Belfast Telegraph

Stormont Assembly paid £9m to turn this historic estate into offices then sold it for a mere £1.5m

By John Porter

The Government's handling of the purchase and sale of an historic estate in east Belfast - which has cost the taxpayer millions - has been branded "an embarrassment".

Ormiston House was initially bought as a grand office block for local Civil Service mandarins following the restoration of power in 2001.

Nestled on a 13-acre site off Hawthornden Road, the Scottish baronial-style stately home was once the residence of shipbuilding magnet Sir Edward Harland.

The Assembly Commission paid a staggering £9 million for it.

It was never occupied and in the intervening years £1.5m was paid out to protect the site from vandals and prevent the Grade B-listed building descending into rack and ruin.

Yesterday it was revealed the building was sold to a private individual for £1.5m. While that was above the £1.2m valuation, the taxpayer has lost out to the tune of around £10m in the money spent on it.

SDLP MLA John Dallat, who sits on the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee, said the saga had been a major embarrassment.

"Salutary lessons need to be learnt from this," he said.

"It would be extremely unfortunate if this kind of gaffe was ever repeated in the future. It's an embarrassment for everyone in the Assembly.

"There needs to be a much more mature approach to property acquisition.

"The building was bought with the best intentions, but suffered because of appalling advice from consultants and others who claimed hefty fees for their services."

A spokeswoman for the Assembly added: "Following the restoration of devolution in 2007, the accommodation needs of the Assembly were reassessed and it was concluded that Ormiston House would no longer be required.

"The Assembly Commission then sought to obtain the best possible return for the public purse and the property was placed for sale on the open market in December 2010.

"This followed the property market crash and the Land and Property Service valuation then was £1.4m. The valuation at March 31 2014 was £1.275m and a sale was agreed in November 2014 for £1.5m."

Over the years the Assembly considered many alternatives for the site, including turning it into an apartment block.

Proposals were also made to open the building up to the public and make it available for overnight stays.

However, the proposals never made it past the drawing board stage.

In 2007 after devolution and when the site was deemed surplus to requirements, the property could have attracted a much higher valuation. Figures in 2009 suggested a price tag of £6m would have been realistic.

A draft report on Ormiston House's future use, dated 2008, recommended exploring the option of obtaining planning approval for development on the site prior to any sale.

The report said this could take the form of residential development involving a maximum of 80 dwellings - including the construction of up to 63 new apartments and four detached homes within the estate.

Alternative possibilities cited in the document included hotel or office use.

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