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I am very grateful for the opportunity to present the petition, which has been signed by over 2,500 people who are concerned with the planned sale of Cairn Wood forest.
Many people are involved in the campaign to save Cairn Wood forest, and I thank those who have travelled to the Assembly for the presentation of the petition. From speaking to them, it is clear that they strongly believe that, if Cairn Wood were sold to a private bidder, we would lose a valuable public asset and a haven that is enjoyed by many people from my constituency of East Belfast and from the constituencies of North Down and Strangford and beyond.
It is my understanding that Ards and North Down Borough Council was offered the opportunity to purchase the site in 2014 but, sadly, declined, despite calls by my Alliance Party colleagues to consult users and to undertake an economic appraisal to establish viability and potential costs of ownership. With the council refusing to examine the issue, it appears that Northern Ireland Water proceeded to explore the sale. That was unknown to councillors until 20 November 2015 when my colleague Alliance councillor Andrew Muir received a phone call from a constituent concerned that Cairn Wood was up for sale on a property website. Since then, Alliance's Councillor Muir has secured the support of Ards and North Down Borough Council in the campaign to stop the sale, and, last Wednesday, councillors voted in favour of his motion to call on the Minister for Regional Development to keep Cairn Wood forest in public use on the same basis as enjoyed by many people for decades.
I commend Councillor Muir for his work on the campaign and for establishing the petition, which has provided many people with an opportunity to submit their support for saving Cairn Wood. Debbie Nelson, for instance, said:
"Cairn Wood is a priceless habitat for thousands of birds and animals, one of the very few remaining areas with a population of red squirrels, protected birds of prey species and a huge wealth of flora. To dispose of it to goodness knows what fate is a disgrace.".
Sally McVeigh in Newtownards said:
"For many years, I have enjoyed walking and running in Cairn Wood. It is a place to be enjoyed by all. It is a peaceful, natural environment and should remain that way."
Ivan Greenfield in Bangor asked:
"How can someone decide to sell Cairn Wood without public consent?"
Carolyn Busby in east Belfast said:
"Cairn Wood is a dog-walking paradise."
Recently, the Minister revealed that there is opposition from various groups. I urge her to listen to those comments and to the thousands of people who have signed the petition, including, it would seem, her constituency and party colleague Jim Shannon MP. I urge her therefore to give urgent and serious attention to the issue before it is too late. As Peter Mason from Holywood stated:
"Once sold, never retrieved. Sell in haste and regret at leisure."
Let us hope that that is not the legacy that the Minister leaves in relation to Cairn Wood.
Mr Lyttle moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.