AEL ‘aggrieved’ at rejection of Carnfunnock holiday village plan

A computer visual of the proposed log cabins holiday village at Carnfunnock Country Park. INLT 10-612-CON
A computer visual of the proposed log cabins holiday village at Carnfunnock Country Park. INLT 10-612-CON
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LARNE Borough Council has rejected a £1m proposal by local social enterprise company AEL to build a holiday village at Carnfunnock Country Park.

The local authority has also resolved that it will not seek to enter into any social partnership arrangements at Carnfunnock – a move which prompted the DUP this week to disassociate itself from the policy.

DUP councillor Drew Niblock had already refused to sit on a panel assessing the plan to build eight log cabins, claiming that the “undertone” of the meeting was “negative”.

AEL (Acceptable Enterprises Ltd) – whose mission statement is to “provide disadvantaged people with support to access further education, training and employment opportunities” – described the council’s moratorium on social partnerships at the country park as “beyond comprehension”. Director David Hunter said this week: “The legality of such a proposal being formally adopted by the council could only be addressed through the courts.”

Two years ago, Larne Council invited expressions of interest for the development of amenities at Carnfunnock. They wanted proposals for land, water and marine leisure activities, as well as family, and/or group accommodation.

Two shortlisted tenderers were invited to make presentations, but only AEL took up the offer. The firm employs able-bodied and less able people at its Bank Road premises, where it undertakes tasks for other companies including packaging, mail shots and industrial sub-contracting, as well as web site servicing and picture framing. It was hoped the holiday village would provide 15 new jobs in the production of soaps and shower gels for cabin users, as well as maintenance tasks and cycle hire at Carnfunnock.

The chalets, designed to accommodate between two and 12 persons, were to be complemented by a group cabin.

AEL also tabled proposals for water sports at Carnfunnock Bay including raft-building and kayaking.

It promoted the cabins as suitable for family and commercial use for team-building exercises. Off-season, they would have been made available at reduced cost to parents and carers requiring respite.

A business case requested by the council was drawn up with the aid of consultants after the proposal scored highly at the shortlisting stage. The Larne Times has seen correspondence which shows that during shortlisting the proposal was scored 74.71 against a benchmark of 65

Mr Hunter said AEL offered to take up a 20-year lease and to pay rent to the council at a rate set by the District Valuer.

At its monthly meeting, on Monday, the council ratified minutes of a confidential debate at a policy and resources committee meeting held on February 13 and adopted a recommendation which effectively rejected the AEL proposal.

AEL claims to be “offended” by what it terms “derogatory remarks” in what is now the official record of the February 13 meeting and Mr Hunter said the company will formally challenge “misinformation and inaccuracies” in the minutes.

The disputed account states that after AEL presented its proposals to a panel of councillors and officers on October 11, 2011 the company was “informed of a number of issues which had remained unaddressed”. It adds: “The company then advised they had no funds available to progress the proposal to a development phase and asked that Council agree in principle to move forward in partnership with them.”

AEL argues that various funding bodies had given “strong indications” of support, subject to Council signing up to the proposal. Mr Hunter said the company had offered to take responsibility for the entire site and was not seeking assistance from council staff or resources.

Council minutes refer to an earlier meeting of AEL with chief executive Geraldine McGahey and MP Sammy Wilson, at which it was suggested that the holiday village submission be scored.

“The chief executive advised that after the scoring session, Cllr Niblock thought it inappropriate for him to score the submission as he felt he had insufficient experience to judge the application appropriately. He commented on a feeling of negativity towards the proposal. The chief executive stressed she did not agree with this comment.

“Cllr (Roy) Craig (who chaired the panel) thought there had been restrictions regarding time and if Cllr Niblock felt unable to score the proposal he was happy that he withdrew. He stressed that no one had been influenced in any way and all had the opportunity to ask questions and bring forward their own ideas.

“Cllr Niblock said he would stick by his decision to withdraw from scoring as he had attempted the first six questions and felt that with the time available he could not justify his scoring on something so important. He felt the undertone of the scoring meeting was negative compared to the feeling at the presentation.

“The chief executive stated that all applications were treated on their own merits and it was members’ duty not to indicate the feelings of the panel during an interview, but to remain courteous and encouraging.”

The minutes continue: “She drew members’ attention to the score sheet, highlighting that the total attained was considerably less than that needed. She added that the view of the panel would guide Council’s decision on whether to enter into a social partnership for the Carnfunnock proposals as opposed to business entities which would deliver a source of revenue for the council.”

The minutes report that Cllr Martin Wilson “questioned how the project had reached this stage and why it was being considered if it did not meet the necessary criteria.”

Ald Roy Beggs is minuted as remarking that he “thought there seemed to be an expectancy that Council put in all the work and investment to enable this project to be taken forward”.

Cllr Mark McKinty “disagreed that the meeting had been negative and thought the chief executive had been cautious in not influencing members’ opinions. He reiterated that the proposal was not what was being sought and was scored accordingly”.

The official record adds that Mrs McGahey said “it became clear during the presentation that the company wished Council to take on additional work; it was then the view of the panel that further information be sought”.

AEL had been advised that their business plan needed to be more detailed to be considered a viable or economically sustainable development proposal.

It is also minuted that the chief executive “stated that it was within the gift of the panel to consider whether or not council funds should be used to further investigate this proposal and it had been agreed that resources should not be available to do so.”

Ald Winston Fulton “was aggrieved that not enough notice had been given for the convening of the meeting and he had been unable to attend. He asked that the questions be made available for councillors to view and voiced concern on the outcome, suggesting that Council seek legal advice”.

On Cllr Craig’s proposal, seconded by Cllr James McKeown, it was resolved that “based on the scoring as seen, Council does not accept the application”.

After further discussion in committee it was also resolved, on the proposal of Cllr Craig, seconded by Cllr Michael Lynch, that “at this time, Council is not seeking to enter into any social partnership arrangements in relation to Carnfunnock Country Park and the park would be managed as it had been to date”.

Speaking for AEL, David Hunter said on Tuesday: “We find this (latter) proposal beyond comprehension. Outside any ethical or moral consideration, it appears to fly in the face of every piece of guidance and legislation adopted by local, regional and central government.”

He added: “We must consider this adopted proposal against the action in the previous adopted proposal – throwing out a project by AEL aimed at providing jobs for disadvantaged and disabled persons. In the next breath to exclude social enterprises from involvement at Carnfunnock is below contempt.”

Mr Hunter said: “We are extremely aggrieved by Council’s action and offended by the derogatory remarks contained in the official record. Furthermore, AEL will formally challenge the misinformation and inaccuracies contained within Council minutes.

“The legality of such a proposal being formally adopted could only be addressed through the courts and we have written to LBC to inform them that we will be seeking legal and professional opinion on the matter.”

At the council’s monthly meeting, Cllr Niblock said of the resolution disbarring social partnerships: “I would like to make it clear that myself and my party the DUP would like to disassociate themselves from that proposal forthwith.”

Ald Fulton spoke in support: “We have had a look at this again as a party and certainly we are not happy with the whole thing.”

He added that the council had three major projects at the Gobbins, the Town Hall and Glenarm and would not be in a position to take on any others without assistance.

“We feel that if Larne wants to move forward, social partnerships are important”.

Independent councillor Brian Dunn reminded the DUP that while councillors might not agree with resolutions, each has a duty to the body corporate to support council policy.

Mrs McGahey said council policy barred debate on policy until six months after the resolution.