Belfast Telegraph

Pressing issues that make the mountain town mourn

The Belfast Telegraph’s latest Tell Us About It roadshow in Newcastle on Thursday discussed topics as diverse as threatened local health services and irresponsible dog owners. Here we publish extracts from the lively interaction between the public and our panellists. Deborah McAleese and Amanda Poole report from the Newcastle Centre

THE future of A&E services at the new Downe Hospital, tourism during the winter months and cracking down on irresponsible dog owners were just some of the topics up for discussion when the Belfast Telegraph's Tell Us About It campaign hit Newcastle, Co Down.

SDLP MP and party leader Margaret Ritchie, DUP MLA Jim Wells, chairman of Down District Council Eamonn O'Neill and local businessman Denis Lynn were on the question-and-answer panel, with Linda Bryans in the chair.

Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson was also in the seaside resort to keep an eye on proceedings.

QUESTION: Newcastle is dead as a seaside resort in the winter. What could be done to liven the place up?

JIM WELLS: Newcastle is like every other seaside resort in the British Isles. Business is seasonal.

I think the council can be very proud of what it has done to try and increase that season. We have spent millions on our award winning Promenade scheme, which is an outstanding example of regeneration. But the inevitable nature of things is it will be seasonal and there is really not an awful lot you can do about that. Apart from increasing the number of events, there's really not much we can do to improve matters. The council recently invested large amounts of money in the successful Harry Ferguson festival. It was an amazing success, so therefore it shows that Newcastle has the potential to draw people. But we can't buck the trend. People go off to Tenerife at this time of the year rather than come to Newcastle.

EAMONN O'NEILL: Of course it is true that tourism is vitally important for Newcastle and indeed for Down District. Tourism is worth £148.45m to Down District and supports 2425 full-time jobs in Down District. It is a huge industry and it is based substantially in Newcastle. Newcastle is a nice place to be in the winter time as well as the summer time. For example there is an increasing number of winter walkers who spend their time in our B&Bs and hotels and create a fairly sustainable level of income. The natural environment is a great asset to us. I also think we have in terms of entertainment some of the best restaurants and pubs in Northern Ireland and two of the best hotels. I am very optimistic about the future of Newcastle.

MARGARET RITCHIE: I think we have to take a very positive look at Newcastle and see all the benefits. The Department of Social Development and Down District Council has invested a considerable amount of money in the public realm and environmental improvements and the whole purpose was to bring people in and that has brought people in over the summer period. I disagree that there is a lack of activities over the winter period. It depends on your imagination.

QUESTION: What would you say to business people who are maybe struggling to make ends meet?

MARGARET RITCHIE: There is no doubt that we are in an economic downturn and people are feeling the pinch but I want to look at this positively. New restaurants have opened up, there are other little coffee shops dotted all over the town. We should be considering cultural events, something around Percy French who had long associations with here and the Mountains of Mourne and perhaps maybe even St Donard. We should be exploring every single angle to exploit the benefits of this area.

DENIS LYNN: My opinion is, it is festival, festival, festival. If you look at Italy there is a festival every second week somewhere. Maybe there could be some sort of Centre of Excellence with regard to the supply chain of farmers, fishermen, the whole thing that could turn this place into a Centre of Excellence for food. I just think it is events, events, events.

AUDREY BYRNE, CHAMBER OF COMMERCE: Newcastle is certainly not dead at any point in time. The season has extended right around the year. Take February for example when it is half term — that promenade is packed with people and families. Okay, money is short, but we have phenomenal potential in these Mourne Mountains and what we need is investment and correct management of them. We need low-level, mid-level walks organised which keep people in the area for two to three days at a time so they spend money. We also need affordable family accommodation. The potential is here. We have an amazing town, so let's use it to its best potential.

QUESTION: One of the biggest worries for residents is the possible closure of A&E services at the Downe Hospital. What can be done to retain the area's health services?

JIM WELLS: Newcastle is one of the areas that is perhaps most at risk because if you do have a heart attack Newcastle is a very long way away from where you have to go to get treatment. We have a beautiful new building — we are so proud of it — and yet it is a battle to try and retain services within that building. We had hoped as a council that the building would be able to add on new services but already there is a threat to transfer A&E to GP cover. I’m afraid the council are getting more and more cynical because we keep thinking they are going to remove a service and then come back three months later and remove another service. And eventually you will go down to almost a cottage hospital situation. Are we all going to expire in the back of an ambulance on the way to Dundonald or Lisburn?

MARGARET RITCHIE: We in Down have fought a rearguard action for a new building. We got our new building and we will always fight that rearguard action to retain the services we have and build on the services. I would issue a particular area of concern — we always fought for our services on the basis of local accessibility at the point of delivery. I was particularly concerned when I went to the minister over a week ago and he said to me he was no longer thinking of the issue of equity of geography — he was thinking of equity of outcome. My point to him is to have equity of outcome in this Down area you need equity of accessibility and equity of geography. One equates with the other.

QUESTION: We know cuts are coming. What would you do if you were health minister?

