A County Derry community group has hit out at a council decision to proceed with handing a local town hall back to its original owners.
Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council held a confidential ‘in committee’ meeting on Monday night to discuss legal advice on the ownership of Portstewart Town Hall.
In 2019, the Council received Notice to Quit from the buildings legal owners, the Montagu Estate. A 60-year lease taken by the Council on the property had expired in the 1990s.
Portstewart Community Group had launched an online petition urging the Council to pause legal proceedings, and this evening slammed the actions of the Council, saying they were ‘deeply disappointed’.
”The council is proceeding with the handover to the Montagu Estate, despite the fact that, in just a few days, our petition requesting a pause to legal proceedings has gained over 1,000 signatures from concerned members of the public,” they said.
“One of our greatest frustrations has been that so much business has been conducted under the shroud of legal privilege.
“This has frustrated our efforts to retain the building in public ownership and it has made it almost impossible to hold the council to account for their actions and decisions.
“Nevertheless, the vote to hand the building over and the vote against delaying the legal proceedings are both on public record, and we are grateful to all those councillors who voted to support the community in their desire to retain the town hall.
“What is neither clear nor available on public record is what efforts were made by the Council to retain the town hall for the people of Portstewart.”
The group are now worried a precedent has been set by the Council in relation to public ownership or buildings.
“This property transfer is a worrying precedent for the town of Portstewart and the entire borough. What other buildings might be affected in a similar way? This issue raises serious concerns regarding Council governance,” they said.
“It is a shame that the Council used its statement to say that ‘previous leaks to the media about this matter harmed its legal position.’
“Public and media scrutiny of the Council's actions are an important element of democracy and accountability.
“The Council must expect such scrutiny, particularly over such a contentious issue, and particularly when the Council has been so reluctant to release information or respond to Freedom of Information requests on the matter.
“So much of the anger and frustration felt by the community is a result of the lack of communication from, and accountability by, our Council.”
Council Mayor Richard Holmes said the community were free to engage directly with the Montagu Estate over the future of the building, and the group said they intend to continue their cause.
”We will continue to seek avenues to retain Portstewart town hall for our community,” they said.
”It is deeply regrettable that Portstewart Conservation Society was not supported in its efforts to source grant funding for the repairs needed to bring the town hall back into use and to keep the building in public ownership.
“It is clear that Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council have not been good custodians of our historical town hall, which has served our community and sat at the heart of our town since the 1930s.
”We thank the public for their ongoing support of our campaign. We are proud to be serving our community to work in its best interest and to hold our council to account for its actions and inactions.
“We will strive to continue to do this, despite the frustrations we have encountered to date, because this is what our community is asking us to do.
”Our town, and our town hall, deserved so much better than this.“
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