My Department is currently investigating the potential for developing a viable and sustainable scheme for a national sports stadium for Northern Ireland. In 1999 a pre-feasibility study, carried out under the auspices of the Sports Council, concluded that a proposal for a stadium could succeed under certain circumstances.
Subsequently my Department appointed a consultancy firm to undertake a market-sounding exercise to examine the scope of involving the private sector in such a development. This revealed that there was potential for support from the private sector, although a number of crucial issues still remain to be resolved, not least of which is the degree of support in usage to which the key sports would be prepared to commit.
On 25 October 2000 I met with the representatives of the four main sports — soccer, gaelic, rugby and athletics — to discuss the case for a national stadium for Northern Ireland. Each sport is considering its needs and the degree to which it could commit to use such a facility. The position of the four main sports will be important in determining the way forward, but if the project is to proceed, substantial funding will be required, and location and accessibility will be key considerations.
I thank the Minister for his response and particularly for his final words: "location and accessibility will be key considerations." I assume that consideration will be given to locating a national stadium in an area outside Belfast. Can the Minister inform the House if he has had any consultation with the developers of the proposed Lagan Park, which the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society may be taking on, with a view to building a national stadium?
The location will be crucial, and apart from accessibility to all sections of the community, its potential to contribute to the wider objectives of Government must also be borne in mind. We are not yet at the point where we are considering location, and it would be presumptuous of me to start to be prescriptive of where a national stadium — if we decide to go ahead with it, and if the sports organisations decide that they want it — should be.
There are certain criteria that I have tried to indicate, and there is no area that we would be looking to exclude. There are interested parties in Belfast as well as outside Belfast. It is common knowledge that there are areas in the Member’s constituency of Lagan Valley and around Lisburn, and the Lagan Valley Park is also under consideration by developers. However, it would be wrong for me to say more at this time.
On the same theme, can the Minister assure the House that his decision will target social need and will benefit the needs of the people outside the greater Belfast area, in particular, those in the north-west?
Yes, targeting social need — New TSN — is part of it. We have an action plan for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and this is referred to in another question, which I hope to answer later. It is very much part of the thinking that although TSN is not a spending programme, it is a way of evaluating proposals, policies, and so on. That would be very much part of an evaluation process in terms of location, if and when we get to that point.
Will the Minister give me an assurance that should the proposal for a national stadium become a realistic prospect, very considerable consideration would be given to its location in order that this may be used not only to develop our sporting culture but also to help achieve economic regeneration?
As I said as part of a supplementary answer, the potential to contribute to the wider objectives of Government and regeneration is a key objective of the Government. Therefore, location will be evaluated not least with regard to that objective. The type of development that the Member mentions, combined with the large number of people that would be expected to go to it, would be a major contributor to economic regeneration and development wherever it is constructed — if and when it is constructed. Therefore, the location would be a consideration for the Department and the Assembly.