Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

Navan Centre (HC 1228-i)

Public Accounts Committee 2 Nov 2004

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Evidence given by Dr Aideen McGinley OBE, Permanent Secretary, and Mr Nigel Carson, Assistant Secretary, Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): When you are the last to ask the questions most of the good ones have gone.

Chairman: That will not stop you though!

Q105 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I have got to say I am really impressed, I would say you are one of the best witnesses we have ever had in front of us because I have come out of here thinking this thing was a success and not a mistake that was made. I do congratulate you, I think it is fantastic. You did brush off the fact that £5 million had been wasted and you said we had learned some lessons. What were those lessons that you learned?

Dr McGinley: Chairman, in my own Department we are looking at a number of multi-dimensional projects as we speak. A recent one was an arts project involving four Government departments, possibly in the region of £27 million. With rigour in terms of working with the other four departments and getting a business case done we have gone right back to the drawing board because difficulties of governance, clarity of roles and responsibilities and affordability have put that project back for further consideration. I think we have learned lessons.

Q106 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Costly.

Dr McGinley: It is indeed. Again, my department was the first in Northern Ireland to use Gateway and use it on a £33 million library project. Indeed, it is subject to Northern Ireland Audit Office scrutiny at the minute but it proved to be a really important assurance for me as accounting officer that the various stages that can be gone through, the questions are asked at the right time so that you do not walk into the difficulties that we experienced in Navan.

Q107 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): If right at the very beginning you had held your hands up and said "It was a cock up, guv" we could all have gone home, could we not? If your description is accurate of what happened all the way along the line, and I am sure it is, then frankly somebody should have got the sack somewhere along the line, should they not? There are so many bad decisions and clearly some very, very incompetent decisions were taken. You read the report, it is so clear, you talked about hindsight but it is so clear that this was never going to work, never. Has anybody ever been disciplined or anything like that?

Dr McGinley: No, Chairman, other than a number of redundancies have been made during the life of the project.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Presumably the people who were made redundant were not the ones who were making the decisions anyway. Can I just change the subject. Paragraph 3.25 up to paragraph 3.31, I have got to say when I read these I had a little chuckle to myself, it was Sunday dinner time and I was watching an appalling football match so this was much more interesting. It was decided to revamp the exhibitions and to do this you needed to get £100,000 from the National Lottery. Now to get £100,000 from the National Lottery is quite a simple task, normally, but they refused, they would not give it so that is the first time they have been so tight fisted. All the other benefactors were going to tip up, as David Curry says, the International Fund for Ireland, the Department of the Environment, they all coughed up but the Heritage Lottery Fund would not cough up.

Chairman: Cough up or cock up?

Q108 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Cough up. You were £100,000 short. Would you believe it, the place burnt down and they got £100,000 insurance. I am a cynic, am I not?

Dr McGinley: No, Chairman, the fire damage was not that extensive.

Q109 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I say the £100,000 was refused from the Lottery Fund, the fire took place and the insurance coughed up with £100,000, I am not being cynical, am I?

Dr McGinley: No, Chairman. The insurance cover in fact allowed further enhancements to the exhibition.

Q110 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I think you are missing the point. What I am trying to say is nobody chucked the odd cigarette butt in, did they?

Dr McGinley: No, I can assure you that we did look and the police were informed at the time. It was a projector that went on fire.

Q111 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It seems very suspicious to me.

Dr McGinley: Visitors were in the Centre. It was a new projector, Chairman.

Q112 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You got your money because the insurance settlement was £100,000 and you came along with another £50,000, I do not know, I think I am being very cynical, perhaps we will move on. It was always apparent that this project was going to fail, was it not, yet Government money has been ploughed into the scheme. Why was the Department not big enough to say, "Come on lads, enough is enough. We have put £5 million in here and it is never going to be successful"? Why was somebody not big enough to say, "Enough is enough"?

Dr McGinley: Chairman, in effect that was what happened. The Government Department said they could no longer subvent. The business case that was showing post-2001 was showing a further subsidy of £420,000 required to continue the Centre and Government departments in discussion with one another said, "We cannot continue to fund".

Q113 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): How much money is it going to cost to keep it going?

Dr McGinley: The Armagh City and District Council are rationalising their own tourism product to accommodate and accomplish this within their existing budgets at no extra cost.

Q114 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): How much is that?

Dr McGinley: Approximately half a million a year across the three sites that they will now run together.

Q115 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Half a million a year?

Dr McGinley: Yes.