MARGARET RITCHIE: The first thing you must do is ensure that the services we have are fully protected and ensure that the role of the Belfast centralists, who have been for so long allowed to dominate this debate, is slightly reduced and that the role of the local hospital is underpinned and allowed to continue. I do believe that the Royal Colleges and the big doctors have dominated this debate for over 40 years and they have been allowed to dominate it by the department because many of them will hold senior medical posts in the department. The bottom line is that we must not allow these people who are professionals in the field to dictate what services are provided in rural communities. Because the rural community deserves the same level of access to hospital services as our urban counterparts.

JIM WELLS: I agree entirely with what Margaret said. The world does not end in Carryduff. The consultants believe that the Royal Hospital to Downpatrick is an awful lot further than Downpatrick to the Royal Hospital. They are not prepared to travel to provide cover here but they expect thousands of doctors and midwives to travel from Downpatrick to a Belfast Hospital.

EAMONN O'NEILL: The council has just commissioned a report into the proposed removal of A&E services. The last time we did this was the famous Black report, which was the foundation of the argument for the building of the new hospital. It is a bit ironic that we seem to be at the same stage almost again, defending what we have just achieved and it is most annoying.

PATRICK CLARKE, RESIDENT: This is a major issue. People fought long and hard for that hospital. Here we are now with a £64m hospital but uncertainty over services. It angers me. People in this area should have exactly the same services as people in Belfast.

QUESTION ( Via Reader email) — Does the panel think the Commonwealth games gold medal winning boxer Paddy Barnes can properly represent Northern Ireland when he is a declared nationalist?

JIM WELLS: Well the fact that he is prepared to put on the Northern Ireland shirt and to represent this part of the United Kingdom and associate himself with the team — I don't think his political views really count. It's whether he has got a good left jab is the important thing. It is in exactly the same way as some very prominent players for Celtic for instance have played for Northern Ireland and have been very proud to do so.

I hope the Assembly and the minister will recognise the Commonwealth success and have some sort of reception because it’s tremendous news for the entire province.

MARGARET RITCHIE: It doesn't diminish his identity the fact that he is boxing for Northern Ireland. We should never allow those things to dominate what you want to do and it doesn't diminish him in any one way at all and it shouldn't diminish his participation in Northern Ireland sport and I want to commend him for doing that.

QUESTION: The panel were then asked about dog fouling and dog ownership in the town by Anne Lewsley, as dangerous dogs knocked her grandchild out of a pushchair on the promenade.

ANNE LEWSLEY: “It seems to be a designer accessory for some men to have their dogs walking along there and I really feel that it is not family friendly on the promenade, as well as the dog poo on the grass. I know how dangerous it is to have dog poo get in a child’s eyes. It’s on the grass, on the streets and, I mean it, on the walls. It’s all over the place. I walked along the Hudson in New York and they had dog-free zones. Why can't we have something like that in Newcastle?

EAMONN O'NEILL: I do know the dog wardens are trying to take a greater interest of care in what's going on in terms of dog ownership and management along the promenade. There are three dog wardens in the district at present. There are also three enforcement officers that can double as dog wardens, so we have the personnel who could do it, for the whole Down district.

We have spent £6.6m on the promenade and we have already laid in place a special cleansing regime over and above what we would spend on other areas in order to keep that as pristine as possible, so we are very worried and annoyed about the fouling that goes on. But, of course, the council doesn't foul the pavements, it's the dog owners who are responsible and it’s poor dog ownership that's the cause of all these problems. There have been three recent fines. We need to look at this more carefully and see what we can do. Because the fact of the matter is there are such a large number of people coming there.

Of all the things the council has done over the years that I've been on council, it has been the one people have praised the most and it has been family orientated. But if this carries on, we are going to have to do something about it, quite clearly.

DENIS LYNN: I think you've got different issues here really. You've got dog fouling which, while the council isn't responsible, the council should be responsible for enforcing. You have to attempt to control that and enforce it and generate cash from it. We need to be able to get those people fined. We have to get really after it because it is an awful mess and I totally agree with you. I'm a big fan of my dog and I don't think you can ban all dogs just because of an incident because someone wasn't in control of their dog.

MARGARET RITCHIE: Its a matter that does concern people because there are health and safety issues. The other issue is about the maintenance of the new promenade, which is the responsibility of the council. So I think there are various areas that the council will have to investigate. But there is also, and I agree with Eamonn on this one, there is an onus of responsibility on dog owners to ensure that they keep their dogs under control.

The vast majority of people do, but accidents and incidents such as the lady has told us about tonight do happen, so we have to look at those particular issues and see if there is a better management plan could be put in place. But I go back again to the dog owners themselves — they need to display that level of responsibility if there are problems. Because the whole purpose of the promenade scheme was dual purpose — to make Newcastle a destination for visitors, but also to ensure that local people and residents could enjoy the beauty and tranquility and harmony of Newcastle through walking on the promenade.

JIM WELLS: It has to be remembered that while the council greatly welcome the very generous funding towards the £6m plus scheme, while we get money for capital to build it, we don't actually get any money from the government department to maintain it. That burden falls entirely on the council. The problem isn't dog walking per se on the promenade, provided they are kept under control and owners pick up the dirt afterwards. The problem is the irresponsible element who regard it as their right to have some massive fiend of a dog on a steel chain that would eat the life out of you.

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