Northern Ireland

Audit report criticises DCAL for project overspends

The new Belfast MAC
Image caption The Belfast MAC, which opened last year, is one of the projects highlighted in the PAC report

The audit office has criticised the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) for allowing multi-million pound building projects to go over budget.

Five arts buildings, an outdoor pursuits centre and the public records office were largely paid for by DCAL.

The auditor said those who plan schemes are often too optimistic about the cost.

The report calls on DCAL to keep a closer eye on future projects to avoid similar problems.

The five Belfast arts projects were the Grand Opera House, the Crescent Arts Centre, Ulster Museum, Lyric Theatre and the Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC). They were paid for by DCAL.

The Audit Office also examined building projects for the Public Records Office and Tollymore Outdoor Centre.

Comptroller and Auditor General, Kieran Donnelly, said: "It is pleasing that all of the projects have delivered the expected assets and that a number of the projects have been highly commended and have received prestigious awards.

"However it is disappointing that most of the construction work did not go according to plan, with delays and cost overruns which resulted in all seven projects needing additional funding.

"Going forward, the department has a capital budget of £158m (including £110m for Stadia) for the period 2011-15. It is vitally important, therefore, that the department ensures that effective measures have been put in place to reduce the likelihood of similar problems in the future."

Facilities for the arts and leisure were deemed to be so poor in Northern Ireland that the government agreed to rebuild them.

But every one went over budget and most took longer than expected.

The MAC was originally priced at £9m but added facilities brought the cost to almost double that.

Michelle McIlveen, chair of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, said she was concerned by the report's findings.

"Clearly the department needs to have learned lessons from these projects and it will be apparent if these lessons have been implemented by how well the current stadia development project proceeds," she said.

"The committee has agreed to write to the minister to probe these issues further."

A spokesperson for the department said: "The department can confirm that it has received the NIAO report and has accepted all the recommendations contained within it."

Monitoring of the new Lyric building by the department was particularly criticised by the Audit Office - the cost rose by £5m.

The Audit Office said it was not able to satisfy itself that builders Gilbert-Ash were selected on the basis of value for money because records were not made available to it.

The report also notes Gilbert-Ash made a donation to Lyric funding and said while such philanthropy should not be discouraged, it is essential for public sector bodies to manage any perceived conflicts of interest.

In a statement, Gilbert-Ash said: "We had no control over the adjustment to tender costs made during the procurement process - a practice that is standard in our industry to allow for like for like comparison of bids.

"We are committed to positively impacting on the community around us. As such, we were delighted to sponsor the Lyric theatre, a fantastic arts venue and a major contributor to cultural life in Northern Ireland.

"We implemented a similar sponsorship partnership when working on the Waterfront Hall project and may follow similar practice in the future, should the opportunity arise."

A spokesperson for the MAC said the findings of the report were a matter for DCAL, however it wished to point out that in the "intervening years" between the initial concept and the start of the actual tender process, the scale and scope of the project "had changed significantly".

It said these changes had been fully approved before the tender was issued and that the final project tender issued had come in "on budget".

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