Northern Ireland

Council’s £20m plan to ‘duplicate’ headquarters branded ‘flagrant waste of ratepayers’ money’

Downpatrick's £12m civic centre opened in 2012
Downpatrick's £12m civic centre opened in 2012

A council’s plan spend at least £20 million on new headquarters little over a decade after a similar facility was opened elsewhere in the district has been labelled a “flagrant waste of ratepayers’ money”.

Newry, Mourne and Down Council is aiming to build a ‘civic hub’ that includes offices and a council chamber in Newry city centre, some 12 years after new premises fulfilling the very same function were opened in Downpatrick.

The £11m facility at Downpatrick’s Downshire Estate was unveiled in 2012, just two years before Down District Council merged with Newry and Mourne Council.

The proposed Newry city centre scheme at Abbey Way, the estimated cost of which has almost trebled in four years, are to be built on a car park that currently generates in the region of £100,000 annually in income for the council.

It is understood the council, which currently has debts of more than £57m, plans to borrow money to fund the project.

Both businesses in Newry and the Catholic Church have previously voiced misgivings about the council’s plan.

Alliance representative Cadogan Enright has now accused the council of ignoring a “considerably cheaper and infinitely more suitable” site in Newry city centre that has recently become available.

Councillor Cadogan Enright
Councillor Cadogan Enright

Mr Enright, who sits on the board Newry City Regeneration Project, said he doesn’t believe the council needs to “duplicate” its existing offices and argues that its headquarters should be located in the existing facility in Downpatrick.

However, he said that if the council is determined to build a new facility, it should look at what he termed a “more cost-effective alternative”.

He has suggested a site at Bagenal’s Castle in Newry, which he says has “existing utility infrastructure and is adjacent to a building where dozens of council staff are already accommodated”. The vacant site previously housed a Lidl supermarket and has an asking price of £2m.

“It seems the council has a complete blind spot when it comes to looking at cheaper and more cost-effective alternative sites and refuses to consider using the existing, modern facility in the county town – it’s a flagrant waste of ratepayers’ money,” he told The Irish News.

“The cost of this unnecessary vanity project will be burdened by hard-pressed ratepayers who are already paying for modern civic centre in Downpatrick that at minimal cost can be adapted to meet the council’s needs.”

The Alliance councillor said the council’s proposal to include “additional speculative office space” in its project was based on “outdated pre-pandemic thinking”.

A spokesperson for Newry, Mourne and Down Council said the local authority had undertaken a “comprehensive site selection exercise” in 2018 in which all potential sites were considered.

“This site assessment process considered a total of 33 public and privately owned sites, including the Lidl site,” the spokesperson said.

“This exercise identified the Abbey Way site as the preferred option and the decision was taken by council to progress the civic hub at this location.”