There is a fine little row brewing in Holywood, Co Down and its neighbourhood which you should know about and about which you will be hearing more, I do not doubt. It is all over that most emotive of all commodities: land.
North Down Borough Council is seeking to sell off land at Helen's Bay and Clandeboye; but it is an acre of much-valued public parkland at Seapark, on the shore half a mile out of Holywood, which is raising the temperature: for it is very obvious that the only buyer will be a developer who will promptly recruit a builder to cover it with cement blocks and mortar — more houses.
In the process, of course, the Council will be happy. It will pocket the proceeds: the million pounds mentioned as the likely market price for the Seapark land is widely regarded locally as a ridiculously modest estimate. The developer will make a big profit once his houses are sold; his builder will be kept busy; and the estate agent, whose sector is feeling the draught in the crunch, will salivate discreetly over his commissions.
So is everyone not a winner? Well, it might seem so — but not quite. Which is why I seek to bend your ear with this local tantrum in a teacup.
I am unhappy about the proposed deal, and, I submit, so should you be, for three reasons. The first is that it marks an unusual example of a local council preparing to gang up with a developer in a transaction, the outcome of which will be to deprive its ratepayers of a notable amenity.
It sets a bad example to its peers, because every precedent recruits an imitator. The park in question, used widely by the people, is also a community focus for annual events, such as a fireworks display at Hallowe'en — which the Council has announced as usual for October 24. Will there be a builder's fence strung around the parkland when the parents arrive with their kids, come October?
But the proposed land deal has an even more sinister aspect; for it represents a bid by the public authority to collude actively in a process which is threatening to ruin one of the most pleasant environs in Northern Ireland.
The infilling of every available patch of ground is proceeding apace on the north side of Holywood. The tree fellers are to be seen at work weekly.
The process of planning permission has become a charade, with the views invited from those immediately affected being summarily swept aside. In fact, objection has become a waste of time. But the current case compounds the ill; for the local council itself is now an active party in pushing it.
North Down Borough Council, of course, presents a fairer face to its community. Listen to the Mayor, Leslie Cree, MLA: “North Down boasts beautiful beaches and parks that are perfect for a summer picnic and our programme of ... events provides an extra incentive for everyone to enjoy the great outdoors.”
His council also proclaims its keenness to encourage the people to spruce up their neighbourhoods and itself promises “quality services”. It is rightly proud of the amenities it offers: “There is so much on offer in North Down — open space”, runs one brochure. “Wherever you live in North Down you are never far away from a park ... During July and August the council will be running a series |of guided walks.”
After all that, a cynic might well claim that the proposed |selling off of the Seapark acre amounts to a confidence trick. Certainly — and this is my second objection to the proposed deal — |the ratepayers have not been |consulted.
Many were appalled when the estate agent posted his “For Sale” notices on July 23. It is a poor advertisement for local democracy to move like this, without prior announcement, in the midst of the summer doldrums when many are away. The council makes clear, of course, that the site carries no planning permission for building. Only a simpleton, though, will suppose that it would be denied.
But my third objection is the most important. The proposed deal is a poor bargain for the local ratepayers. The money it would yield will be quickly spent — probably elsewhere — and forgotten. The typical developer is here today, gone tomorrow: he does not care. But the ratepayers' loss in the Holywood area will be permanent.
The vice of the tree-feller's saw and builder's brick, which is relentlessly snuffing out a modest garden here and a tiny paddock there, doubling the density in the greed to cash in, will acquire another link, and the seascape at the foot of Old Quay Road and Farm Hill, which the Seapark site opens to all and sundry to enjoy, will be closed — for ever.
There is still time to withdraw the Seapark land from sale. Let it not be said of North Down councillors that they sold the birthright of their people for a mess of pottage.