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Friday, August 12, 2022

Independent Councillor shut down by Mayor over question on the handing over of Portstewart Town Hall

Causeway Coast & Glens Mayor, Councillor Richard Holmes, refused to allow Independent Councillor Angela Mulholland to ask a question at the full council meeting on Tuesday evening (October 5) on the handing back of Portstewart Town Hall to the Montague Estate.

In 2019, council received correspondence from the Montague Estate—who are the legal owners of the town hall—that a 60-year lease agreed in the 1930s had expired, issuing the council with a ‘notice to quit’.

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Following the decision by the council to hand the building back to the Estate, Portstewart Community Group launched an online petition encouraging Council to ‘pause legal proceedings’. At the time of writing, that petition has been signed 1,146 times.

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During the adoption of the minutes from the Special Council meeting held on September 27, Councillor Mulholland attempting to clarify information she had received that the ‘keys to Portstewart Town Hall’ were being handed over imminently.

Instead, citing that the agenda item was for accuracy only on the minutes, Mayor Holmes cut Councillor Mulholland off several times, shutting down her question, before suggesting she take her enquiry to the committee instead.

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Seeking clarification as to what committee she should direct her questions too, Mayor Holmes told the Councillor, “the Corporate, Policy and Resources Committee”, before moving on to adopting the minutes, causing Councillor Mulholland to lower and shake her head in what appeared to be disbelief at not being allowed to put her question to the council.

Following the meeting, Councillor Mulholland told us: “Unfortunately, I was unable to raise these questions within the chamber on Tuesday night.

“I had heard rumours that the keys of Portstewart Town Hall are being handed over on Wednesday morning (October 6). 

Councillor Mulholland continued: “If I had been allowed, I would have asked ‘is there any final documentation to accompany this handover to prove legal ownership of said town hall?’ and ‘If so could council issue the said document to all Councillors.'”

“On the point of handing over keys, what about the equipment that is still in the Hall. e.g. Portstewart Music Festival’s piano?”, expressing concern on the impact to the popular music festival.

“Also, a point to note is that previous references to Flowerfield as a suitable venue to hold events such as the Portstewart Music Festival is not the case, as to hire this venue for the week’s programme would be in excess of £2500. 

“This is inconceivable for any community and voluntary group to be asked to make and or even consider, in fact, it is disgraceful,” saying in conclusion, “I would go as far to say that this could be the end of the Portstewart Music Festival which has been in operation for over 75 years.”

In respond to the decision in preventing the Councillor from making comment, Mayor Holmes told us: “Standing Orders only allow for minutes of a full/special council meeting to be discussed in terms of accuracy of the minute.

“All councillors should be aware of Standing Orders and should raise issues through the relevant committee – in this case the Corporate Policy and Resources Committee.

“Cllr Mulholland could have raised the issue of the Town Hall at any stage during the previous 6 months and failed to do so.”

Following the special council meeting on September 27, the council released a statement via the Mayor to clarify the council’s position regarding Portstewart Townhall to the public. This statement read: “The legal owner of Portstewart Town Hall, the Montagu Estate, served a Notice to Quit on the Council in 2019. Council believes there was a 60-year lease for the building dating from the 1930s, which subsequently expired.

“The ownership of Portstewart Town Hall has been under detailed consideration by Council for over 2 years and in March 2021 Council made the decision which was not challenged using any of the normal channels either call in or rescinding motion. That decision was to acknowledge the Montagu Estate’s Notice to Quit, and the nub of the issue here is the ownership of the building.

The Council is now progressing with the hand back of the building following the decision; the community is free to negotiate with the Montagu Estate. Preliminary work to establish the need for community space in Portstewart has already begun as proposed by council members. The town is also served by FlowerField Arts Centre, the Warren and numerous other community spaces.

Portstewart Community have now asked Deirdre Hargey, DfC Minister, to interven with a matter of urgency over the handover of the town hall, saying: “We have asked the Minister to ensure that the Council practices due diligence with regard to the ownership of the building prior to handing it over to the Montagu estate.

“We have also asked the Minister for Communities to mediate in the process and have proposed a compromise solution whereby ownership of the town hall is transferred to an association of townspeople via a Community Asset Transfer.

“This would allow the building to be held by the townspeople in perpetuity so that it could continue to serve the community for future generations.”

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