Q116 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): That is better than my local authority who are putting in nearly a million a year to subsidise a failure. I actually feel sorry for these things because, as I say, in my constituency we have a theatre that was built out of the Lottery Millennium Fund, something that was desperately needed but clearly it was never going to be successful and now the council taxpayer is having to pay a fortune. Can we just turn to consultants. As with all Government projects you called in the consultants. How much have consultancy fees cost you all the way along the line?

Dr McGinley: Chairman, £8,000 is all it has cost.

Q117 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): How much?

Dr McGinley: £8,000.

Q118 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): That is all?

Dr McGinley: Consultant B's first report was £2,500 and the second report was £5,500.

Q119 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I have never in my life in this Committee said, "Perhaps you should have paid a bit more" because if you look at 3.17: "If the Navan Centre is to survive, financial security must be secured in terms of long term revenue funding. Similar to the majority of projects of this nature it is unlikely that the Navan Centre will become a commercially viable unit". I suspect anybody in Northern Ireland would have been able to tell them that and you paid £2,000 for that advice.

Dr McGinley: I should explain, Chairman, that Consultant A was funded by IFI and Consultant B ---

Q120 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Who is that?

Dr McGinley: International Fund for Ireland.

Q121 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Do you know, I have got a lot of Irish constituents in my constituency, how do I get in touch with this organisation?

Dr McGinley: I will send you a note, Chairman.

Q122 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Will you?

Dr McGinley: Yes.

Q123 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I think they have more money than sense. Never mind. So you have this brilliant advice from Consultant B. Let us turn to 3.3 - I have read you the wrong one, I have read you the first one - which consultant was this one now, this was Consultant A, they said ".... The project has been demonstrated to have a minimal level of profitability ..." get away "... thus any shortfall in visitor numbers will have a marked effect on the viability of the project ...." Well, that is an astounding piece of advice, that if the visitors do not turn up it will not be profitable. They got, what, £2,000 for that advice?

Dr McGinley: No, Chairman. I should explain that we do not have a cost for Consultant A because they were commissioned by the International Fund for Ireland.

Q124 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Right. Okay. You were asking them, I suspect, how do you make it more marketable and they came up with the brilliant conclusion at 4.11: "... awareness of Navan Fort is low even with prompting - a more direct advertising approach seems to be needed with the objective simply of projecting the existence of Navan Fort..." Again, some brilliant advice. Listen, I am retiring at the next election and if you need any consultancy work doing I will give you my card afterwards. I am quite sure I can do it slightly cheaper than that and give you some good advice.

Dr McGinley: If can make clear as well, Chairman, Consultant D was retained by Navan itself and was to undertake a MORI type poll and that is what that piece of work was from.

Q125 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Let us just turn to the visitor numbers. What is the population of Northern Ireland?

Dr McGinley: 1.6 million.

Q126 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): 1.6 million. How many visitors do you get a year to Northern Ireland?

Dr McGinley: Approximately two million.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Two million, that is not bad. I would not have thought it would be that many. Anyway, that is good.

Chairman: That is not a very diplomatic remark.

Q127 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I said it is very good. What they were projecting was 160,000 visitors a year out of a population of 1.6 million and two million visitors, so that is a tenth of the population each year were visitors.

Dr McGinley: Chairman, the visitors were made up from not just the local population but also out of region visitors and, indeed, the schools work was a lot of repeat visits.

Q128 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): This was not a theme park, was it?

Dr McGinley: No.

Q129 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I suspect they would go once but would not go back again.

Dr McGinley: I think you have actually hit the nail on the head there. The original concept was much more about repeat visitor attractions in terms of the archaeological site.

Q130 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): The point I was making was once you had taken somebody to the site - Mr Curry says he is going to go back - how many return visits were there to the site?

Dr McGinley: It was very low.

Q131 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I think that is obvious, is it not?

Dr McGinley: Yes.

Q132 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It is not as though you are going to Alton Towers.

Dr McGinley: No.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): The projection of numbers was a con, was it not? We have seen throughout the country over the last ten years the Millennium Dome, this, we were told how many millions were going to go, it was a con to get their money. Sheffield was another one, they told us how many visitors would go there, but who would want to go to Sheffield anyway, let us face it.

Chairman: Are you going to talk about any other parts of the United Kingdom?

Q133 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What they were doing was they were spinning the ball about the number of visitors who were going to go and nobody seemed to see through this. Surely to goodness me somebody should have right at the very beginning made some comment and said, "This is just impossible, they are never going to have those sort of figures"?

Dr McGinley: Navan itself did downscale their figures in both 1996 and 1998, again because of the experience they had had. You are correct that the original estimates were overly optimistic.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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