Whitespots revamp finally underway with £8.5m cash boost

‘Phase one’ designs should be ready in two years, say officials

By Iain Gray

AN £8.5m Stormont cash boost is to finally kick off the long-delayed overhaul of Whitespots Country Park.

Ards and North Down Council has been trying to revamp the area around old lead mines in hills to the north of Newtownards for several years, only to hit repeated brick walls due to the cost of the project.

Yesterday the Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) announced the project will get cash injections totalling £8.5m from two of its funding pots, allowing work on the regeneration project to get under way at last.

The council is also to kick in more than £1m from its own budget.

The area in and around the lead mines will now be revamped by adding in upgraded and more accessible walking trails, a trial biking area and a new visitor hub with refreshment facilities, while also replanting the area to enhance its trees and woodland.

In addition, historical features of the site including its old mine shafts and windmill towers will be refurbished.

The idea is to turn what is currently an underdeveloped country park into an attractive natural resource right on the doorstep of Newtownards, one the council hopes would link in well with both its planned greenway network and the Columban Trail.

The combined DAERA and council investment of around £10m will pay for phase one of the revamp, with long-term plans that have yet to be funded including proposals to add an adventure sports area and historical commemorations of both the 19th century mining industry and First World War soldiers who trained nearby.

Announcing the cash injection, DAERA minister Andrew Muir said the money would ‘highlight the industrial and social history of the site’ as well as provide ‘much improved access to nature for people of all abilities to explore’.

“This investment will encourage more visitors to Whitespots and will lead to the creation of new jobs, all of which is great for a sustainable local economy,” he added.

And Ards and North Down Mayor Alistair Cathcart welcomed the long-awaited funding boost, describing it as ‘an exciting step forward for Whitespots’.

He said: “With sympathetic and sustainable redevelopment, we firmly believe Whitespots has the potential to become a jewel in the crown of our borough.

“It is situated at the gateway to the Ards peninsula and within easy reach of a significant population base.

“This funding will enable us to deliver phase one of our plans, to create a park that welcomes visitors of all ages, abilities and interests.”

Architectural consultancy firm McAdam Design has been appointed to lead on the project, and hopes to submit the revamp to planners for approval around two years from now.

The firm’s director, Stephen Harding, said the company is eager to get work ‘bringing this hidden gem to life’ by delivering ‘environmental, health and wellbeing and heritage benefits to the communities of Newtownards, Bangor and beyond’.

He added: “Together with the council, we will be engaging with current users, local stakeholders, environment and heritage agencies and potential investors in the area as we aim to develop sensitive but inspiring design ideas for the park.”

The council also plans to run special events in Whitespots over the summer, encouraging locals to check out an under-used area that offers beautiful views over Scrabo and the Ards peninsula.

That includes two ‘bio-blitz’ events with the public joining ecologists to learn more about the native species in the park, as well as a bat night walk.

The council has spent years trying to regenerate the Whitespots area, but until now has failed to get hold of government funding needed to pay for it.

A few years ago, the council tried to slip the scheme in with its application to the Belfast City Deal, only to be told that Whitespots wouldn’t qualify as the city deal was only for urban regeneration projects.

It then applied to DAERA for £16.5m and has now won about half of that cash, allowing the first phase of the revamp to take place.