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Stormont Estate

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:45 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker 6:45 pm, 19th January 2016

Order. I ask Members who are leaving to do so quietly.

The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes. All other Members who are called to speak will have approximately 10 minutes.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

Mr Speaker, I thank you for being here this evening. I know that you had other choices that you could have made, so I am grateful to you. I also thank the Minister for staying behind for an Adjournment debate, given the pressures that he has been under today, the very serious matters that have been debated in relation to the Budget and the time that he was in the Chamber. I am grateful to him for staying behind to talk about what is essentially a constituency matter — or at least that is how it is perceived. However, I do not believe that the use of Stormont estate is something that can be confined to east Belfast. I believe that it is a jewel in the crown of east Belfast, Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole.

I want to pay tribute to the ground staff and the rangers who look after the estate. I pay tribute to their skill, knowledge of the estate and commitment. As a frequent user of the estate, I have spoken to them and know that, for many of them, the commitment to the work that they do goes beyond just doing their daily job. It is something that they have a fondness for. Indeed, the grounds are an asset and a feature of our life, certainly in Belfast. They contribute in many ways to the quality of life in this locale.

I will say a few things about the history, the potential and the uniqueness of the grounds. I do not think that there are any other seats of a Government that have such a magnificent setting. Nor do I believe that there are any other seats of a Government that have been attributed green flag status, which reflects the park-type quality of these grounds. However, I believe that more could be done to fully realise the potential of the Stormont estate. I recognise that this is a working estate. It is where people come five days a week — some of them, six days a week — to do business. It is also a through-traffic estate. Sometimes, it is like a huge car park, given the nature and the interest of what is on in the Chamber.

Let us reflect on the fact that, when the Assembly got under way, we did not have the opening up of Parliament Buildings as we do today. That we have that today is in many ways thanks to the work of the Speaker's Office. It is very much about the professional way in which the educational unit deals with our schoolchildren. Those tours and the educational work contribute very much to the well-being, the feeling and the use of the Building — to an aspect of life in Northern Ireland.

I will take what is happening inside the Building and reflect on what might happen on the outside of the Building in the grounds of the estate. We all know about the history and features of the site, or we should do.

Mr Douglas and I were at a meeting on Friday night. I have been surprised at the interest that the title "Use of the Stormont Estate" has had. It was raised with us on Friday night. When asking how many people could identify features of the grounds, only two out of a group of 40 had any real knowledge of the grounds of Stormont. These grounds contain many historical features. How many people know about Craigavon's tomb being in the grounds of Stormont? There are not that many. How many people know about the bomb site, where the German bombers got closest to bombing this place? How many people have actually looked at it and reflected on that?

Carson's statue is the dominant feature of the estate, but how many people know about the Reconciliation statue and its history? Although it is featured in publications put out by the Assembly, how many people know that it was originally created as the sculpture of a man and woman embracing across barbed wire to depict the inspiration for peace? The sculpture was originally conceived in the aftermath of the war. How many people know about that statue and its impact and importance in not only a Northern Ireland context but a much wider context?

The wildlife on the estate is also important. It presents an opportunity for our schoolchildren and the Scouts, the Boys Brigade, the Girl Guides and all those types of organisations. The wildlife includes a wide variety of birds. An otter was spotted on the estate recently. Work is being done to protect the red squirrels on the estate. All of this is of interest to young people as part of their education, whether in school or youth groups. There are also the strawberry trees, the flora and the most predominant feature, the line of trees up the mile, which are now around 80 years of age.

We can also look at the importance of The Gleaner statue. It stands nearly as a contrast. The Gleaner sculpture is by John Knox — I do not think that is the John Knox of Protestant historical importance — who originally exhibited it as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. The sculpture shows a woman on bended knee gathering, with the inscription:

"Thrift is the gleaner behind all human effort".

It has been there since 1951, having come from that exhibition. We are now in 2016, which has importance from many perspectives. How many people, whether formally or informally, visit the Battle of the Somme granite stone that is placed with a group of six cedar trees and bears the following inscription?

