Newry.ie

Unbelievable, flabbergasted, Explosive, Fit to be Tied - These were just some of the words used to describe proceedings at yesterday's Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, Albert Basin Park Task and Finish Meeting, where a draft Public Survey which is part of the proposed Albert Basin Park Consultation was discussed.

What House Colour

The draft Survey which Newry.ie has seen could be best described as 'What type of houses would you like in your new park' or as Cllr Gary Stokes said the document all but asked "what colour you wanted the houses painted!"

Referring to the possibility of housing on the presently derelict site a question on the draft asks "What type of housing do you think would be most appropriate"

The draft "Albert Basin City Park Public Consultation" survey document contains 21 questions (excluding 'tell us a bit about you' questions) of which 8 were directly related to housing, commercial activity and car park.

The site of the Albert Basin Park as it looks now. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
The site of the Albert Basin Park as it looks now. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Park Gets Council Approval in 2017 - No Mention of Housing!

Councillors voted unanimously for a 15 Acre Park at the Albert Basin at full council meeting in December 2017 to endorse a motion brought by Councillors Patrick Brown, Gary Stokes, Jarlath Tinnelly and David Taylor. Nowhere in the motion is housing or commercial development mentioned.

The Park Motion stated 'This Council confirms its commitment to a full, 15-acre community park project on the Albert Basin site in Newry. The Council recognises that the Albert Basin site was given to the people of Newry in 1986 and that a commitment was given at that time to develop it as a recreation and amenity area for the generations of the future. It also recognises the work of community activists in presenting their plans for the park through a petition with over 10,000 signatures.

Council commits to delivering a park in parallel with other capital works projects in Newry within the next Council term. The Council shall within 3 months establish a task and finish group reporting to the Capital Projects Working Group, consisting of elected members, community representatives and a dedicated Council officer to establish plans to move the Albert Basin park project forward and investigate funding options’.

Groundhog Day

Newry 2020 have been campaigning with others for years to get a Public Park at the Albert Basin. There have been many stops and setbacks along the way since Councillors voted unanimously for the 15 Acre Park in 2017 but the agreement for a Public Consultation earlier this year was welcomed as a great move forward.

How the site could potentially look when the park is completed. Artwork: James McConville
How the site could potentially look when the park is completed. Artwork: James McConville

Speaking about the Task and Finish meeting discussion on a consultation survey Brian Cleland, Chairman, Newry 2020 explained "It's like Groundhog Day. Yet again we have senior officers within the council attempting to sell off an asset that belongs to the Newry people, and that the councillors have unanimously agreed should be a public park."

Continuing the Newry 2020 campaigner spoke of his shock at yesterdays proceedings "Like everybody else at the meeting we were absolutely shocked that the survey had been hijacked by the senior management team. They have attempted to turn this public engagement exercise into a sales pitch for building houses, shops and restaurants and bars on the Albert Basin.

"Everybody in the room was taken aback and angry, frankly at what was happening. We made it clear that the survey in its current form is completely unacceptable. We need to know who has been pushing for the development of the Albert Basin, and those people need to be held accountable. These relentless attacks on the democratic will of the council need to stop."

Survey Questions

A consultation survey's mission is to bring forward ideas and opinions that will help shape a project, in this case a public park. Whether housing and commercial development is an important constituent of a Public Park for Newry is questionable.

Question 13 in the survey preceded by this line "The development of areas which can also generate revenue through the rates process from elements such as housing and commercial activity, can also offset the costs of developing the park itself." asks "With that in mind, how would you like to see the Albert Basin developed"

Your Multiple choice options are: City Park only; Combination of City Park and Social Housing and Hospitality/ Retail activity; Combination of City Park and Hospitality/ Retail activity; Combination of City Park and Social Housing and lastly: I don't think the Albert Basin should be developed.

Further on a bizarre question follows hints that a resident population in the park could help to reduce antisocial behaviour asking "If residential accommodation were to be included in the development of the Albert Basin ...Who do you think the housing should be for" Again multiple choice answer options offered the following: singles; small families; older people; don't know and other. 

Other questions include "What type of housing do you think would be most appropriate?" as well as "What type of accommodation do you think it should be?" again offering multiple choice answers for the public to answer.

Tick Box Exercise

While all questions relating to housing/ commercial development/ car park were tick box multiple choice, or order your preference by number answers it was notable that any questions contained in the survey that most people might think relevant to their wishes for a park, required them to write their answers at length!

Voiced Concerns

Councillor Gavin Malone on his Facebook page commented about the meeting "The Consultants presented their proposal but many Councillors including myself were totally shocked when they proposed that social housing would be included in the developed adjacent to a new park on the Albert Basin.

Circus - The site is used occasionally for a circus or funfair. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
Circus - The site is used occasionally for a circus or funfair. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie



"I support the development of social housing in Newry City and local and national developers have already acquired substantial property to develop social housing. and I will support these planning applications.

