Charity's £15m plan for Hillsborough Castle unveiled as Praxis battle continues
An English charity has revealed ambitious plans to invest up to £15m to make Hillsborough Castle one of the most popular visitor attractions in Ireland.
Two representatives from Historic Royal Palaces gave evidence at a meeting of the Regional Development Committee yesterday within the historic building.
They revealed that they were currently in discussions with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency about taking over the running of the old Hillsborough court building at the front of the castle.
However, there was no mention during the presentation of an ongoing battle with the mental health charity Praxis which currently runs a cafe within the grounds of the castle, which is the Queen's official residence in Northern Ireland.
The Secret Garden Palace was told it must leave the grounds earlier this year, but yesterday a spokesman told the Belfast Telegraph it was continuing to operate as normal.
Praxis has requested compensation for the investment it made on the site of the cafe, which provides employment to 16 disabled young people.
Patricia Corbett made no mention of this row as she told the committee of the Historic Royal Palaces' plan for Hillsborough Castle.
Its target is to attract 220,000 visitors by 2019, and to have employed 14 permanent members of staff by December.
She said the charity plans to invest between £12m-£15m from its own funds as well as applying to funding streams such as the Heritage Lottery.
Ms Corbett also revealed it has received a huge one-off donation of £1m for its plans.
"A masterplan has been commissioned for this site and this will determine the best location for the development of a visitor information centre, a restaurant, gift shop, car park etc," she said.
Pending planning permission, the first building works will be started in 2015.
SDLP MLA John Dallat raised the matter of the Secret Garden cafe during questions.
Ms Corbett said she was "very aware of the issue". She added: "Historic Royal Palaces have a contract from the Northern Ireland Office for possession of the site, and the NIO are currently dealing with Praxis to support their vacation of that site. From the HRS perspective two key principles underpin what we do – conservation and learning. We are very respectful of the work Praxis and other organisations do for people with learning disabilities and would expect to put a programme in place to demonstrate our commitment to such activity."