Tonight's (Thursday 15 October) Newry, Mourne and Down Council, Strategy Policy and Resources Meeting will discuss the Outline Business Case for the Newry City Centre Regeneration scheme.

Following a lengthy debate at Monday nights Enterprise Regeneration and Tourism Meeting on the Civic Centre element in a Belfast Region City Deal document put forward, it promises to be quite a lengthy affair.

The area behind Newry Cathedral where the proposed civic centre is to be built. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
The area behind Newry Cathedral where it's proposed the new civic centre would be built. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

It is envisaged the Belfast Region City Deal will provide part funding for the regeneration scheme of which the building of the Newry Civic Centre, behind Newry Cathedral is proving the most contentious.

Tonight the Outline Business Case for NCCR will be discussed with a public Presentation from Hamilton Architects on the design concepts. This will be followed in private by a Presentation by Deloitte and a Committee Report.

Cllr Michael Savage.
Cllr Michael Savage.

The City Deal report put forward by Jonathan McGilly at the meeting on Monday for approval by the committee noted the update on the current City Deal Position, ie working toward the establishment of a Deal Document by December 2020 and it sought approval for council to establish a financial agreement with Belfast City Council that sets out Governance costs to be incurred during 2020/21.

The report noted that the Newry City Centre Regeneration element had cleared 'checkpoint 2' and was progressing towards submission of final Outline Business Case in November 2020.

Seeking Clarity

First to speak on the report was Cllr Michael Savage who sought clarity regarding the Newry City Centre Regeneration part of the document, specifically the proposed Newry Civic Centre and its potential clash with a council motion passed in August that requires an extensive public consultation before the civic centre project can go to tender or submit a planning application.

Explainer - The Motion

The motion first put forward by Cllr Gavin Malone and amended by Cllr Michael Savage and passed by council read "The Council recognises that society has changed fundamentally since the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic and acknowledges the economic challenges our citizens, businesses and ratepayers face in the coming months and years and recognises the need for Council to re-evaluate our capital expenditure priorities. This Council agrees to await the Consultants’ Report on the proposed Newry Civic Centre which is to be presented to Council in September 2020; agrees not to go to tender or submit a planning application on this scheme until this report is re-evaluated by Council and the recommendations of that re-evaluation are put to an extensive public consultation."


Speaking of the Report Cllr Savage said "Given that council has passed an amended motion stating that Council agrees to wait on the consultants report on the proposed Newry Civic Centre which has been presented to the council in September. How does the proposed review of the Civic Centre element of the City regeneration element of it (City Deal) sit in relation to the timelines in particular."

In reply Conor Mallon the Council's Director of Enterprise, Regeneration and Tourism said he didn't want to pre-empt or reverse what's going to be presented to SP&R "I think at SP&R on Thursday night all the detail and clarity you have sought will be presented to the committee and I hope that's an opportunity for your issues to be cleared and discussed."

No regard to Democratic Decision

Cllr Jarlath Tinnelly also spoke of his concerns that a business case was been pulled together giving no regard to the democratic decision taken by council

Cllr Jarlath Tinnelly

Cllr Tinnelly said "Im just wondering what actually does be talked about. It mentions here that this is now proceeding through checkpoint two so was that democratic position factored into the discussions before it got through checkpoint two and also on page two it refers to ongoing engagement with the Department so has the democratic decision taken by the council been flagged up to the department at this stage, to let them know that there is a chance that the findings of a public consultation may put us down a different path."

In reply Director Conor Mallon explained that checkpoint two was the Tourist Regeneration Advisory Board Group within Belfast Region City Deal. "That checkpoint has been necessary in order to get the OBC in a position where we can present it to council to have the report agreed and an agreement to take it to submission to Belfast Region City Deal so the discussions and debates that have been ongoing through those checkpoints and with the departments has allowed us to be in a position to provide a full and detailed Outline Business Case for presentation to committee on Thursday night." Mr Mallon said.

Need for Caution

Cllr Willie Clarke spoke of the 'exciting project' and said he thought members needed to be aware that we are in completion with other projects in that region.

Cllr Willie Clarke

Cllr Clarke said "There's not enough money in the pot for all the projects and while people, our elected representatives even from Newry are talking about, they have difficulties with the project of regeneration of Newry. I think they need to be cautious, I think they need to be mindful of what they are saying because this will filter down into the departments in regards that Newry isn't ready for business, does not want regeneration and then the departments will look elsewhere when it comes to it, when they are looking at criterias, they will look elsewhere, so people need to be mindful of what they are asking for."

The Mourne's Councillor continued "I know my own area, the Mourne's project, a massive project, over £30M coming in to our area to put a state of the art facility, similar capacity for tourists as the Giants Causeway, the Titanic Quarter, bringing them number of visitors into our area. I think all councillors need to be on board in supporting our officers in what they are trying to do, trying to achieve. I'm not taking away what was proposed at a council meeting. Sinn Fein objected against that proposal, that we thought that it should just go to the mandatory consultation through the planning process where citizens would have the right to have their views heard. To look at the proposal now and how we carried out that consultation. The Outline Business Case will come to committee, to SP&R and we will have a good discussion on that but it will be about, how the centre looks is going to be the discussion, is going to be the consultation. It's not going to be about a different site. It's going to be about that site, It's going to be about the consultation of what's in the building and how the building is going to benefit the people of Newry and further afield. How ordinary citizens are going to be involved in that new centre."

