The Belfast Telegraph’s fourth Tell Us About It roadshow in Portaferry on Wednesday discussed topics such as the bank closure and dereliction.
Here we publish some extracts from the lively interaction between the public and our panellists. Lesley-Anne Henry and Heather McGarrigle report from the Exploris Aquarium in the town
Clockwise from top: The panel roadshow Kieran McCarthy, Doug Edmondson, Linda Bryans, David Smyth, Jim Shannon and Joe Boyle take questions from the floor at the Exploris Aquarium during our fourth Tell Us About It roadshowMark Pearce
BREAD and butter issues like bin provision, dog litter and anti-social behaviour topped the agenda during the Belfast Telegraph's Tell Us About It debate in Portaferry.
The wide-ranging, lively discussion at Exploris Aquarium included the devastating impact that the closure of the bank had on the Ards Peninsula town and an ambitious plan to regenerate the town centre with millions of pounds in Lottery funding.
The packed audience of business people, residents and community leaders provided the panel with a spectrum of concerns and comments.
On the panel were Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy, Portaferry Regeneration chairman Doug Edmondson, mayor of Ards David Smyth, DUP MP Jim Shannon and SDLP councillor and Portaferry businessman Joe Boyle.
Former UTV anchorwoman Lynda Bryans hosted the event while Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson and the paper's political editor David Gordon were also in attendance.
QUESTION: Can the owners of derelict and unkempt buildings be held to account?
DOUG EDMONDSON: “We have applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Townscape Heritage Initiative and have achieved a round one success, which means they have earmarked £1.28m for us to deploy in Portaferry. If we achieve round two success, which is a more detailed approach, we will be able to draw that money down. It is not a 100% grant. It will require the owners to contribute, plus partnership funding from other public bodies and we look for, at the end of the renovation, a sustainable use. As many properties were bought at the top of the market and are now within control of the banks, we could then put public pressure upon those banks to maintain boarded-up buildings.”
Kieran McCarthy: “As far as I know, and I'm not a legal expert, but the council can only do something in severe circumstances, where there are health and safety aspects. The council can only do something, if it's going to fall into the street and kill somebody.”
David Smyth: “In the past the council have been very proactive in helping Portaferry Regeneration. Things are slightly changed in Portaferry. A good example is that the Northern Bank pulled out of Portaferry. I think that was a bad decision. Recently Strangford Lough Management Committee took over the Northern Bank building and the work they are doing will have long lasting advantages to Portaferry and to the whole of Strangford.”
JIM SHANNON: “With regards to Portaferry Regeneration — credit to the whole team for what they are doing. Along with the money they have accepted there are a lot of private enterprises who have to put money in as well. So it's not just going to be a £1.2m, there will be other monies coming in as well. David mentioned the Portaferry Hotel — they've got a large scheme for Portaferry which I would like to see. Not only would that create a better visual facade, but would also, I believe, create some jobs.”
Joe Boyle: “In my opinion, every building that's derelict has its own story. Were they all bought at the height of the market? No. Some of them have been derelict as long as I've been here. Some owners have tried very hard to get planning permission and come up against brick walls. For people that want to develop derelict buildings, planning is going to have to be sympathetic.”
QUESTION: Is it fair that developers can receive grants, redevelop and sell on, leaving some buildings still lying unused?
DOUG EDMONDSON: “I put the question back to you in this way — would you rather we had a grant and the house was done up, even if it was sold on, or it remains as it is? Some of these properties have been lying around for 20 years. There should be more incentive to renovate something that's already there.”
QUESTION: Is there a time limit on this £1.2m to be used? What percentage of the costs for the repair of the buildings will be the responsibility of the owners and how will that be enforced? In the current economic situation how do you intend attracting sustainable businesses into the town?
DOUG EDMONDSON: “It's a five-year window from summer of 2011, so that takes us to 2016. We can't force owners to put their money in but we are not putting the money in first. The percentage amount depends on each building, it could be from 40% to 75%. They have to be committed and we will support. The third part of the question is the most difficult. Finding the sustainable use is difficult.”
David Smyth: “Since I became mayor in June I have been invited to Portaferry at least a dozen times and I am always impressed by the people of Portaferry. They seem to be extremely hardworking, they know how to enjoy themselves and there are ideals on how to go about doing things.”
JIM SHANNON: “Over the last two years the number of tourists to the Ards Borough Council area and in particular Portaferry has increased by 3%. If you are looking for a growth industry tourism is clearly it. The council have a plan, a strategy, marketing in place to back up what is happening and off that will come jobs.”
QUESTION: Why did the council close the caravan park in Portaferry? Will it ever open again?
JIM SHANNON: “I am not a councillor any more but I was there when the decision was taken. It was mostly to do with anti-social misbehaviour. It would have been nice to retain the caravan park because of the potential. But we had an anti-social behaviour issue which was creating problems for us in terms of insurance cover and cost problems in relation to vandalism. We had to bow to the ultimate pressure and make a decision to save injury and also save money.”
Kieran McCarthy: “I have to say I was against closing the caravan park. My policy is that we should not give in to vandalism. I think that was a case when the council just laid back and said we just haven't the money. It wasn't a fantastic facility and I had complaints from people who were there about the lack of water and lack of electricity, but I believe that an asset has been lost.”
Joe Boyle: “I think part of the problem was that there was a level of anti-social behaviour from those coming at the weekends. It became ongoing. As far as I know European legislation also came in which automatically reduced the berth space from 12 down to about eight, which had an impact on costs. But it is still there, there's not much happening with it and I think the director of development is currently working on a project to utilise all of this area.”
