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Historic house cost taxpayers £9m in 2001 ... so why is it still derelict?

By Emily Moulton

Conservation groups have warned that an historic estate which has cost the Assembly more than £10m is at risk of deteriorating even further if a review to determine its future is not completed soon.

Last year the Assembly said it had initiated a further review of Ormiston House, the former stately home of some of the pillars of Ulster’s shipbuilding and linen industries, after it emerged the value of the site dropped by £3m.

In 2001 the property on Hawthornden Road in east Belfast was bought for £9m in 2001 to provide extra office accommodation for the Assembly. But almost a decade on the B-listed building is still lying empty behind in dire need of restoration.

Since it was purchased, £1.35m has been spent on security, repair, maintenance and consultancy advice but an overall plan has yet to materialise.

Last year a Government Land and Property Services agency estimated Ormiston House was worth around £6m, significantly less than the purchase price.

The Assembly Commission was quick to react saying it had “initiated a further review of accommodation needs including a full reassessment of the Ormiston House property”.

More than a year has passed since this review was announced.

The Belfast Telegraph contacted the commission to ask when it would be completed.

The spokeswoman said it was still exploring “a range of options” for its future use and was “keen to conclude this process quickly in order to maintain the heritage of this grade B listed building and to maximise the return for the public purse. This has included discussions with the Planning Service with regard to possible development opportunities for the site,” she added.

This newspaper understands a proposal was made last year for the Assembly to advertise a developer's brief calling for ideas for the use of the house.

This included suggestions such as the property being leased to a tenant, a high-quality restaurateur, which would restore the main building and operate it as a significant staffed house.

The plan also suggested the house be open to the public and available for overnight stays. The other buildings on the estate would be restored and used as either social or affordable housing. There would be no new developments.

According to a source, this would allow the Assembly to retain long-term ownership while generating income for restoration and upkeep.

A draft report from 2008, released under Freedom of Information, recommended planning approval be sought to allow development of the site prior to sale.

To date, the Planning Service has not received any new applications for Ormiston House.

It did receive an application in July, 2004 for the restoration, alteration and extension of the adjacent mews buildings and to develop the rear of the property “to provide office accommodation for the NI Assembly, including new access and parking”.

The DoE said that application was still under consideration.

Marcus Patton, Ulster Architectural Heritage Society Committee member, said the longer the building lay empty, the more it will cost to fix in the future.

“Neglect leaves them more vulnerable to weather and water damage and further deterioration,” he said.

The Belfast Telegraph asked the Assembly Commission if it accepted Mr Patton’s assessment. We also asked if a maintenance programme was in place.

The spokeswoman said: “The costs of restoration can only be fully assessed when the future use is known and will reflect its listed status.

“In the meantime, regular maintenance repairs are carried out to prevent deterioration of the fabric of the building.”

Boarded-up mansion a link with the city’s industrial past

Its large stone walls, crow-stepped gables and extensive grounds once played home to some of Northern Ireland’s elite, but today this 19th century stately house lies boarded up and out of view from the very people who own it — the taxpayers.

Ormiston House, the magnificent Scots Baronial-style estate in east Belfast that was once home to the pillars of the province’s shipbuilding and linen industries, has been kept under lock and key since it was bought by the Assembly in 2001.

Almost 10 years on and the plans to turn the historic estate into office accommodation are still on the back-burner, raising questions over its future.

There are three preservation orders in place right across the site, limiting its use. But conservation groups believe there is still regeneration potential.

Ormiston House was originally built in the mid-1860s at the height of the industrial revolution. Increasing trade led to a subsequent building boom in the port city prompted by an influx of wealthy industrialists with much grander living arrangements in mind.

One such industrialist was a Scots-born iron founder and linen manufacturer James Combe. He was the man who employed Edinburgh architect David Bryce to build the Ormiston estate on the eastern edge of the town, now suburban east Belfast.

It is one of many similar-styled structures to be built during Belfast’s industrial growth period.

Eventually Ormiston House was then sold to shipbuilding entrepreneur Edward J Harland in 1880 (from Harland and Wolff) who remained there until 1887. It was then acquired by his business partner William Pirrie (later Viscount Pirrie) who became chairman of the company.

He retained the estate until his death in 1924. Following Pirrie’s death the company became sole proprietor and eventually sold it to Campbell College in 1928, which retained ownership until the 1970s.

It then passed into the hands of central Government before being bought by the Stormont Assembly for £10m in 2001. Since then it has lain empty.

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