It's rare that a mundane public survey document attracts such interest at a Council meeting, but last Thursday's Strategy Policy and Resources Committee meeting saw the 'Newry City Centre Regeneration Public Survey Questionnaire (003)' discussed at great length and dissected almost surgically. And that's before the public even get a chance to look at it!

The discussion followed a meeting of the Newry City Centre Regeneration Programme Board 2 February which saw a presentation by Otium Leisure Consultancy, giving an overview of the public consultation process and the proposed content of the public questionnaire survey. In that meeting Councillor David Taylor asked Alison Keenan from Otium to clarify the terminology for the Civic Hub noting "it was referred to as an office relocation within the presentation" In reply Ms Keenan said "the Civic Hub is referred to as 'relocation of office accommodation' for the purpose of 'plain english' understanding. It was also noted that consistent feedback elements on the project included the need to address car parking and the desire to improve connectivity through pedestrian and cycle links. Damian Mulholland, Department for Communities commented that whilst car parking was a key issue for Newry, it was a wider study subject and shouldn't be the focus of this questionnaire.

The location for the new Newry Civic Hub ... or is it Council Offices? Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
The location behind Newry Cathedral of the proposed Newry Civic Hub ... or is it Council Offices? Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

The Questionnaire is part of a public consultation on the city centre regeneration project which was demanded by council in 2020. The project incorporates a 'civic hub' behind Newry Cathedral, new theatre and conference facilities at Newry Town Hall/ Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, public realm improvements, Grade A office accommodation and more recently, the Albert Basin Park has been added to the portfolio.

A Public Consultation questionnaire on the 15 acre park at the Albert Basin back in 2020 possibly laid the ground for last weeks dissection of the latest consultation document. The original draft Albert Basin Park consultation had to be changed dramatically after members sitting on the Albert Basin Park Task and Finish Group called out questions contained therein, specifically questions that asked the public what type of commercial development and what type of housing development they would like in their park! Following this, a new questionnaire was produced with offending sections conspicious by their abscence.

Last weeks discussion details aren't known, as the meeting was conducted 'in committee' away from the gaze of the inquisitive public or the prying press. The Agenda item, "Item 18 OBC Consultation - Public Survey Questionnaire" was "deemed to be exempt under paragraph 3 of Part 1 of Schedule 6 of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014 - information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person (including the Council holding that information) and the public may, by resolution, be excluded during this item of business"

Changes to Survey Questionnaire

What is known is that following discussions at the 11 February meeting, including a lengthy adjournment, changes to the document were proposed by Cllr Michael Savage and seconded by Cllr Declan Murphy.

What's in a Name?

It appears that the 'civic hub' part of the survey may have been the piece that caused the most difficulties, with seemingly some in favour of simply calling the development "council offices". Ultimately SP&R Chair, Cllr Gareth Sharvin announced the decision "The term Civic Hub to be changed to Civic Hub/ Council offices"

Additionally elected members considered the contents of the report and approved the public survey questionnaire for use, to also include changes as agreed below.

The 'Features' question saw the replacing of a numeric scale one to five with respondents being asked to rank how they view the importance of each feature. The 'Benefits' question will be replaced by a scale, with respondents ranking the extent to which they agree or disagree with each benefit. Budgets cost will be inserted for each project, with those grant funded identified as such! Each of the projects to be ranked in order of preference and lastly it was agreed that responses will also be invited in letter form by email and post.

Thursday's decisions are subject to ratification at the full meeting of Newry, Mourne and Down Council in March.

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