JIM SHANNON: “I will be meeting the minister Conor Murphy on the issue of camper vans because he has recognised there are some issues. You need somewhere secure, firm and useable.”
QUESTION: Can a boarded-up windows policy be implemented?
Joe Boyle: “The council has already initiated, on two sites of dereliction, that actual policy. There were broken windows which have been all boarded up and glass removed. I've had council officers down, they've taken pre-photographs and post-photographs and have instructed the owners what to do. The owners have carried out what has been requested from them and those buildings are not only boarded up but are also totally secured. Where there were once doorways, they are now actually blocked up.
But I'm not denying it is still an eyesore.”
David Smyth: “Who is causing the vandalism? I would suspect, unfortunately, it is the majority of young people from Portaferry. Maybe it's because of my vast age, but unfortunately there are far too many parents who allow their children out at night and don't know where they are going or what they are doing. You can say the anti-social behaviour is a problem for the council, the PSNI, but children roam wild. The council have joined up with St Columbus to provide gym facilities and Joe Boyle is also always telling me about the wonderful Gaelic clubs in this area, so there are many facilities. But you cannot get them all off the street, unfortunately.”
DOUG EDMONDSON: “Joe has raised the point that the council acted because of the broken windows policy and that is good. I would simply say why did they go 75% of the way? Why did you not require the owners to paint the plywood into the shape of a window or something? We understand the need for the plywood — health and safety to keep the building secure. Why could you not have gone that little bit more and make the building better?”
Joe Boyle: “David incorrectly stated the majority of young people in Portaferry are involved in anti-social behaviour. I can stand over Portaferry's young people. Are they all perfect and squeaky clean? No. But the vast majority of young people in Portaferry do not involve themselves with anti-social behaviour of any sort. The football clubs and GAA clubs do terrific work with hundreds of children on a voluntary basis night after night, weekend after weekend and those clubs are not behind the door about letting their members know that they represent their clubs wherever they are. This is not about ‘kick the young people’ in Portaferry.”
QUESTION: Why was the Northern Bank allowed to close? It is missed terribly, will we get it back?
DOUG EDMONDSON: “The loss of the bank was a stunning disappointment. There is no doubt about that. I suspect we will not get it back because there is one seven miles up the road. But there is a banking facility within the post office and there is a very well-run Credit Union. I understand that the Credit Union has rules and regulations about not supporting business and not being able to give accounts to business
but Credit Unions in the south of Ireland do that and we should be trying to persuade the authorities here to allow Credit Unions to step into the facilities that banks will no longer supply. I take the point entirely. It was a big blow. You talk about businesses closing down. The transport I come across most often is the Asda van and the Tesco van coming out of Portaferry. The bank was a big blow but there are still things we can do to help ourselves. We can put pressure on traders to extend their range and support them. We don't support them by dialling up to Asda and Tesco and getting the stuff down.“
Kieran McCarthy: “Of course everyone was against the bank closing at that particular time and all representatives met the powers-that-be, and tried to persuade them to stay in Portaferry, but we weren't successful.”
JIM SHANNON: “We, as a council, stated that, with no bank, the money will not be spent in the town. But the decision was taken.”
QUESTION: Why are there no concessionary fees for leisure facilities in Portaferry?
David Smyth: “I was not aware there are no concessionary fees. I can assure you I will be in the office on Friday asking why there is a difference between here and other facilities in Ards.”
Joe Boyle: “My understanding is that the pricing structures were going through a period of being looked at to ensure we are paying the same down here as in Newtownards or Comber. That was mentioned to the director of leisure services a number of months ago. I will make a point of following that up too.”
QUESTION: How many litter and dog litter bins are there?
Joe Boyle: “There are two bins for dog litter. The council cannot put those bins wherever they want, they can only put them on their property. We advertise that people walking their dogs can use any of the black bins about. I'll look into the issue of bins.”
QUESTION: Do you agree with Secretary of State Owen Paterson's that segregated schools are a waste of money?
Kieran McCarthy: “That's not right. Segregated schools are not a waste of money, but that's not to say that I support segregation. I support choice for people and I think integrated education is the way forward. Owen Paterson doesn't know anything about Northern Ireland, in my opinion.”
DOUG EDMONDSON: “I am not a politician so I can say what I think. Empty schools are a waste of money. They highlight the problem that we face in Northern Ireland. The demography is changing all the time therefore there are schools in some parts that are dwindling but schools in other parts that are burgeoning. I think we should be looking at it simply on an economic basis. If a school falls below an economically viable level people should accept that it's going to have to close.“
David Smyth: “I agree there are far too many schools empty and that’S not good value for money. I believe in Newtownards there is no segregation, there are children of all faiths in all of the schools. We lead the way.”
JIM SHANNON: “Owen Paterson has made one or two faux pas since he has come here. I suspect he has engaged his tongue before his mind and he is playing to the party faithful. I suspect he hasn't really thought this one through.”
Different schools suit different children for In this particular part of the world
QUESTION: In one phrase, why should people visit Portaferry?
DOUG EDMONDSON: “It's Heaven upon Earth!”
JIM SHANNON: “It's a special place to live.”
Joe Boyle: “I don't think you have lived life to the full until you have come to Portaferry. And the chips are good!”
David Smyth: “There are the friendliest people in Northern Ireland. It's the most beautiful place.”
Kieran McCarthy: “Portaferry is the jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland.”