I thank Members for their presence this afternoon for the Adjournment debate on St Lucia Barracks in Omagh. As a West Tyrone representative and a very proud son of Omagh, I am delighted to have secured a debate on the town I love so well — apologies to Phil Coulter. My family association with St Lucia Barracks goes back to 1923 when my grandfather, a soldier with the Royal Irish Fusiliers, was sent on his last posting to St Lucia Barracks in Omagh when he was attached to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and, from there, was discharged with 21 years' service in 1926. So my family connection with Omagh began with St Lucia Barracks. Perhaps that is why Members have abandoned the Chamber.
The story of St Lucia Barracks starts in 1875 with the leasing of the lands from the Archdale family on a 999-year lease as a military barracks. Barracks have been positioned on the site since the early 1880s. The site is one of the most impressive Victorian structures anywhere in the British Isles, and given that it was occupied by the army in various guises over its history, the historic buildings were well maintained until the withdrawal of the Royal Irish Regiment in 2007. Since then, the barracks have been closed to the public, and only limited maintenance has been undertaken.
I visited the barracks recently, and the site is as impressive as ever. Without a doubt, the impressive walled barracks are an asset to Omagh, with a strong link to many families who reside in Omagh to this day. The memorial in the barracks walls to those who died during their tour of foreign service lists the names of those whose last military posting before going overseas was St Lucia Barracks, and their last sight of Ireland before departing would have been within the walled barracks. Those names — Roman Catholic and Protestant — have helped to make Omagh, the county town of Tyrone, what it is today.
My reason for securing a debate now is quite simple: I do not want West Tyrone, and Omagh specifically, to lose the jewel in the crown. St Lucia Barracks is one of the military sites that was to be gifted to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). There have been legal complications with the covenant on the lease, but I understand from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and from the Minister, the Rt Hon Andrew Robathan MP, that negotiations are nearing completion and that the MoD will soon be in a position to offer the site to OFMDFM. There is no if, but or maybe, but in correspondence to me, the Minister stated:
"My department is currently negotiating with the freeholders on the retained part of St Lucia and once a resolution is found, the site will be offered to the OFMDFM under the Good Friday Agreement."
I have concerns that OFMDFM might not be as keen as me for the site to be in public ownership. I refer Members to responses that my party leader, Mike Nesbitt, and I have received in written answers to questions on St Lucia Barracks. Mike Nesbitt asked:
"(i) whether ownership of St Lucia Barracks, Omagh is to be passed from the Ministry of Defence; (ii) whether they are planning for the Ministry of Defence to gift the site to their Department; and (iii) what future use do they envisage for the former military site."
"On 15 April 2012, part of St Lucia Barracks was gifted to OFMDFM under the Hillsborough Castle Agreement. The listed buildings and parade ground at St Lucia remain the property of the Ministry of Defence (MOD). It has not been possible for the MOD to transfer that part of the site to OFMDFM for legal reasons, although we understand that discussions are ongoing in relation to this and that MOD hopes to resolve the difficulties.
OFMDFM officials will maintain contact with the owners of the listed part of the site, so that any options which involve both portions of the site can be explored.
The purpose of the gifting sites under the Hillsborough Castle Agreement is to raise capital revenue to meet Executive pressures. Officials are currently considering options for disposal of the site to maximise yield and in the short to medium term are looking at ways to minimise costs and achieve some financial or social return. OFMDFM has established a Strategic Sites Oversight Board to undertake strategic management of the former military sites owned by the department and this will make recommendations to the Departmental Board and Ministers in due course in relation to the future of the sites."
I asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister:
"(i) to detail the current status in relation to the gifting of the St Lucia Barracks in Omagh; (ii) whether they have been involved in discussions with the Ministry of Defence in relation to the gifting of this site to the Executive; and (iii) the expected date that the negotiations between the leaseholders and Ministry of Defence will be completed."
I was advised:
"OFMDFM currently owns a portion of the St Lucia Barracks site consisting of open ground, workshops and former military housing, which was gifted by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in 2011 under the Hillsborough Castle Agreement. The remainder of the site was not gifted because of legal impediments.
OFMDFM officials have maintained contact with MOD in relation to the legal discussions on the remainder of the site, and possible future scenarios, but without any commitment on either side.
The legal negotiations are a matter for MOD rather than OFMDFM and we understand these are still a matter for due process."
