Play park closures blocked

PUBLIC anger has forced councillors to stop the closure of any play facilities in Ards and North Down amid calls for better investment in play parks across the borough.

An outcry against closure proposals in Kircubbin, Donaghadee and Groomsport has persuaded local politicians to halt any future closures proposed in the 10-year Play Strategy agreed by councillors in 2021.

The decision was taken at a meeting of the council’s Community and Wellbeing Committee on Wednesday evening when it was also agreed that a number of playpark upgrades and replacements would take place in line with uncontroversial parts of the strategy.

As revealed in last week’s paper, council officials have warned that abandoning closures and an increase in the costs of refurbish means they will need an additional annual budget of at least £320,000 if the play strategy is to remain on track.

The decision by the committee members still has to be ratified by a meeting of the full council, but this is likely to be a formality given the amount of public disquiet at the closure proposals.

Councillors learned from a report by the Parks and Cemeteries Department that ‘just to cover inflationary costs’, the set budget of £500,000 for refurbishment would soar to at least £700,000. Meanwhile, the budget for the maintenance programme would rise from  the previously agreed £300,000 to at least £420,000.

“It is anticipated that significant increases will be required in the refurbishment and maintenance budgets if council wish to continue with the implementation of the play strategy, while maintaining a policy of not removing any older facilities going forward,” stated the report.

The future of the strategy was discussed at a workshop which confirmed six play parks upgrade projects across the borough, including the total replacement and relocation of facilities at Bangor’s Ward Park.

The area left vacant in Ward Park could then be replaced by a new demential-friendly garden.

Budgets have also been allocated to replace Londonderry Park’s play facilities in Newtownards, Millisle outdoor gym and Portavogie’s New Harbour Road park, all in their current locations.

A budget has also been set for facilities in Kircubbin, with a complete upgrade and new multi-use game area for the town and an upgrade of the existing park at The Green.

A planned replacement of the town’s Parsonage Road park will, however, not proceed due to budgetary constraints.

Members of the committee did speak out to welcome investment earmarked for new ‘inclusive roundabouts’ at Cloughey’s park and Portaferry’s park at Anchor Road, for children with mobility issues.

Councillor Robert Adair said the plans showed that the council has listened to ratepayers.

“We have learned that we should be prioritising what ratepayers want and they have said loudly they want play facilities to be invested in.”

But adding that ‘the budgets we set are not enough’ to provide 21st century standard facilities, Mr Adair said ‘we, as councillors need to send a message to council officers that we have listened to our residents and they want better and more disabled friendly facilities incorporated’ into the strategy.

He urged the council to seek ‘external funding’, particularly to provide more facilities for children and young people with mobility issues.

The head of the council’s Parks and Cemeteries Department, Stephen Daye, confirmed that plans for the new Ward Park play facilities, destined to be established within the existing tennis courts, will be bigger and ‘mean brand new equipment and be a vast improvement’ on the current facilities located on the other side of the park.

The borough’s deputy mayor, Ulster Unionist councillor David Chambers questioned Mr Daye on that issue, stating he believed the court in question was prone to flooding

Mr Daye assured him however, that remedial works to alleviate the issue would be put in place to ensure ‘there won’t be any danger of that’ in future.

DUP councillor James Cochrane welcomed the report’s confirmation that the potential closure of play facilities in Groomsport and Donaghadee will not go ahead.

The report did however state that any proposals to develop the parks in the towns will not go ahead ‘as originally envisaged’ due to budget constraints.

Mr Cochrane said: “We have listened to ratepayers and I look forward to any public consultation in future about these parks.”