A RANGE of issues were discussed at Monday evening’s Belfast City Council meeting, including the cost of living crisis, the fire in the Cathedral Quarter on Monday morning, calls for the Stormont executive to form, as well as the allocation of alley gates in parts of the city.

Cllr Gary McKeown raised the issue of inviting the President and Vice President of the United States to the city.

“I know that this Council had passed a motion in December 2020 to invite the President Joe Biden and the Vice President of the United States to Belfast as soon as it was safe to do so," said the SDLP councillor. "In the likelihood that he does come to the UK, can I request that the Chief Executive write to the US Embassy in London, formally inviting him on behalf of the council." Council agreed to reissue the invite. 

Cllr Fiona Ferguson (PBP), Cllr Áine Groogan (Greens) and Cllr Sam Nelson (Alliance) all spoke about the devastating fire in the Cathedral Quarter on Monday morning and the impact it has had on people and businesses within the community.

Cllr Ferguson thanked those in Council who were able to pull together an emergency meeting to help those impacted. Cllr Groogan said it was a devasting thing and something unfortunately we have become too accustomed to in this city. She highlighted how devastating it is for those involved, particularly artists who have struggled, and stated how much more needed to be done for those communities to have a safe and secure place to work. She also stressed more needed to be done in terms of built heritage.  

Cllr Nelson expressed his sympathies to those impacted and thanked those who have been helping out in response, including the fire-fighters and the Council team. 

Cllr Tracy Kelly (DUP) congratulated Sandy Row Football Club who have been awarded the best grassroots football team in Belfast by the IFA. Cllr Kelly stated that grassroots is more than about football but also about keeping kids off streets, building skills, routine structure and more importantly helping with mental health. 

On the minutes of the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee, Cllr McLaughlin spoke about the increase in fuel and electricity and said both electricity and gas companies have hiked up their prices in recent weeks. He described that we are “headed towards a perfect storm, this institution isn’t shielded from that, and our constituents aren’t shielded from that". He continued: “We are looking at the biggest increase in rates certainly that I have ever seen.” He called on the Executive to form arguing “we already know from the Finance Minister that there is over £200 million sitting in a pot waiting to be allocated".

On the cost of living payments, Cllr Ferguson welcomed the decision to award agency workers and casual workers a cost of living payment. She also highlighted the gathering of hundreds protesting at Belfast City Hall on Saturday. She added that workers in leisure centres are also facing a cost of living crisis. "It’s important for them to get a cost of living payment too," she added.

Both Cllr Matt Garrett (SF) and Cllr Ciarán Beattie (SF) spoke on the need to get Stormont back up and running. Cllr Garrett said that pressures on the Council in terms of cost at the minute were astronomical. He said “across all the councils there are pressures of an estimated £85-£90 million for the '22/23 financial year".

"85 per cent of the money that councils get is through rates returns,” he added. The impact he argued will be seen by rate payers and urged the councillors “to try our best and mitigate against that". He called on the committee to write a letter to DUP leader Jeffery Donaldson to work with other parties to form an Executive. 

Cllr Beattie said that he could “never remember a rate being set above 1.9 per cent".

"We’re talking about a 12 and a half per cent increase on the rate.” He said that this was scary for those who are already struggling. He too highlighted the need to get back into Stormont and to form an Executive. 

On the allocation of alley gates, Cllr Gary McKeown described the step as a “light at the end of the tunnel for so many communities who have been crying out for this". He recognised that some people will be less favourable towards gates and encouraged those to respond to the consultation process as it is ultimately up to residents to deicide. The Council has committed £500,000 he said but called on the Department of Justice to “step up to the mark and support this work". He proposed writing to the Justice Minister to match the council’s £500,000 “to better meet the needs for people in this city". This was seconded by Cllr Séamus de Faoite (SDLP).

The Minutes of People and Communities Committee followed with Cllr Matt Garrett speaking on the enforcement of litter and dog fouling and paid tribute to Council staff who are out delivering front line services and stressed part of support for staff extends to ensuring everything can be done to protect them and their jobs.