Tuesday 07 May 2019 12:55:11 PM

Church Hands Out Olive Branch To Councillors Following Leisure Centre Land Deal Collapse In Newcastle
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A major row errupted last week in Newcastle following last minute developments in a deal being struck between the land trustees for the parish of Maghera and Down District Council over the sale of land at the site of the former St Mary’s Primary School.

The land had been earmarked by the Council for the development of a new much-needed  leisure centre in the town. The current leisure centre is facing heavy maintenance costs and issues and the Council had agreed to proceed with a new build in this former school site once the ownership was secured. However, the deal faltered and frustrated Councillors expressed their serious concerns about the way the deal had been conducted. But despite the difficulties, Down News has learned that the deal can still be struck possibly at this very late hour.

The Dioscese has asked Father Crudden in Newcastle to put the deal back on track with the Council and to pick up from where things left off on Friday 14 Febuary.

The Dioscese of Down and Connor have issued a short statement (Monday 17 February) concerning the proposed sale of  the St Mary’s Primary School site. A Church spokesman said: “Following the decline of a private treaty sale in 2012 by Down District Council, the parish Trustees placed the former St Mary’s Girls Primary School site at Shanslieve Drive in Newcastle on the public market on 26 March 2013. The agents for the sale were J. D. Flynn and Co., Newcastle.

“During the subsequent period offers were received from a number of parties, including Down District Council.

“The site is held in stewardship for the good of the parish. The parish Trustees are legally bound to act in the best interests of the parish and to consider all offers made through the public market process.

“In the case of sales of former school sites, the Trustees are required to return a substantial percentage of the final sale price to DENI (Department of Education in Northern Ireland).

“The Trustees of the Parish remain open to consideration of Down District Council’s offer in regard to the sale of this site.”

The Church are therefore saying that under (charity) law that they are obliged to behave in the manner in which they did regarding the sale. But the deal is still on.

The present Newcastle Leisure Centre is facing difficulties with ongoing repairs and maintenance and councillors have now hit a brick wall in trying to build a new leisure centre in the town as a land deal falters.

The present Newcastle Leisure Centre is facing difficulties with ongoing repairs and maintenance and councillors have now hit a brick wall in trying to build a new leisure centre in the town as a land deal falters.

Six Down District Councillors from the Newcastle area had already expressed their deep frustration at the way the deal has been conducted not going through on the eleventh hour last Friday. They issued a joint statement on Sunday.

Down News understands that while the situation was quite taut and inflamed and tempers were running high, there is now still be room to recover this difficult situation and proceed with the sale in the interests of the Newcastle community. However, the six Newcastle area Councillors, are equally bound by administrative procedures made more complex because of the amalgamation of Down District Council with Newry and Mourne District Council later this year under RPA following the May election.

The councillors jointly said that a deal had to be struck last week in order for the Council to proceed with a Statutory Transition Committee process at a meeting to be held on the 25 February.

In the joint statement the Councillors for the Newcastle District Electoral Area in relation to the sale of the former St Mary’s School site in Newcastle (Saturday 15 February 2014) rebutted the Trustees decisions saying : “The Diocese of Down and Connor has reneged for a second time on its promise to sell a former primary school site to Down District Council.

“When the former St Mary’s Primary School site was placed on the open market by its custodians, the Parish of Maghera, the highest bidder at close of bids on 24 September 2013, was Down District Council.  In 1963 this 3.2 acre site was sold to the parish for £300 by the Annesley Estate, on the implicit understanding that the land would be used for the good of the community.

“The Council’s plan, to provide a leisure centre and health clinic on the site, honours and upholds this philanthropic principle. With Down District Council as the preferred bidder, details of the sale were agreed on 28 October in the Council offices between Council officers, the parish solicitor and the parish estate agent, and both sides agreed to start work on the drawing up of legal contracts.

“However, two weeks later the parish estate agent contacted the Council to say that he had received two higher bids, and the Council’s offer was no longer of interest to the clergy. Following a public outcry and media intervention on the 18 November, the Parish Priest promised that he would honour the deal that had been agreed with the Council on 28 October.

“For the next few months, the contracts were being drawn up, and it was agreed that these would be exchanged on Friday 14 February in the Newcastle office of the parish solicitor. However, at 3pm on that day, the Council was notified by him that the clergy had for a second time reneged on the deal, because they were now in receipt of a new, and much higher bid for the site. On Friday 14 February the Diocese of Down and Connor decided that they wanted more money for this parish land than they had already agreed to accept from the Council. It should be noted that Down District Council has already invested considerable ratepayers’ monies in this process.

“As the six elected representatives for the Newcastle DEA, we joined together in order to issue this joint statement on behalf of the people we represent.”

The Councillors expressed that they were “shocked” at the Churches decision and added: “We feel betrayed as a result of the Church’s behaviour in this matter. This land belongs to the people of the parish, and not to bishops or priests. None of us was consulted by them, nor had we a say in their negotiations, and news that bids had continually been solicited, even while contracts were being drawn up, is of particular concern to us.

“It is the clear will of the people of Newcastle that a leisure centre and health clinic should be built on this parish land. Everyone fully expected, and was led to believe, that the deal would be concluded on 14 February. If the Diocese of Down and Connor has chosen money and profit over the needs and wishes of the community, they should explain publicly why they have done this to us.”

The Councillors asked: “Who is now the Church’s preferred bidder, and what does this bidder propose to do with the site?  Why, at the eleventh hour, and on the very day that the deal was to have been completed, did the Diocese of Down and Connor decide to dash the hopes and expectations of the people of Newcastle?”

(The above statement was issued by Councillors Patrick Clarke (Alliance), Carmel O’Boyle (SDLP), Stephen Burns (Sinn Féin) Laura Devlin (SDLP), Willie Clarke (Sinn Féin), and Desmond Patterson (UUP).)

While both negotiating parties were  at loggerheads, it seems that there may still be room to finalise the land deal in the interestes of the local residents and parishioners.

There will be a meeting of the Down District Council Recreation Committee meeting later on today (Tuesday) and it is expected an emergency debate will be proposed on the development of this land purchase predicament to clarify the situation.

Down News undertstands there is still a glimmer of hope that the deal may still finally be struck between the Trustees of the former St Mary’s PS site and Down District Council, but it is a time now for clear heads and strong hearts.