"I voiced my concern at the meeting that a 15 acre Public Park had already received the support of the Council and that the residents of our city were promised and fully expect the development of the entire Albert Basin site as a 15 acre Public Park. I questioned who had changed the Council’s earlier proposal for a public park on the 15 acre site and was informed Senior Management had made this unilateral decision.

Cllr Malone added "I have given my full support to the development of a 15 acre Public Park for our residents and I will do all within my power to ensure this is achieved.

"I call on all residents to participate fully in any consultation. Of the Public Park and to voice their opposition to the Consultants proposals and demand the Council adhere to its earlier decision and develop the entire Albert Basin as a Public Park."

Sell Part of Site by Back Door

Councillor Gary Stokes made clear that he and fellow SDLP Councillor Michael Savage and Stokes made clear there should be no sell off of any of the 15 acre park for commercial development or housing. 

Explaining the issue Cllr Stokes said "A draft survey document was mistakenly sent to some of the group members but not to all.  On inspection the paper included options to sell off part of the site for commercial development and housing previously ruled out by a unanimous motion passed by the Council. 

"The leading document sign posts those surveyed for options to allow commercial development and housing on the site.  The suspicion is that some senior officers within Council want to sell part of the site by the back door.The SDLP remains committed to a full 15 acre park as it did when it first brought the motion to council 30 months ago.  The SDLP have campaigned for the park for over a decade."

Badly Need Green Open Space

Councillor Michael Savage added "The draft survey on the Albert Basin Park submitted by officials yesterday, by containing any suggestion of housing or commercial development on the Albert Basin site, is a complete deviation from the direction of travel proposed and agreed by Councillors on behalf of the people of our city and district.

"As Councillor Stokes observed - he believed the survey was so slanted in this direction it all but asked you what colour you wanted the houses painted! This precious public space is to be designed to be the lungs of our city NOT bartered off as a commercial or housing development opportunity!

Continuing Cllr Savage said "This lockdown has shown how badly we need a green open space with activity provision to support the physical and mental wellbeing of our people! Both myself and Councillor Stokes have been the strongest advocates of a 15 acre people’s park at the Albert Basin for years while others gave their support much later in the day. Both Gary and I sought election by the people of this city with the 15 Acre People as a key manifesto pledge in fact we have knocked doors calling for this for over a decade. The SDLP fought hard to get this project approved as a key strategic project and fought against some initial opposition but we won the day on behalf of the people.

"We remain steadfast in our support for a 15 acre people’s park and will not stop until it’s delivered and soon!"

Ridiculous Idea

Jerome Mullen commenting on his Facebook explained his shock at houses being even considered on such a small space. "I attended this meeting today on behalf of the Newry Chamber and I was shocked at the idea that housing was being considered on this tiny 15 acres park, this is ridiculous and makes no sense, must be opposed so well done Michael and Gary and in particular Brian for the strong stance taken today."

Another artists impression of a potential performance area on the site. Artwork: James McConville
Another artists impression of a potential performance area on the site. Artwork: James McConville

Statement

Councillor Roisin Mulgrew reiterated Sinn Féin's commitment to the delivery of a top-of-the-range, city centre park for the people of Newry at the Albert Basin site. “Our vision for the future of Newry has, at its centre, the construction of a city centre park at the Albert Basin site.

"We feel the potential for this project is immense. An open, public, well-delivered park will improve the quality of life for the people of Newry and further afield.

"Sinn Féin will fight for the best quality park to be delivered within the lifetime of this council. We should draw on international best practice and deliver the highest standard park to serve the people of Newry and the surrounding area.

"A 15-acre public park, with native horticulture, well-built and well-maintained, will be of huge benefit to Newry and the surrounding areas. This park, once completed, will be a shared space for all. It will make our area more attractive to live in, to work in and to invest in.

Cllr Mulgrew added "A top-of-the-range park will bring serious environmental benefits also – the park has rightly been labelled a ‘Green Lung’ for Newry. Traffic congestion and poor infrastructure has resulted in Newry having poor air quality. The park and the Southern Relief Road combined can help address this.

"The park will be a genuine community resource for our people. The environmental, cultural, educational and recreational benefits of city centre parks are undisputed – it’s time this was delivered. The people of Newry deserve a city centre park – and Sinn Féin are committed to delivering this”.

Solely a 15 Acre Park

Councillor David Taylor spoke of his opposition to a multi purpose use of the site. "I have consistently and remain fully committed to the creation of a 15 acre park at the Albert Basin and I stated this once again at the Task and Finish Group meeting.

"I am completely opposed to any suggestion that usage of the site could be multi purpose such as through the addition of housing and commercial development.

"Ultimately, Councillors will make the final decision on the development of the Albert Basin site and given that there has been widespread and cross party support for the creation of a 15 acre Park that's how the proposal should proceed without any variances from that.

"I would appeal to the local community when any consultation process commences in the near future to respond very clearly by stating that the purpose for the site should be solely a 15 acre Park. This will send out a strong message that there is no desire for any other development at the site."

Meeting Next Week

The Park Task and Finish Group is expected to meet again next week to discuss the survey once again and it is expected that a final survey if agreeed may be put online due to the Covid-19 crisis.

 

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