Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 8 of Session 2005-06, dated 29 September 2005


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that the Navan Centre is a classic example of how not to manage a cultural/tourism project.  He criticised the failure to challenge the unrealistically high projections of visitor numbers which had allowed the Centre to be established despite having little likelihood of commercial viability. He also drew attention to how confusion about roles and responsibilities among the multiple funders had led to inadequate control and monitoring of the Centre and how a lack of leadership resulted in difficult but necessary decisions being put off for a number of years. 

Mr Leigh added:

"Although £5 million is a relatively small amount of money when compared with some of the expenditure this Committee examines, the Navan case raised some important issues. It is not so much the sum of money involved, it was that this money was dripped in, in penny packets, and there appeared to be a lack of joined-up thinking between Government Departments.  Northern Ireland should be able to operate on a smaller and more intimate scale than Whitehall and it is very disappointing that there was not more evidence of effective joined-up government in this case.  We expect the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to ensure that the handling of any future projects in this sector fully reflects the experience of this expensive failure."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 8th Report of Session 2005-06 which examined: the complex funding and accountability arrangements; the over optimistic visitor numbers and the marketing strategy; and the unsatisfactory monitoring of the Centre.

Navan Centre was opened in July 1993 as a visitor and interpretative centre at Navan Fort which is situated outside Armagh and is the premier archaeological earthwork in Northern Ireland. However, the Centre, which received funding totalling £5 million, has had a troubled history. Visitor numbers were substantially lower than the forecasts in the original business plan of 160,000 annual visitors within ten years. The reality was that annual visitor numbers never exceeded 50,000 and averaged 33,000 over the eight years that the Centre was open. As a result it failed to achieve financial viability and required continuing financial support from a number of public bodies until it closed in June 2001.  The Committee understands that the Centre reopened for both educational and tourism purposes in June 2005 under the control of the local district council.

The Committee found that the funding and accountability arrangements for the Centre were unnecessarily complex and that this led to confusion as to roles and responsibilities. The Committee also found that the absence of proper understandings between the multiple funders meant that clear responsibility for accountability and monitoring arrangements for this high risk and innovative project was not established at the outset.

From early on in the project it was clear that the Centre was not going to be commercially viable and yet government departments seemed reluctant to face up to this and repeatedly pumped in short-term funding with no realistic long-term business plan in place.

The forecast visitor numbers on which the decision to build the Centre were based were grossly over optimistic and were based on inappropriate comparators. This optimism continued through the early years of the operation of the Centre and meant that difficult but necessary decisions were put off in the expectation that the situation would improve. There is a need to ensure, in the case of future projects, that suitable comparators are used and that visitor forecasts are strongly challenged to ensure that they are realistic before any decision is taken to provide funding.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has accepted that there are serious lessons to be learned from this case including the need for clarity at the outset about the purpose of a project; clarity in terms of the roles and responsibilities of all parties; and the setting of appropriate and realistic targets. The Committee noted the Department's acceptance that the lessons learned have been costly to the taxpayer.

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