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Assembly spends £10m on empty building

The Stormont Assembly spent over £10m on an historic estate it has never used since its purchase in 2001 and is now hoping to sell off.

Ormiston House in east Belfast was bought to provide extra office accommodation for the Assembly, but has since been deemed unsuitable for this purpose.

A recent official valuation gave a figure £3m lower than the 2001 purchase price. The option of selling the disused listed property and its 13-acre surroundings to a developer is now being pursued.

But this route could be |frustrated by planning constraints on the use of the protected site.

Details of the Assembly’s expenditure on Ormiston House have been released to the Telegraph under freedom of information.

The estate, some two miles from Parliament Buildings, was purchased in September 2001 for £9m.

A further £1.35m has been spent since then on security, repair and maintenance and consultancy advice on future use.

A valuation was concluded in recent weeks by the Government’s Land and Property Services agency, producing a figure of £6m.

According to the Assembly, this valuation reflects the “potential development” of the site.

It is being emphasised by Stormont sources that responsibility for the Ormiston House saga rests with a previous regime at Parliament Buildings.

The acquisition was recommended by a detailed 2001 economic appraisal on the best way to provide extra office accommodation.

However, the suspension of devolution between 2002 and 2007 put the plans into abeyance.

A review exercise at Stormont in 2007 then reached the conclusion that Ormiston should be disposed of, as it was unsuitable to meet accommodation requirements.

At that point, a much higher sale price would have been expected given property market conditions.

A draft report on Ormiston House’s future use, dated 2008, has also been released under freedom of information.

It 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.

But the draft report also warned: “There will undoubtedly be tension between the benefits of restoration and the impact which any new development will have upon the character and setting of the listed buildings.”

A gate lodge and a stable block on the site also have listed protection.

Discussions with planners have taken place and more formal consultation is planned, ahead of a possible planning application being submitted by the Assembly.

Located in the Hawthornden Road area, Ormiston House was previously owned by Campbell College and the Police Authority of Northern Ireland.

It was built in the 1860s and is described as of “Scottish Baronial style”.

The property was purchased in 1880 by Sir Edward Harland of Harland and Wolff fame, who in turn sold it to William James Pirrie, a leading figure in the shipbuilding company’s history.

A spokeswoman for the Assembly today said: “The Assembly Commission initially purchased Ormiston House in 2001 with a view to adapting it to alleviate the accommodation pressures within Parliament Buildings.

“The property was purchased following the completion of a robust economic appraisal.

“Progress on developing the property was delayed by the suspension of the Assembly from October 2002 until restoration in May 2007. Following restoration, the new Commission initiated a further review of accommodation needs including a full re-assessment of the Ormiston House property.

“The Commission is committed to ensuring the best use of public funds in all its activities and is working to achieve this in respect of the future use of Ormiston House.”

The spokeswoman said the recent valuation “reflects the potential development and the current property market”.

The £1.35m spent since the purchase included £701,755 on security, the Assembly disclosed.

Direct repair and maintenance bills have added up to £213,434, while a further £244,406 was spent on professional fees relating to repair and maintenance.

Belfast Telegraph