"This group of cedars presented in memory of the 36th Ulster Division by Major General Sir C. Herbert Powell K.C.B. who raised it in 1914".

That is a significant feature of the history of this Province.

There are many important aspects.

Turning to the Mo Mowlam Children's Park, I did not agree with a lot of Ms Mowlam's politics, but she has left a legacy in the Estate in what she created in terms of the trails through it, the wooded areas and the forest trail behind this Building. In creating the playground, she created what is probably the best playground in the whole of Northern Ireland. Obviously, it was done to meet the international standards that the European Union demands of children's playgrounds today. The playground is locked up at a certain time each night. Maybe, under certain circumstances, it has to be locked up each night. I encourage as many children as possible to use it. It has also the potential for organisational use, be it by groups of Scouts, Cubs, the Boys' Brigade or local schools. It is a very safe environment, it is attractive, and it is well out of the way of all traffic. In fact, it could not be safer.

I spoke earlier about the interest; people stopped me on the Estate and in the corridor and asked, "What do you mean by the 'use of the Stormont Estate?'". I joked with them: I said, "Well, we need to measure the number of dogs coming in and going out; they should all be chipped. Only people with dogs that have been registered with the council should be allowed in". Obviously, there has been some controversy about dog walking. We created the feature referred to as the bullring for dogs to be exercised.

We have this jewel in the crown — this asset — sitting on our doorstep. We need to compare it with the use of the Building and the super work being done on the tours and the educational facility. We need to benchmark it against that internal work and see what we can do about bringing a greater interest to it. Who would be interested? I think that the general public would be interested. I live in close proximity to the site and walk here during the summer months. The number of foreign visitors you meet in these grounds is amazing. Much of that is because there is an international hotel on the other side of the road. In the summertime, at 6.00 pm, 7.00 pm or 8.00 pm, the grounds are still open, and visitors staying in the hotel walk the grounds. You frequently get an opportunity to speak with them. They are all extremely complimentary, but there is nothing that allows them to have a proper guided tour of the facility. Since those are the circumstances, there is the potential for us to do more in that sense.

I have already referred to the wildlife, the trees, the flora and the fauna that is all there for the likes of youth groups, the Boys' Brigade or schoolchildren doing their academic qualifications. It is also there just for children to be allowed formally to enjoy the site. Many groups of children come to enjoy the site.

We know that there has been a history of large concerts on the site. Initially, when Mo Mowlam started them, one in particular was so controversial that I got 300 letters of objection to it. We moved away from that and learned a lesson, and subsequent concerts have not been controversial. I am not talking about that kind of major event; I am talking about events that would not annoy the neighbours or bring any form of disruption to the area. I am not talking about promoting large events; I am talking about small groups using the site.

I will finish with this, Mr Speaker: the grounds are an asset. They add to the work of the Assembly and the opening up of Parliament Buildings. They allow for the promotion of the Assembly and, in many ways, goodwill and identification. It may be — I only use the words "may be" — that the grounds have the potential to create a small number of jobs as well. They certainly have the potential to add to our tourism and visitor offering, and they have the ability to add to the quality of life for those who live in the locale.

The site is a feature that, I believe, we are all rightly proud of. I finish by paying tribute to the excellent work that is done by the grounds staff. Let just me mention, Mr Speaker —

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker 7:15 pm, 19th January 2016

Very quickly. You have gone over your time.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I will be very quick. I know that car parking has been a problem in the past. That issue might need to be addressed in the future.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I place on record my thanks and appreciation to all the staff, inside the Building and outside on the estate, who work tremendously hard in making sure that these facilities are in great shape.

In the years since the Good Friday Agreement and the coming of relative peace, this estate and the Building have seen many events, such as the Red Bull Crashed Ice event, which brought many spectators from across Northern Ireland. It has also seen the Ulster centenary parade and the Brawl in the Hall event, when local boxing clubs, including an east Belfast boxing club, came into the Great Hall and put on a spectacular night of boxing.