Cllr Clarke connected the expansion of Daisy Hill to the project "If we look at the expansion of Daisy Hill Services for example. When we move out of this site that I'm sitting in now (Monaghan row) there's an opportunity for the expansion of health services in the Newry area and I think that has to be welcomed as well. In any consultation that will have to be taken on board. But also in regards to the regeneration of Newry, it's a small amount of money coming from the City Deal, I think it's about 8 or 9 Million but it will have massive benefits for the Newry area and further afield from a rates basis but also from private sector business. As we come out of Covid-19 crisis we need these types of projects. This is ready made for us to recover. For people that start looking for reasons to oppose it, I think they are neglecting their citizens and the people that put them in office."

Incredibly Competitive

Adding her comments Cllr Roisin Mulgrew spoke of the Belfast Region City Deal Project as "probably the most exciting package of investment to come to our region, certainly in a very long time if not ever."

Cllr Roisin Mulgrew.

Cllr Mulgrew said "As my colleague Cllr Clarke said, this is like most processes, it's going to be incredibly competitive and I think we have a duty of care to our ratepayers to make sure that we are in there and best placed to apply for and secure whatever funding is possible. I understand that there is another process that will be taking place but we must continue to work up this proposal because, let me tell you, there will be other people snapping at our heels that will be only too happy to take the money. I know this will be discussed much much more thoroughly on Thursday night and I look forward to that conversation."

Speaking of the arts and local businesses the Newry City Councillor said "I think it's important to point out the package of funding that's included for this, the investment that is included into our arts, and at the minute we are all very aware that our arts sector is being really crucified due to the Covid situation and the arts and theatre are something that we have always been immensely proud of in this area, should it be our Feis', our Feile's, our Music Society, our Trad Orchestra's. We need to do what we can to support local businesses and local businesses are hurting and that hurting is going to intensify from what we can see at the minute. We need to turn Newry into a city, a city that can host state of the art concerts and performances so that people will come and invest their money in our bars, hotels and restaurants. If we were to sit back at this stage and allow this opportunity to slip through our hands it would be simply unforgivable. I'm happy to take on board what the officers have said. This is one more step on our journey. It's not the final decision but it's certainly a progressive step. I'm also happy to propose that we go with the recommendations of the officers."

Pre-judging Public Consultation

Cllr Gary Stokes.

Cllr Gary Stokes spoke of his concerns regarding Cllr Clarkes comments "I'm not sure I heard Cllr Clarke right. I mean if I heard him right he said that in terms of the new council offices that this was the only site and that there would be no other site.

"Three points that would concern me. First of all that would pre-judge the full public consultation which the council at its September meeting agreed to do, that in disregarding the views on Newry people and surrounding areas in terms of the damage that may be done to the vista, you can particularly only notice more at night the floodlit area behind Newry Cathedral, how beautiful it is, the visual impact that it's going to have by putting council offices there. I think we cannot pre-judge that, we have to give the people their say. Secondly given the fact that we will be telling the Parish and the Church itself that it's going there whether you like it or not when in fact we know we have only recently entered into discussions with the Parish, the first meeting being in August. And finally Chair telling the businesses in the area that we are going to take over your car park, which has been there all my lifetime, whether you like it or not, so if I understood correctly he's saying that's the only site we are going forward with and that would be of great concern to me and the people I represent."

Establishing whether we can continue with project

Cllr Patrick Brown

Cllr Patrick Brown also stated his concerns about progressing with the business case before the results of the Public Consultation are in. The Rowallane Councillor said "Management have had plenty of time following the motion that was agreed by council to progress that. I look forward to seeing exactly how that will look when it comes to SP&R on Thursday. Willie is saying there, the consultation will be about how the building looks. That is completely incorrect and I hope officers are not working on that assumption

"The Public Consultation which came out of Gavin Malones motion via an amendment from the SDLP will establish in the light of Covid whether or not we will continue in this project or not. I think it's very important we have that on record that it's not just a furniture arranging exercise, that actually we establish the viability of the project going forward. I concur with comments made by Cllr Tinnelly and Stokes in that regard as well. I just wanted to get my concern on record that we are not prejudging that consultation."

Where we put the Pot Plants

Cllr Savage spoke again adding "As the person who proposed the amended motion, I am very clear what was put to council, what was agreed by majority of councillors. It was not to look at where we put the pot plants, where we put the desks in a Civic Centre, it was to look at the project in relation to the backdrop of where we are post Covid. This is too big a project, too important to Newry and we need to get it right. I'm about getting this right, not about getting it wrong and leaving a legacy financially that we can't cope with, and that's only being prudent. And I've said from the outset that I support fully the work that's been done to date on the city centre regeneration programme. I want to see the city regenerated but not at a cost that we can't afford, not in a way where we are not bringing our people with us. Very simple"

The report was proposed by Cllr Mulgrew and seconded by Cllr Clarke. Councillor Tinnelly was not in agreement to approve the paper so a recorded vote was taken and it was passed with 9 for 2 against and 3 abstentions

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