Monday 20 November 2017

‘Decontaminating’ the Maze prison cost over £8.5m report claims

Steven McCaffery

Stormont chiefs should get expert advice before taking ownership of further military bases after the cost of decontaminating the Maze prison site soared to over £8.5m, a critical report has said.

The Northern Ireland Audit office probe said £20.8m has been spent on redeveloping the site, though major work is still needed before it can be put to new use.

The slow progress in redeveloping six former security force sites that were handed to the Stormont Executive eight years ago was rapped in the report.

But the document highlighted the impact on the Stormont purse of decontaminating former military bases where the presence of fuel spills, lead, asbestos or harmful chemicals has been found.

The audit report raised concerns over the extent of soil tests carried out on the adjacent Maze Prison and Long Kesh army base before the site was transferred to the ownership of Northern Ireland ministers.

"Our review of documentation offered little detail regarding the extent to which OFMDFM (Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister) carried out due diligence checks on the sites to establish the extent of remediation work that would be required following their transfer," the report said.

"This is surprising given a condition of transfer was that `the Executive must bear the cost of making the sites ready for use as and when they are released'."

OFMDFM said the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had already made clear it would not carry out any decontamination, while conducting the work prior to the transfer of the lands would have delayed the process.

The audit office report predicts further security sites will become disused and recommends the creation of new protocols, plus the use of a qualified third party to evaluate land quality assessments.

The report said:

- The cost of over £8.5m to decontaminate the former prison site "demonstrates the importance of carrying out due diligence to protect the Northern Ireland Executive from the financial burden of remediation and the cost of maintaining and in making sites safe and secure. With former security sites becoming surplus, and likely to be offered or sold to the Executive, it is important that decisions to take on responsibility for them are informed by independent professional advice and full assessment of risks".

:: It argued that costs of decontaminating the Maze/Long Kesh site could have been reduced had it avoided clearing the entire area to the level required for residential properties, and instead zoned the site in line with the development plan which foresees various types of projects, including maintaining some of the cells where inmates were held and where 10 republican hunger strikers died in 1981.

- The Audit Office said it was difficult to estimate the costs of clearing military bases. It cited how the sale of the Magherafelt base in Co Londonderry for £1.2m, included a £250,000 deduction for remedial work, which to date has cost only £20,000.

- The Fort George army base was purchased by the department of Social Development in 2004 for £12m, but the report said "subsequent ground analysis surveys uncovered extensive contamination and the estimated cost to resolve this is in the region of £4m to £5m". The MoD later agreed to make a contribution and has paid £3.2m, but it is protected under the settlement from contaminations it did not consider it was responsible for, and which the report said could prove costly to treat.

- The report also found that 14 years after its introduction in Britain, the Northern Ireland Executive has yet to bring in a key part of the Waste and Contaminated Land legislation, making it impossible to use all available inspection and regulatory powers. The report recommends the Executive introduce a "polluter should pay" principle.

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