Stormont estate is open to the public for recreation, walking and fitness trails, charitable events and use of the restaurant. As has been mentioned, we have a state-of-the-art playground that has all the facilities that you would expect to see in a playground. It has areas for parents to rest while watching their children, barbecue facilities and picnic tables. It is enclosed, fenced in and has CCTV that is monitored by the control room. The public can also avail themselves of tours of Parliament Buildings. That is an opportunity to showcase the magnificent Building and to learn about its history.

I also place on record my delight that this great Building is being made more accessible for those with disabilities. Indeed, we have seen more disabled car parking facilities at the east and west entrances since campaigning for me coming to the Assembly. I am aware that a paper on other modifications to the Building is going in front of the Assembly Commission. I welcome that. We must work together to ensure that these marvellous facilities are fully accessible to all. Promoting what is available and how to access it is key.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the use of the Stormont estate. Parliament Buildings is iconic in Northern Ireland and internationally. Indeed, the surrounding estate is beautifully managed and kept. I, too, pay tribute to the staff in Parliament Buildings and on the Stormont estate for the hard work and excellence that they bring to this place.

The Stormont estate belongs to the public, and I believe that, as stewards of the Assembly, it is our responsibility to maximise the public benefit of it for everyone in our community.

Stormont estate has significant potential. It has significant economic and tourism potential. We have seen a number of world-class events associated with Stormont estate. I think of the Giro d'Italia in 2014. I remember lining the route of the competition. What a world-class event that was hosted in the estate and what an atmosphere it generated not only here in Belfast but right across the community. We had the Crashed Ice event and international concerts. I think that, as other Members set out, whilst it is important that we seek to host events of that scale, it is also important that we keep paramount the concern for the amenity of the local community and residents in the surrounding area when delivering those events.

Stormont estate has huge civic potential. There has been a wide range of charitable events on the estate. I think of Runher and Run in the Dark, as well as a running event that I had the privilege to sponsor for Chest, Heart and Stroke and Strandtown Primary School. I thank Principal McClenaghan for agreeing to run round with me in that particular event. I think that he had to slow down significantly. My running pace is not what it used to be. There has also been the Strive for Five by the Square Wheels Cycle Club, which is based in Moy and undertakes an Atlantic-coast-to-Titanic-coast cycle that has finished at Stormont estate on a number of occasions and aims to raise awareness and funds for Diabetes UK.

Stormont estate also has significant community benefit potential through a wide range of events that encourage community and volunteering activity. It was a privilege of mine to play a very small part in helping to establish parkrun on the Stormont estate. I pay tribute to volunteers like Mel Boyle and the parkrun staff, who were able to establish an all-ability opportunity for people in the local community to engage in a 5 km run every Saturday morning here in Stormont estate. Parkrun is a free weekly 5 km timed run that is open to everyone. It is safe, easy and fun to take part in. It has real health benefits. It encourages volunteering and community cohesion. I was glad to be joined by Máirtín Ó Muilleoir at the inaugural event in August last year. It really is a great way to have fun, get healthy and meet new people. I think it is only right that Stormont estate facilitates that type of event for our local community.

On 16 January last, there were 172 participants in the Stormont estate parkrun. It is my understanding that, on New Year's Day, a new record for parkrun in Northern Ireland was set when there were over 500 runners participating in that particular event. I commend the vision of the now retired, I believe, Stormont estate manager, Sam McCready, for the work that he did with the parkrun staff and volunteers to permit that type of event to take place and to showcase the potential of the Stormont estate. I commend the new estate management team, which, I believe, is providing ongoing valuable assistance to ensure that the success of Stormont estate parkrun continues. I understand that there are a few park runners on the estate management team. I am grateful for the ongoing work in that regard.

There are many other assets to Stormont estate. The Mo Mowlam children's playground has been mentioned. I confess to making use of that playground regularly with my own children and to perhaps getting too involved and enjoying the facilities more than I should. I also think of the reconciliation and reflection zone on Stormont estate. I know that many church groups come to Stormont estate to reflect and pray for the health and well-being of the Government here and of our community.

