AXE POISED ON PIAZZA PROPOSAL

PLANS for a £800,000 bespoke piazza style cover at Newtownards’ historic Conway Square could be scrapped later this year.

 

Two years after councillors gave the green light to transform the heart of the town centre, the scheme for a stand alone covered structure is likely to be binned due to ‘low economic benefit’.

 

However plans to scrap the proposal have been given a brief respite to allow further consultation to take place with the town’s Chamber of Trade and with Newtownards Town Advisory Group.

 

As well as being the historic heart of Newtownards, the square plays an important functional role as it hosts a range of activities including the popular weekly Saturday market.

The decision to defer came after the scheme’s outline business case was presented to Ards and North Down Council’s Place and Prosperity Committee members on Thursday evening, with the recommendation that it should no longer go ahead as it did not ‘represent value for money’.

A council report explained that the ambitious Conway Square proposal had to receive a ‘positive economic appraisal’ before moving on to the next stage of a detailed design and planning application.

However, it stated the outline business case of the Conway Square covering project had identified ‘several key constraints’ including the lack of capital funding for the structure and funding to manage the new complex.

The report said: “The construction costs for the project are estimated in the region of £800,000. This budget has not been included in the current council’s project portfolio capital budgets profile.”

It went on to explain that ‘a further key issue is the management of the square and its events’ stating: “The council currently does not have the funding or resources to manage and deliver additional events in the Square besides those which are normally held.”

It said the covering project is ‘not forecast to present a net economic benefit to the economy although there would be non-monetary benefits’. In light of this it was advised ‘it would be difficult for the council to proceed with the project as it is not considered to represent value for money’.

Council officers recommended that the local authority did not ‘proceed to the detailed design and planning application stage due to the low economic benefit as detailed in the outline business case’.

However further public consultation is now due to take place after veteran Newtownards councillor Alan McDowell said it ‘would be wrong’ for traders to learn the project was to be scrapped by ‘reading it in the Newtownards Chronicle’ and ‘without having the courtesy to discuss it with them’.

The Alliance councillor said the ‘very interesting’ outline business case was over 55 pages long and he did not think it should be thrown out ‘without proper consideration’.

He said the aim of the cover proposal had been to make Conway Square an ‘all year facility’ which would allow a range of events to be held while people sat outside.

“All these things need to be fully considered to see whether we can come up with solutions to some of the economic issues. We should have good manners and courtesy to have discussions with Newtownards Chamber of Trade and Newtownards Town Advisory Group,” said Mr McDowell.

Councillor Richard Smart backed the proposal for the council to defer taking a decision, saying he thought further discussion would be ‘worthwhile’.

Brian Dorrian, council head of regeneration, said the next town advisory group meeting would likely be held in September. However he explained the outline business case had already been sent out for consultation and no responses had been received from the advisory group.

“The consultants met with the Chamber of Trade on three different occasions and they undertook to get letters of support (for the scheme). They received three and two of them were from traders,” said Mr Dorrian.

“I have no issue about taking it back but the facts are facts. We have to have a positive outline business case and it has to have economic benefit to Newtownards and it doesn’t have that. If I was to go to any funder with this business I wouldn’t get anywhere. I just want members to have the full facts.”

Each council committee decision must be ratified by a full council meeting at the end of the month.