Hillsborough residents split over fate of landmark site which stands sentinel over quaint village
Will a controversial new building proposal detract from the appearance of an iconic Georgian village? We sought the views of the people who live there
It used to be a prominent civic building which was once besieged by loyalists protesting about the Hillsborough Agreement, but now the old council offices in the Co Down village which gave the 1985 accord its name are at the centre of a disagreement.
Residents in historic Hillsborough are divided over plans to demolish the derelict landmark at the heart of its square and replace it with nine new luxury apartments.
The distinctive red brick building, which is unmissable at the top of the village, has fallen into disrepair and went on the market for half a million pounds in October last year.
The building has now been sold by property firm OKT on the instructions of administrators on behalf of Mangan Developments Ltd.
A planning application has been lodged to construct new apartments in the wake of the proposed demolition of the building, which looks older than it is but which is definitely over the hill in Hillsborough.
The space was once occupied by a hotel but it was destroyed in an accidental fire during the Second World War when it was a base for American soldiers.
In its place in 1964 came a Georgian-style building designed for the old Hillsborough rural district council, which was succeeded in time by a new body covering Lisburn as well.
Thirty years ago, after Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald signed the Hillsborough Agreement - later rebranded the Anglo Irish Agreement - loyalists protested in the village.
Read moreConcerns over plan to bulldoze historic Hillsborough town hall to make way for new apartments
All the area's civic business was transferred in 2001 to new council offices at Lagan Valley Island in Lisburn and although the Hillsborough premises were abandoned, they weren't designated as a listed building despite two surveys.
Yesterday, the former council HQ was decidedly the worse for wear with bricked up windows, rusting drainpipes and a crumbling flagpole where a Union flag once flew.
Colourful pictures of famous places associated with Hillsborough have been put up on a fence surrounding the offices but they still couldn't take the bad look off the old building in the village square.
Architectural gems abound in the area, including stylish homes and the old courthouse, plus two unoccupied sentry boxes outside Hillsborough Castle, the Queen's residence in Northern Ireland.
By comparison, the old council offices are the poor relation and inside the tourist centre in the former courthouse there's nothing to inform the visitor about the history of the run-down building just across the square. There's no mention of it at all in a booklet lauding the finest treasures that Hillsborough has to offer.
In a nearby off-licence, the assistant manager Suzanne Brown said the recent appearance of the 'sold' sign on the old offices had generated a lot of debate.
"People are keen to find out exactly what's planned for the building. There are lots of rumours doing the rounds but we know nothing for sure."
A customer said: "People are worried that whatever comes along will reduce the number of parking spaces and they're already like hens' teeth. There's speculation that plans to bring more visitors and cruise ship passengers to Hillsborough in the midst of new developments with the castle, the fort and the courthouse could have a significant impact on parking in the village."
The parking situation was also a concern for Hillsborough pub and restaurant owner Derek Patterson, whose Plough Inn has been a regular haunt for Secretaries of State such as Mo Mowlam and their guests across the square at the castle, which is home to government ministers when the Queen isn't around.
Mr Patterson said: "A new development would definitely look better than the derelict façade that is there now, but the stringent planning criteria which were laid down in the past must still be applied so that we get a classical Georgian look about the new façade in keeping with the rest of Hillsborough.
"But we must also have parking for the nine residents, which would mean an underground facility because there is nowhere else for them to go. The apartments would have a catastrophic effect on the village if adequate parking wasn't provided."
One woman from Belfast said: "If they were going to build social housing on the site I would be less worried about them knocking down such a lovely old building, but I suspect that's not going to happen and we'll see fancy apartments springing up."
A mother and daughter from Portstewart had the same sort of reservations, especially as they have seen the impact of the apartment boom in their own town.
Penny Spence said: "I can't imagine the planners would allow just any old apartments to go up here. They would have to be in harmony with the rest of the village."
Her mother Jean Wallace said she would be sad to see the offices disappearing, adding: "It's an extremely attractive building with a fine location."
Tammy Harty from Armagh, a city which is one of the architectural jewels in Northern Ireland's crown, said: "A new housing development behind the old council offices is beautiful. If something like that went up, no one could really complain."
Her friend Lois Rutherford from Annahilt said it was a pity the old building had been allowed to get into such a sorry state.
"Unfortunately, they haven't looked after its upkeep so it probably should be replaced if it's all done tastefully."
A Lisburn woman, who wouldn't give her name, said she was angry at the way the historic face of Hillsborough was changing.
"It's very sad that they would want to bulldoze a very special building like that, but I've seen a slow and steady decline here. They've flattened a number of significant houses at the other end of the village."
The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society said of the building: "It lies within the Hillsborough Conservation Area, in proximity to a number of important buildings which benefit from the protection of listing.
"The existing building may be seen to make an acceptable contribution to Hillsborough. Any proposals to alter or replace the building should be appropriate and sympathetic to the Conservation Area and the setting of the listed buildings nearby."