I think also of the Pavilion facility, which is associated with the Northern Ireland Civil Service Sports Association, and of the PlayBall facility, which opens up Stormont estate for sporting potential for people across the community and which has hosted international world-class cricket match events. It is my understanding that that organisation is in need of assistance from the Department of Finance and Personnel to ensure that that aspect of the Stormont estate is as accessible as possible to the public, particularly from the Upper Newtownards Road entrance. Hopefully, the Minister can commit to work on that, given the good positive working relationship that the estate management team has contributed to a wide range of provision on the estate.

In conclusion, the Stormont estate has significant economic, tourist, community, health and sporting potential on a local, regional and international level. My party and I are wholly committed to contributing everything that we can to realise that potential and to ensure that we maximise the public benefit of the estate for everyone in our community.

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP 7:30 pm, 19th January 2016

I am pleased to participate in the debate tonight on the Stormont estate. I thank my colleague Robin Newton for securing it. I thank you, Mr Speaker, for attending. I also thank the Minister. I think that this is his first Adjournment debate, and I wish him well in his new role.

I was first elected four and a half years ago. In the first couple of years, I hosted a number of community and voluntary groups and senior citizens groups at Stormont. Very often, I asked how many of them had been to the Stormont estate and Building. For most of them, it was their first opportunity to come here. For many years, the estate, to be quite honest, was the preserve of the chosen few. Thankfully, that is changing. Over the past couple of years, a growing number of people have been coming into the estate. As I say, it is sad that many of those people, quite a number of whom are from east Belfast, have never been into this Building or on the estate. We need to look at how we encourage people to come along.

I commend the Events Office on the tours that it runs. It does an excellent job, and I am sure that the Minister will confirm the growing numbers coming to the Building and associating with the estate. While I understand the need to safeguard and preserve this wonderful Building and the majestic natural environment of woodland and parkland, I nonetheless believe that we should support well-managed events and encourage more visitors. I make that point because, in one sense, as my colleague Chris Lyttle said, the estate belongs to the people. We tend to forget that we are the custodians of the estate. It does not belong to Members of the Assembly. I sometimes host events up here and say to people, "It is great to see you here". A lot of people say to me, "It is wonderful. Thank you for inviting us up here". I tell them that this place belongs to them; it belongs to the people. Let us not forget that.

On a negative note, last summer, one of my constituents was getting married, and her father contacted me and asked whether she could use Stormont Castle as a backdrop for photographs. To be quite honest, I came up against a brick wall. It was impossible to get agreement from a range of sources just to get a couple up here in a car to take a few photographs for 10 or 15 minutes. Eventually, I succeeded, and I pay tribute to Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, who helped to get an agreement all round. I think that that was the first wedding at which a bride and bridegroom were able to get their photographs taken up here. That is a shame. Why are we blocking people from coming to take photographs for 10 minutes? I understand about security and all that, but that family was willing to pay to come in.

Maybe the Minister will look to see whether we can be a bit more flexible when people want to use the castle for wedding photographs.

The reality is that many people, as was said, use this place. Let me just quote a user. I read this earlier today from someone who uses this Building. It was not my colleague Robin Newton. She said:

"I walk Stormont grounds at least three times a week and never get bored. The trees, squirrels and magpies are fantastic."

He never mentioned the magpies.

"The water lying under the trees at this time of year looks so beautiful and the kids love the play park. Excellent sleighing when snow comes."

That is such a lovely quote. I found another lovely quote on TripAdvisor from someone who has been to the estate:

"Had a wonderful tour before Christmas, and loved it! The grounds are beautiful, and the views amazing. Well worth a visit!"

Now, that is TripAdvisor telling the rest of the world, "Come to Stormont". There is a great opportunity to add value through tourism. We are promoting tourism right across Northern Ireland and beyond.