My final question to the First Minister and deputy Minister was:
"whether departmental officials have undertaken any preliminary discussions with officials from Omagh District Council in relation to the potential use of St Lucia Barracks; and whether officials have been in discussion with the Department for Social Development, since the completion of the Omagh Town Centre Masterplan in 2009, in relation to the development of this site."
I was advised:
"OFMDFM officials have undertaken discussions with Omagh District Council and the Department for Social Development in relation to St Lucia Barracks. These discussions have included consideration of the St Lucia site itself, the links to the neighbouring Lisanelly site and the context of St Lucia in the wider development of Omagh Town Centre.
Officials will continue to liaise with the Council, DSD and any other stakeholders on the future of the site."
Unfortunately, we do not seem to have a clear vision of what will happen. My concerns relate specifically to the walled barracks, on which, I understand, negotiations are almost complete. We must ensure that these barracks are taken into public ownership, and we must lobby hard to ensure that we support the master plan put forward by Omagh District Council. Of the six West Tyrone MLAs, five of us have been councillors on Omagh District Council, and Councillor Buchanan remains in that role. Councillor Buchanan MLA is not here for this debate, but he has asked me to make it clear to the Assembly that he supports my proposals for the retention of St Lucia Barracks in public ownership and as part of the Omagh District Council plan.
The master plan clearly envisages St Lucia Barracks as essential to the development of Omagh, and I quote directly from the document:
"The Churches area dominates the high ground in Omagh with the distinctive skyline of the courthouse and spires and a network of narrow streets. It is proposed that the masterplan builds upon this unique character incorporating the former barracks of St Lucia and encouraging a cultural part of Omagh to develop, becoming an ideal location for restaurants, specialist retail, tourist attractions and accommodation.
The Churches area and the former barracks at St Lucia are two of the most historically significant parts of Omagh and have an important role to play in the vision for the future of Omagh.
Cultural uses such as small museums and galleries should be encouraged to the area, benefiting from its rich history and architectural legacy, whilst adding increased levels of physical and socio-economic activity to the area. These would complement existing attractions such as the churches themselves, whilst helping to create increased footfall for cafes, restaurants and bars."
We have seen what can be done in Londonderry, where Ebrington Barracks, with great support from the Executive, became the open site it is today. Omagh needs the support of the Executive, and a no-quibble guarantee that the site will be gifted to the people of Omagh. The development of the site in Omagh should be a priority to ensure that Omagh will continue to be a major town in the south-west.
This site cannot be sold to the highest bidder; it must be developed by Omagh District Council in co-operation with various Departments. The blueprint is in place from Ebrington, and the Omagh master plan can be developed further. I urge OFMDFM to ensure that Omagh gets the same support as was given to our second city.
I refer Members to the position of Omagh District Council, which is clearly documented, and I will quote directly its position:
"The council remains united as to the strategic importance of the St Lucia site for the future growth and development of Omagh town and the wider subregion. Its regeneration potential is unrivalled and the site's proximity to Omagh town will enable real and meaningful linkages to the town centre to be established and developed. There has been no meaningful progress on the status of the restrictive use covenant for at least two years. The master plan remains unpublished, and there appears to be no central government interest in progressing the development of the site. The council is concerned at the absence of any real strategic direction in relation to St Lucia. The timescale for agreeing a new civic headquarters is slipping and there is now a need for urgent decisions to be taken. Presumably, if the restrictive covenant is removed, there is a risk that the site could be disposed to a developer or consortium which is unsympathetic to the site and its importance for Omagh and Tyrone. Clearly this would be an unfavourable outcome. The council remains committed to the development of the site and is willing, with appropriate central government guidance and support, to take a lead role in ensuring that the site is developed for the social, economic and regeneration benefit of the people of Omagh and the wider subregion."
Earlier, we heard the First Minister refer to Fermanagh and other sites in Northern Ireland, and it is clear that Omagh and this particular site have the potential to be developed and we, as an Assembly, must push this issue as hard as we can to ensure that we do not lose this asset.
