Public meeting in Newry calls for action to deliver the 15-acre Albert Basin Park
The Albert Basin Park Public meeting in Newry on Saturday left two key ideas hanging in the air… but will they be grasped?
Speakers calling for progress on the Albert Basin Park in Newry including a business plan, said it was unacceptable that a delay for a number of years should have taken place. And there was a concerted call for political wrangling in the council chamber to stop.
Alliance Newry Mourne and Down District Councillor Patrick Brown was supported by independent councillors Gavin Malone and Jarleth Tinnelly, along with Brian Cleland of Newry 2020; Ronan Turley, Unite; Helena McSherry; David Nolan, INTO; and Grainne Powell, Sticky Fingers who expressed their deep concerns at the lack of progress towards building the park even after a public consultation which strongly supported the development of the 15-acre site at the Albert Basin in Newry.
Cllr Patrick Brown said: “I’d like to start by thanking the organisers of this event, in particular Unite the trade union, and the speakers who came before me, Ronan, Brian, Helena, David and Grainne.
“One of the reasons I have the great honour of addressing you all here today is because in 2017 I was the proposer of a motion which sought to officially establish support within Newry Mourne and Down District Council for a 15-acre park at the Albert Basin site.
“That motion was inspired by the hard work of many community activists who have spent countless hours building the case for a park through petitions and grassroots activism.
However, since that motion was successfully passed in September 2017, more than four years on, we are barely any closer to seeing the delivery of the park. Indeed, it is not just inaction on the park we have seen, but attempts to hold it back.
“Before I start setting out my perspective as a councillor on Newry Mourne and Down District Council who has seen how the council operates, I want to make clear that everything I say is a matter of public record and is verifiable through council papers, minutes and audio recordings.
“The first couple of years following the motion passing were marked with a total lack of meaningful action from the council, including a contamination report that suggested the park wouldn’t be safe or economically viable.
“We also saw the establishment of a working group to deliver the park which excluded our party (Alliance) despite being the original proposers of the motion. And against all of this, council was moving on ahead with plans for a ‘Newry regeneration project’ consisting primarily of building new offices, which they call a ‘civic centre’ and which completely excluded the park
“That regeneration project board, which again our party was excluded from, is responsible for using a cocktail of City Deal funding and council money to support the regeneration of Newry. It is made up of councillors and council officers. They did not consider initially including the park as part of the plan to regenerate Newry until last year, and by then it was allegedly too late to allocate any funding from the regeneration project to the park.
“Yet over £15m has been set aside for new offices within a total regeneration budget of £34m. Now, there are aspects of that project which can be welcomed, such as a new theatre and public realm works. But if there’s one thing the pandemic should have forced a rethink of, it’s the need for new office space. And Covid also demonstrated how vitally important open green space is for our physical and mental health.
“There was therefore some hope when the council finally agreed to actually go and ask the people what they thought of their plans to regenerate Newry via a public consultation.
“Myself and Cllr Jarlath Tinnelly first proposed a consultation exercise in November 2019, and this was voted down at the time and then other parties finally came on board to support it in October 2020, largely due to public pressure.
“This consultation, which ran for two months earlier this year, gave the Newry public the chance to have their say on the future regeneration of their city. And the people took that opportunity. In fact, the consultation was the most successful in this council’s history, with over 1500 responses and over 6000 individual comments.
“It took a while to go through them. But one thing was abundantly, undeniably clear from that consultation. The people of this district did not want their money going towards new council offices. And they wanted a park.
“How did the other parties and management respond to this clear demand from the people? They rubbished it and went against their narrative. After the results of the consultation came out what did they decide to do? They pressed on with approving the outline business case for the civic centre project, adding an extra £8m to the budget and and agreed to ‘further engage’ with key stakeholders. Which basically means keep trying until they get the answer they want to hear.
“To see the cynicism and complete disregard shown to the clearly expressed will of the people – the vast majority of which demanded a park over the civic centre. They clearly were not willing to listen to the people. That is why fellow councillors Gavin and Jarlath and I brought two proposals last month, to the SPR committee and then again to full council, demanding that council take £10.6m – which is the amount currently budgeted for phase 1 of the park – out of the civic centre budget and put it towards the park.
“Not only would this still leave quite a few million left over for new council offices, it would speed up delivery of the park and be a strong demonstration of this council’s commitment to it.
“Despite the fact that the lack of a business case for the park after 4 years is shocking, over £34m was set aside for the regeneration project before the business case was signed off.
“We were told we could not re-profile the money because it is tied to funding from the Belfast City Deal. We now know from asking City Deal managers that money can be re-profiled, and we also know that not a penny of the £8m being given towards this project by the City Deal is going to be spent on the Civic Centre itself.
“Those council offices are going to be funded entirely by the people of Newry and the district as ratepayers. Let’s be clear, our party is not against council offices. We want good quality offices for council workers and recognise the need to move from the congested Monaghan Row council offices.
“But other sites exist that would have a greater regeneration impact for Newry and cost less of your money. And offices should not be the number one priority either – it should be the park, not some white elephant civic centre that the average ratepayer will never step foot in.
“Unfortunately, our council now has a culture of group think, secrecy and silencing dissent – an increasing amount of committee business is done off the record, out of the view of public and from the press.
“But I am just one voice and together with others who have spoken out, such as independent councillors Gavin Malone and Jarlath Tinnelly. Up until now we have been easy to silence. But something has changed. The public have come together, spoken out and have scared the other parties and management into action.
“There is no doubt that this recent flurry of funding announcements, press statements and leaflets we’ve seen over the last two weeks is a direct result of the work of local campaigners to apply pressure to the decision-makers in council. Governments only change direction when they are made to feel uncomfortable. Gavin and I have used our powers of protest in the chamber and have been met with strong resistance. But now suddenly, thanks to the people of Newry, we are starting to see some progress.
“This event today made that happen. But funding bids alone do not build a park. The council needs to back them up with clear, swift action to restore trust and confidence and it needs to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to the park.
“But some councillors still say Newry isn’t ready for a park. But we believe Newry is ready for a world class, 15-acre park with the best skatepark in Northern Ireland, a brand new marina and a lifting bridge, that will restore Newry’s maritime heritage. It will be a place that will truly regenerate this city and improve the health and wellbeing of its residents.
“All the pressure the people of Newry have applied up to now and those who attended the meeting today will help to deliver a park. It won’t be politicians or any one political party, it won’t be council management. It will be the community who deliver a people’s park at the Albert Basin. Together we can make that happen.”
The Albert Basin park issue is a political hot potato. In its wider context, Councillor Patrick Brown who has championed the cause of a 15-acre park in Newry, has been nominated to stand for the Alliance Party in South Down. Given the strong performance of Alliance in recent polls in Northern Ireland, the other parties represented in the council chamber may well feel threatened in the South Down constituency, and possibly even into the Newry and South Armagh constituency. It is quite possible that the political sparing in council may just continue on until the run up to the May 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly election, with all parties sharing the political bruising.