregg McKeen said he thought it “very unfair” of Cllr Wilson to “lay this at the door of the council”.
Would-be proposer Cllr Niblock told colleagues: “I want it made clear that the only reason that motion was brought forward was because I believe it was right to do it.”
TUV alderman Jack McKee said he had resigned from The Cliff board over governance issues and Alliance deputy mayor Michael Lynch commented that Seacourt Community Council had been aware of the funding situation since last August.
Stressing that his ruling was “not personal”, Cllr McKee said he was charged with responsibility for ensuring the smooth running of the council. At the mayor’s request, chief executive Geraldine McGahey provided an outline in which she explained that the Cliff committee holds a lease on the sports facility and pitches, “excluding the community centre, which prevents any form of sub-letting”.
She claimed that the community centre had “without authority”, been “taken over” and vacant possession had been requested.
“Neither Seacourt Youth Club nor any other organisation has ever held any tenancy agreement with Larne Borough Council in respect of the community centre at any time,” said Mrs McGahey.
The chief executive added that she was advised that the NEELB funding covered items including caretaking and cleaning, heat, light and insurance. It did not cover costs associated with the employment of youth workers, leaders etc,” she added.
On Tuesday, Cllr Niblock said he understood Mayor McKee’s position, maintaining that there is “unity in the party”, but he still felt it was “unfortunate” that councillors had not been able to vote on the proposal.
“I am aware of the governance issues between the council and The Cliff, but I had hoped that those issues could be put aside temporarily to discuss the youth club lease,” he said.