The solution is simple. We call on OFMDFM to bring this matter to a swift conclusion, once the covenant issue is resolved, by stating unequivocally that St Lucia Barracks will be brought into the ownership of OFMDFM and, working in conjunction with Omagh District Council, those buildings will be brought back to life as a major facility and attraction for the benefit of the people of Omagh.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. My comments follow what Ross said. Members are aware that the St Lucia site in Omagh is a 45-acre site, a gem right in the heart of Omagh, with a lot of cultural and historical significance. It is one of the sites which, unfortunately, was not gifted as part of the package when the Lisanelly site which adjoins it was gifted to the Executive. Lisanelly is now being developed as a shared educational campus.
There is some housing on the site, which is not in the best of shape. Some of it is on a floodplain, which cannot be used for future development.
As Ross says, the stumbling block is the military covenant. There is a restriction in it governing the type of use, particularly for the listed buildings, which are on a six-acre plot on the site. I understand that the covenant requires that the site must be used solely for military purposes. Should it be used for other purposes, the site defaults to its original owners.
I am glad to note that, even though we have this logjam, the NI Environment Agency has taken some steps in recent times to help preserve the listed buildings on the site.
Just to clarify that specific point in relation to the military covenant: it is that that the MOD is buying out, and it has got to the stage where it has nearly completed its negotiations. It is the covenant that is the problem at this time. The MOD is coming to the end of its negotiations in relation to that specific issue and, once they are completed, it is the intention, as I stated earlier, of the Ministry of Defence to gift the site to OFMDFM if it will take it.
Thank you, Ross, for that information.
As I said before the intervention, the St Lucia site is critical to the town. It complements the educational campus, and it also complements all the other work carried out in the town, including the environmental improvement scheme and the riverside walk that will go through the site. Much of that work has been led by the district council, along with the Strule Arts Centre.
As has been said, DSD rolled out a master plan, which was the result of comprehensive consultation with the local community, the council, the chamber of commerce, DEL, DSD, Planning Service and others. It developed a shared vision for the site. Unfortunately, because of the logjam that we have been in, the master plan has been put on hold. There were some good ideas in the master plan. It looked at the cultural aspect, the possibility for niche retail catering and hospitality, and, of course, of fundamental importance was the fact that it would be for public use. The negotiations have been ongoing for some time, and that seems to have caused the logjam.
The council has been working diligently on this over the past number of years. As I was a councillor until a number of weeks ago, I am across much of the detail. Phase 1 of the riverside walk, for example, is a live project that will continue into 2014. That will bring people into the heart of St Lucia and increase local interest. Therefore, it is very important to have clarity on the future of the site. The community is united. It sees the strategic importance of the site and it sees it as hugely important for the future growth and development of the town. If it is not managed properly and, as the last Member said, it ends up in the hands of a private developer, a consortium, or is land-banked, that would not be a good outcome for Omagh. That is not what we want to see.
I welcome the fact that the debate has come to the House. It took the debate to put focus on the site and its regeneration potential for our town, our district and the wider subregion. Although MLAs from different parties will disagree on many issues, I think that we will agree that we want to see the site in public ownership and secured and used to its maximum potential for the people of Omagh, the wider district and future generations.
I thank Mr Hussey for securing the debate. It is crucial that the issue is dealt with sooner rather than later. I will not repeat all that has been said about the historic significance of the site, but it has been crucial to the overall development of Omagh for over 100 years. In the future development of the site, it is crucial that it become a focal point for the rich heritage and for the historic nature of the buildings.
It is crucial that the MOD conclude its negotiations as soon as possible. Hopefully, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will then willingly accept the site on behalf of the people at large. It is crucial that the site remain in public ownership to make the greatest utilisation of the site for the benefit of the people of Omagh and the surrounding district.
With regard to the work by DSD, RPS carried out a master plan and a range of consultations. It is a bit concerning that the master plan has never been published, and the sooner that happens the better, so that all stakeholders, particularly the district council, will have sight of it and some indication of what might or might not happen. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has a public duty to the people of Omagh to clarify its thinking on the proposals that might emerge for the site.
The gifting of the site is crucial, and we expect to be treated in the same way as other towns that have military sites that were gifted to the Executive. I fully support the arguments outlined by Mr Hussey and supported by Declan McAleer.
My party representatives on Omagh District Council have supported the development in the past, and I hope that it can be realised for the future.
Finally, it is crucial that the Executive show a commitment to Omagh with regard to the site, that a meaningful use can be made of the site for the wider benefit of the people and that the historical legacy will be protected into the future.
Adjourned at 4.00 pm.