CASH cuts have kept Grey Point Fort closed for more than a year, with no sign of a promised revamp starting.
The coastal defence battery turned museum and monument never fully reopened after Covid hit – though 13 months ago, the Department for Communities (DfC) unveiled a plan to massively overhaul the site.
But officials now admit they don’t have the cash to start their £3m project to find the fort a future.
There’s not even enough in the coffers to carry out feasibility studies needed before the five-year plan gets properly underway, say officials – and in the meantime the Helen’s Bay site stays shut.
In last year’s plan, the DfC said it wanted to upgrade visitor facilities, tackle drainage and water leakage issues, install new toilets, fix problems with its electrics, expand its small car park and replace gates, fences and picnic tables in the fort.
The revamp of the Helen’s Bay site would boost its tourism appeal while also increasing educational opportunities to teach about the First and Second World Wars, the DfC stated.
One of the last coastal defence batteries in Northern Ireland and renowned as one of the best preserved sites of its type in the UK, the department believed an upgraded version would bring cultural, social and economic benefits to the local area.
But the DfC’s conservation plan for Grey Point Fort hasn’t been updated since August of last year – and the site is still locked up, with the public barred from entry and no sign of the upgrade being carried out.
Speaking this week, a department spokesman stated that reopening the fort ‘remains a priority’, promising that officials would try to find some way of allowing the public back in despite current money problems.
But he added: “The department’s plans to reinvigorate the fort are currently on hold, as our budgetary position means that we cannot take forward the necessary feasibility studies needed to inform future development of the site.”
The situation has infuriated North Down MLA Andrew Muir, who has fired warning shots at the DfC for keeping the facility in limbo.
“I was pleased to attend a meeting around Grey Point Fort in August 2022, and to see the department launch a consultation around the future of this important site,” he said.
“It’s now over a year later and the site is still closed to the public with no confirmed opening date, which is disappointing.”
The Alliance MLA added that DfI officials told him there is ‘no confirmed end date for works due to budgetary uncertainty’ and therefore no reopening date set for the fort’s visitor centre.
He said: “The site is home to so much history and so many different events, such as the firing of its guns in 2018 to commemorate Armistice Day.
“It’s vital that funding is made available to bring the place up to standard. The DfC needs to explore ways to let more people experience the site whilst managing concerns about parking and other local infrastructure.”
Dating back to 1907, Grey Point Fort was built to house two massive artillery guns designed to keep the entrance to Belfast Lough safe from naval attack.
The site was expanded to include army accommodation during the First World War, and in the 1930s extra equipment including searchlights were added onto the fort.
During the Second World War it was manned by a Territorial Army regiment, and concrete overhead covers were added to the gun positions.
Radar was installed in the 1950s, though the site was decommissioned that same decade and the original guns were removed.
It was opened to the public in the 1980s, and then restored and refurbished with replacement guns in the 1990s.
Until recently the facility was staffed by a volunteer group and boasted an extensive collection of vintage military radio equipment, as well as exhibitions hosting memorabilia detailing the history of the fort and local life during wartime.
Many of those exhibits were removed after Grey Point Fort was closed to the public during the Covid pandemic.