Enormous damage has been done to the centre of Downpatrick by poorly-planned management of valuable land and buildings across a whole swathe of the town by the SE Health Trust. As I live so close to the sites in question, I have had to call Downpatrick out the fire brigade on more than one occasion, and have also had to stand and watch while each building is burnt in turn. Community police claim they know who the culprits are, and that there are very few of them. However unless they are lifted and punished, it does very little good and only drags down the reputation of the whole area.
Aside from poor forward planning for the re-use of these buildings, they were secured in the most expensive manner using hoardings that would only keep law-abiding citizens, out and left without real security. Meanwhile organised theft on a massive scale of lead and other valuables from the old hospital has gone one and the whole area has now become a magnet for vandals for miles around. If the dereliction of protected Historic buildings had been allowed in the Private Sector, there would be accusations flying that it was deliberate Sadly, this is an unlikely scenario here.
We have now reached such a state of dereliction that it is very difficult to see why the South Eastern Trust cannot cooperate with the Road Service and Council and bring forward long-outstanding and oft reneged on comprehensive plans to finally implement a link road between the New Hospital cum Public Sector Campus and the Ballydugan Road. This would facilitate Down District being the HQ for the new Council and secure the future of the new Hospital by ensuring that it could not be said that access is impossible. Clearly this will still leave the question of how to access the Belfast Road from this site, but lets make a start where there are already pre-existing agreements in place to upgrade the key junctions down though the town.
Dick Shannon of the Down Community Health Committee has given me documents that show that the South Eastern Trust have reneged on commitments to pay the road service £450,000 towards the upgrading of roads and key junctions down though Downpatrick from the New Hospital and New Council down to the Bus Station on Market Street. These junctions include the Ardglass/Ballyhornan intersection, the Killough Road/Ballyhornan intersection, Collins’ Corner and the corner of St Patrick’s Avenue and Market Street. It is clear from these documents that £225,000 was to have been paid to the Road Service on the commencement of the Council Development, and another £225,000 was to have been paid on the commencement of the new Police Station at the Downe Public Sector Campus. Additionally the Council and the PSNI had to pay £200,000 each. The Council are working with the Road Service to advance plans ONLY with the PSNI and Council contribution. This issue is also about good asset management at the SE Health Trust, as if the Trust really wants its Public Sector Campus to be a huge success, then good roads and bus connections are a vital part of this picture.
If this was sorted out, then we could even propose that the Public Sector Campus at the Downe be extended to cover the whole area of dereliction from the Ardglass Road, across to Edward Street and down to Collins’s corner. This would turn a major liability for the SE Health Trust into a major asset. However there is little evidence on the ground that this sort of capability exists in the management of land banks. It is clear that the SE Health Trust has trouble coordinating the planning of its assets within the Trust area, let alone between the other Trusts within the HSC and the Public Sector in general. A case in point here is how Translink over the last 6 years have worked to try and persuade the group of public sector managers delivering the vision of the ‘Public Sector Campus’ to allow local bus services onto the site and develop ‘shuttle-bus’ concept down to Downpatrick bus station. Not only would this be consistent with government policy, but it would allow the Public Sector Campus to grow and prosper and let sick and elderly people more easily access the hospital and GP’s clinics. Translink has been repeatedly rebuffed.
There have been 2 bits of positive news between the end of 2012 and the start of 2013. Firstly the positive response by PSNI Commander Deirdre Bones to my request to allow Roads Service personnel to survey the derelict areas between Market Street and the old PSNI station (see link). At the most recent meeting between the Road Service and Council they were able to tell us that they can now proceed with the survey needed for the new one-way system several years ahead of schedule without waiting for the PSNI to move out. This means that in the coming financial year we will get the cost of the project, and will be able to finally canvass Stormont to get funding. Downpatrick is the only urban centre within commuting distance of Belfast not to have congestion relief spending in the last 20 years.
Secondly I received support from Cllr Dermot Curran (see link) to create a cross-party group for Down council where all political parties in Down District will work to one agenda to break the log-jam on the Roads Congestion issue as well as work together to retain and secure public sector jobs for the County Town of Downpatrick and the District in general. This will operate like the Ballyhornan Taskforce, with a dedicated Council management resource driving it. I proposed to Council Chief Executive last year that we needed someone like Gerry McBride to front this, and it has come to pass with the support of all parties.
The dereliction of the centre, and the development of the new Down Leisure Centre might also create other opportunities of relieve congestion and link up all the vital services in the town in a coherent manner. The Cinema and the Council between them control all the land between the new link-road near Collins Corner and the Ballydugan Road near the ASDA shopping complex. Perhaps it is now time to look afresh at the concept of a road by-passing residential districts and the busy centre from the Hospital and Public Sector Campus, down to the Cinema, and on the boggy ground under Pemberton and the Vianstown Road down to a new roundabout at the outskirts of ASDA . If we don’t act now, future development will block all these opportunities.
As both myself and Cllr Dermot Curran are on the SE Health Trusts LCG, which looks at the commissioning of services in the SE Health Trust area, it is our intention to bring forward a presentation to our fellow LCG members, and try and persuade them that we should influence the Trust to see that that from a purely financial perspective, it would make enormous sense for the Trust to manage its assets in Downpatrick in a holistic manner, and try and see itself as a ‘Developer’, but in the business of making money for the taxpayer, as well as saving the Trust very large amounts of money in dealing with derelict property.