A debt-laden Northern Ireland council has spent £11m developing a new headquarters on the site of a former asylum — even though it is about to be merged with another local authority.
Despite its imminent transformation into one of Northern Ireland’s 11 new super-councils, Down District is moving its administration offices to the site of the Downshire Hospital.
The building was opened in the 1880s and remained a psychiatric unit for decades thereafter.
The multi-million pound refurbishment includes a chamber with seats for 23 councillors — even though there will be 40 members when Down District amalgamates with Newry and Mourne Council.
But council chairman Mickey Coogan said meetings of the new super-council would also be accommodated in Newry.
However, he added the merged administration, which is due to be up and running in three years’ time, would have to decide where its headquarters will be located.
Down councillors decided to go ahead with the project, even though they have a debt for the last financial year of £23.4m.
Their soon-to-be partners in Newry and Mourne are also in the red to the lesser tune of £18.8m.
Eamon O’Hare, managing director of O’Hare and McGovern which won the construction contract, said the building had retained its history and character “while providing excellent facilities for the council”.
Ballynahinch Sinn Fein councillor Mr Coogan added: “This project is vitally important to the citizens of Down District as our plans to create a community campus on the Downshire site in Downpatrick, I believe, will be key to retaining public sector employment and quality public services within the district.
“To date, the project has provided much needed employment in our district, as construction workers have been working on the site for almost two years.
“This project has been a major boost for the Down District area, bringing new jobs followed by modern, accessible facilities and potential future investment.”
The council has also earned plaudits — and a word of warning — from Stormont Minister Alex Attwood, whose portfolio includes local government and its forthcoming massive shake-up.
Whilst warning that councils cannot just “spend, spend, spend”, he said prudent investment could improve services and help employment prospects locally.
“Investment by councils in the run-up to local government reform can be an economic driver,” the SDLP minister said.
“It can provide jobs and infrastructure that will best serve the citizens on the far side of reform.
“It must be put in the right context, though. A balance needs to be struck between investing to ensure economic growth and exercising financial prudence in the run-up to the creation of the new councils.
“Councils must be prudent, they cannot just spend, spend, spend in the run-up to reform.
“Councils need, rather, to spend and invest wisely, yes to improve services and help employment, but no to burdening ratepayers.”
Location: Downshire House, Ardglass Road
Main feature: New council chamber for 23 members
Described as: “A wonderful example of our rich architectural heritage”
Will include: A ‘beyond business’ centre for fledgling initiatives