A DISUSED retirement home close to the heart of Newtownards is to be turned into an assisted living facility for young people with mental health issues or autism.

The former Abbeyfield building on Upper Greenwell Street, which at one point housed up to 12 elderly people but closed several years ago, is to be knocked down to make way for the new development.

The new eight-bed assisted living home won planning approval last month, despite 17 objections from locals worried that it would become a noisy hub for anti-social behaviour.

However politicians on Ards and North Down Council’s Planning Committee suggested that the objectors had got the wrong of the stick.

Locals may mistakenly believe the new facility could house troubled teens with substance abuse problems, said councillors, when in fact it will be a home for young people with autism or mental health issues who want to forge independent lives for themselves.

The facility is the brainchild of Belfast-based body Connected Health, who a planning official stated ‘supports adults with learning disabilities, autism and/or mental health illness to live in their own homes, which often comes after individuals have spent a significant amount of time in hospital’.

“Connected Health does not provide any services in the addiction space,” the official told a meeting of the Planning Committee last week, “and has communicated with the council that it has no intentions of ever doing so.”

The development will house people aged over 18 and will also have an on-site caretaker acting as supervisor, the official said.

Alderman Stephen McIlveen suggested that there could still be ‘a potential impact’ on local residents, stating that the previous elderly residents of Abbeyfield likely had ‘less complex issues than young people with mental health issues’.

However the official said expert checks hadn’t uncovered any evidence that the facility would create noise or anti-social behaviour.

She added: “This is already a residential care home that, if they wanted, could change into an assisted living facility tomorrow; they could come in and refurb it, and have 12 people living there from this health care need.

“If we were to refuse planning permission, they could repurpose this building tomorrow for the exact same use.”

The official also stated that the facility needs to be close to a town centre so that residents can walk to shops and amenities as part of facilitating their independent lives, as well as integrating them as part of the community.

Councillor Patricia Morgan felt the project is ‘much, much needed housing’ that the council should be glad to support.

And councillor Linzi McLaren reinforced that locals’ concerns about anti-social behaviour and noise pollution should be ‘negated by the fact that [Connected Health] only believe that one caretaker is necessary to supervise the residents’.

“[It isn’t] a case of incarceration, it’s people with mental health problems who wish to integrate back into society,” she said. “I think there’s perhaps a bit of confusion there.“

The committee agreed to grant Connected Health planning approval, though two councillors abstained on the vote.