North Down councillors have been defending their controversial decision to sell the site of Bangor Castle Leisure Centre to a private company.
Bangor Central Integrated Primary School (BCIPS) had been hoping that the South Eastern Education and Library Board would agree a land swap with the council that would allow it to expand on to the Castle Park site when the new Bangor Aurora leisure centre has been completed.
When the school and parents discovered the council intended to go ahead with the sale, there were angry exchanges before Tuesday night’s council meeting.
Council voted 15-9 in favour of selling the land — previously valued at £6m — for £1.6m to an English healthcare company.
DUP Councillor Wesley Irvine defended the council’s decision and said: “I have been extremely disappointed with the way the matter has been handled by the South Eastern Education and Library Board who after around two years of talks with the Council have yet to come to the Council with a reasonable offer.
“I understand the developer has indicated that he is willing to enter into discussions with the Board of Governors and the SEELB to explore the possibility of reaching an accommodation which could meet the requirements for the school. I believe this is far from the sell out that has been portrayed and still gives hope that a new Bangor Central Integrated Primary School can be built in the centre of Bangor.”
But Alderman Brian Wilson said the DUP controlled council had delivered a “kick in the teeth” to the parents, teachers and children who had lobbied the council as well as the 600 signatories to a petition.
The former Green party MLA condemned the DUP for voting unanimously against Councillor Michael Bower’s proposed that the decision be deferred for a month to allow negotiations to take place between council officers, the SEELB and the school.
“The DUP argue that the sale will keep down the rates. This is rubbish as any payment to the council will not be made until the developer has obtained full planning permission.
“It is unlikely that this will affect the rates before the 2013/14 financial year. Therefore to defer the decision for one month would have no effect on the rates.”
A council spokesperson said that valuers from Land and Property Services had considered the commercial offer to be attractive.
They said it included the costs of demolishing the existing leisure centre while the informal offer of a land-swap from the South Eastern Education and Library Board did not. Also, the council would have to foot the cost of securing planning permission for the land offered.
Furthermore, the land-swap option was likely to entail a lengthy legal process, they said, adding: “In recognition of the need for Bangor Central to redevelop its facilities, the commercial developer has written to the Council indicating their willingness to enter into discussions with SEELB and Bangor Central regarding the future plans for the school.”
The spokesperson confirmed that until the contract is signed, “the SEELB can still make an offer to the Council for the site and any comprehensive offers will be seriously considered.
“It is understood that some parents at Bangor Central are concerned that the sale of Bangor Castle Leisure Centre means the school will have to close. We would stress that this is not the case. The existing Bangor Central building will be unaffected by this sale.”
A spokesperson for the SEELB said: “In the current challenging financial climate neither the Board nor the Department of Education has the resources to purchase the land outright.
“The SEELB will continue to engage with the Council in the hope the land swap proposal will secure the land for BCIPS.”
They added that minor works projects will be completed at the school before the end of this financial year including a school meals hall and new windows.