CONWAY SQUARE PLANS SET TO COLLAPSE

A MAJOR project to provide a bespoke £800,000 style cover over Newtownards’ historic Conway Square is on the verge of collapse.

To date the Ards and North Down Council has spent £30,000 on an outline business case (OBC) that stated the project is ‘outweighed by risks’ and predicted to have ‘low economic return’ to Newtownards and the borough.

In a last roll of the dice for the apparently doomed scheme, councillors at a recent Place and Prosperity committee meeting agreed to postpone calling time on the proposal for a second time.

A decision to axe the scheme had already been postponed from the start of the summer to allow the Newtownards Town Advisory Group (TAG) to have further time to respond to the outline business case.

Despite the council not receiving a response from the TAG, alderman Alan McDowell proposed a further deferral as ‘it is such a good project for Newtownards and we should give it every opportunity’.

He said there had been a ‘lot of disagreements’ regarding the economic appraisal and felt the council needed to look at other options as well as seeing ‘if there are other ideas and alternatives coming through from the chamber’.

However a council report states ‘no budget is currently available for further work on this project’ and the ‘results of the independently procured OBC are clear that ‘no economic case exists to further progress this report’.

It explains the £798,000 project investment is not within the council’s capital budget, is not included in the council’s capital projects priority list and given the OBC findings ‘it would be extremely unlikely that this project would attract external funding’ as a positive economic appraisal was ‘essential’.

The report further highlights that the management of the Square and its events is a further hurdle for the project. It states ‘the council currently does not have the funding or resources to manage and deliver events in the Square’ and an extra budget would be needed to ‘animate’ the area.

Brian Dorian, council head of regeneration, stated that £30,000 had already been spent on the project and the outline business case had been before the TAG three times.

Councillor Richard Smart said there was a sense of ‘deja vu’ given the issue had been ‘quite an airing’ before the summer. However he said he had ‘some sympathy’ with Mr McDowell’s proposal and asked if the deferral would cost the council any additional money.

Mr Dorian said there would be no further work on the project ‘unless the council gives me the money to do it’ and said he did not want to ‘build further expectation’.

Councillor Naomi Armstrong-Cotter said she ‘wanted to support the town centre as that’s where my heart lies’ and asked could the project ‘be left on the books’.

Mr Dorian explained it would be difficult to progress the scheme if the council did not have the funding to ‘animate’ the structure.

Councillor Colin Kennedy said he shared Mr McDowell’s enthusiasm for the regeneration of Newtownards town centre but ‘when one reads the findings of the business case you have to be realistic’.

He said ‘it would be great if there was a money tree lying in the West Winds but there isn’t’ and ‘unfortunately I can’t see any way round the business case findings and I can’t see how deferring this will get us any further forward’.

Concluding the debate, Mr McDowell said a further deferral would not cost the council any money and a ‘full and final discussion’ could be held at the next TAG meeting.

Eight councillors voted in favour of the deferral and five against. Each committee decision must be ratified at a full council meeting.