China visit must be 'value for money'

Councillor Audrey Wales welcomes the Chinese Consul General Madam Wang Shuying during her visit in 2017. Picture by Darren Kidd / Press Eye.
Councillor Audrey Wales welcomes the Chinese Consul General Madam Wang Shuying during her visit in 2017. Picture by Darren Kidd / Press Eye.

Plans to send a Mid and East Antrim delegation to China at a cost of up to £20,000 to the ratepayer have been met with caution.

The group, led by MEA Mayor, Councillor Lindsay Millar, will travel to a summit in the city of Dalian this October with the hopes of developing a 'Friendly Co-operative City Agreement'.

The proposals were discussed at the July meeting of Mid and East Antrim Council, which is one of four local authorities in Northern Ireland to have established links with China.

MEA Chief Executive Anne Donaghy said: "The other three councils are Belfast; Derry and Strabane; and Newry, Mourne and Down. They have already invested in the FCCA which is really a step before a Sister City approach, and is focused around building economic benefits."

The plans stem from a visit by Chinese Consul General, Madam Wang Shuying to a 2017 business event, hosted by then-Mayor Councillor Audrey Wales.

The borough already has key areas in common with the region such as "agri-food, tourism, food and drink, and the environment", Mrs Donaghy said.

However, a relationship with the country must be built "slowly", she added: "The approach to this one would be to visit the region and meet with the relevant people. A Mayor-led delegation would be the best way forward to the UK/China Regional Summit in Dalian in October 2018."

A report for elected members recommended attendance at the summit "at a cost of circa £15-20k".

The document added: "The Chinese market does not offer a quick win solution and involves taking a risk. Business partnerships need to be built on trust and relationships, and this this takes times and multiple trips to demonstrate a steadfast commitment to the region."

A number of other "key opportunities" to build the relationship were highlighted, including a tourism showcase in September and an 'International Import Expo' in Shanghai this November.

However, Cllr Stephen Nicholl expressed concern over the importance of securing a "business return" ahead of approving any future trips.

"It's a long term commitment here we are getting into," he said. "What I would like to see is some sort of forward plan; very quickly, we need to move from council attending to businesses attending.

"The priority is ensuring we get a business return on this investment."

The view was echoed by Cllr Timothy Gaston, who called for assurances that the trip represented "value for money" before committing to future spending. "I think it's important we do all we can to attract inward investment," he added.

Responding to the concerns, Mrs Donaghy indicated that the initial visit would offer an opportunity to "evaluate" the feasibility of further trips to the region.