The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) has been given the green light to build its new three-storey headquarters in Ballykelly - however the move has still not found favour with everyone.
Planning permission for the 8.7 acre site was granted earlier this week by Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council Planning Committee.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union has said that while it fully supports moving public sector jobs into rural areas, it still has reservations over the relocation of DARD’s headquarters to Ballykelly.
“Despite the economic boost rural communities in the North-West may experience as a result of this move, there are some obvious downsides,” said UFU deputy president Barclay Bell.
He explained the UFU had consistently questioned the logic of spending a large amount of money on a single re-location project, when an existing network of DARD Direct Offices throughout Northern Ireland could be used.
Mr Bell also cautioned the impact of the move on DARD staff could be overlooked.
“It’s encouraging there is interest across the civil service to work at Ballykelly. But our concern is that many of DARD’s existing, experienced, and qualified staff may not be in a position to move, because of family commitments in commuting distance to the current DARD HQ in Belfast,” said Mr Bell.
He added that this meant there was a serious risk DARD will lose a wealth of expertise, jeopardising the standard of service farmers receive.
“With planning now approved, the most important thing for our members is that DARD is in a position to deliver first rate front-line services. This is about advising farmers, but it is also vital that the many different programmes in the agriculture sector are fairly and efficiently administered,” said the UFU deputy president.
The decision was welcomed by Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill who described it as “a significant step in her department’s relocation programme”.
She said: “I am delighted we’ve got approval to start building our new modern headquarters on the former Shackleton army barracks in Ballykelly.
“We will now appoint a building contractor and hope to see construction work begin at the site in the summer with the three-storey building ready for new staff at the end of 2017.
“Today’s news is a vital step towards achieving our goal of a £20 million investment in relocating public sector jobs to the north west as well as an economic boost to traders, businesses and the wider community.
“I hope the building will become part of village life so have ensured it is designed with facilities that can be opened up and used by the local community. It will complement the established and distinctive surroundings while providing a modern working environment for staff. The open plan offices will also offer them stunning views of Binevenagh and the Sperrins, and across Lough Foyle to Inishowen,” she added.
The move from Dundonald House in east Belfast to Ballykelly will begin next year with the first staff taking up position by the end of 2017.