Let me quote just a few figures from the EastSide Arts Festival, a local initiative with many volunteers. One of the events that I hosted here with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment was for 100 out-of-state visitors, people from all over the world, coming to east Belfast and Stormont. The main speaker was from New Zealand. Also part of the EastSide Arts Festival, I am sure we all remember the Live on Cyprus Avenue event with Van Morrison. Using feedback from surveys and comment cards, the average stay in Northern Ireland for those attending the event — and many came from the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain and internationally — was 7·2 days per person. Visitors came from 19 countries, so we had people from across the world coming up here. I mention that because there is an opportunity for us to add value and link in to other tourist events and to promote tourism.

I think it was my colleague Robin Newton who said that visitors who come to the Stormont Hotel might want to go out and visit Titanic Belfast or go to the Giant's Causeway, which is a lovely part of the world. It is good to do all those trips, but, if you are like me or from overseas, some days you just want to get out, go for a nice walk, clear your head and just sit and relax. Nearly 10,000 visitors locally came to the EastSide Arts Festival, and many of them came here. There were nearly 2,000 from the rest of Northern Ireland, and nearly 4,000 from Great Britain and overseas. Let us see where we can explore opportunities to build on what we have already done here and encourage people to use this beautiful Building.

Some Members mentioned some of the events and activities that have taken place here, but nobody mentioned that wonderful day — and who could forget it? — on 27 June 2012, when 20,000 ticket holders converged on the estate to see Her Majesty the Queen in all her splendour. The reason I get excited is that we have such a wonderful asset, but let us not hide our light under a bushel.

As I mentioned, a huge number of people have never had the pleasure of coming through those gates. My dream would be to see the Northern Ireland football team this summer coming through those gates — and I am sure the Member opposite would like to see the Republic of Ireland football team coming through those gates — on an open-top bus driving up the Prince of Wales avenue with the European Championship. What a dream come true.

Some people mentioned other events, but if we go back to 1998, who can forget Sir Elton John coming to Stormont? I think it was well-managed. There are difficulties about noise pollution with neighbours, and we have had discussions with neighbours over the years, including my colleague Robin Newton as one of our Stormont neighbours. I would like to see similar events here in the future. On the way out of the Chamber, my colleague Gordon Dunne said, "Don't forget to mention the Circuit of Ireland Rally, because it comes up here". That was a great event. I understand the problems with crowd control, but let us get those events well managed. I am delighted that my colleague brought the topic to the House, and I support the Minister in some of the ideas that have been raised tonight.

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin 7:45 pm, 19th January 2016

Ba mhaith liom mo léamh féin a chur ar an scéal seo. I take the opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his elevation. I am told that, in the long negotiation about taking the job, he said that he wanted to be present for the Adjournment debate on the Stormont estate. You have that glamour engagement tonight.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

He had the Speaker's support as well.

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I thank my colleague Robin Newton for introducing the topic, and I asked Sinn Féin whether I could speak on it, because I believe very strongly that Parliament Buildings and the estate are a great asset of our community. They are a great treasure of the city of Belfast, and I echo the comments made by my friend and colleague Mr Douglas that we need to make maximum use of the estate.

Mr Speaker, I know that you do not follow Twitter, but, every morning when I come in, I take a picture of the estate. There was a fog rolling in this morning, but I was glad to see that disappear during the day. I like to see people in those pictures, and, for me, that is the test of whether this is a people's estate and a people's Building. If I take a picture in the morning and there are no people about, my heart sinks, because, really, the test of our ability to throw the Building and the estate open is that there should be people around and being seen running, walking, walking their dogs and admiring the place. As Mr Newton said, there should be tourists here. I think that all of us want to see that maximised in the time ahead. Sammy had to jump through a number of hoops to try to get a wedding picture at the castle.

I want to pay tribute to the generosity of the staff in this Building. Of course, there are the wonderful ground staff that we have, who make the estate look magnificent, but there is also the generosity of the ushers who are here, the cafe staff, the tour staff, the education staff. The grace and generosity with which they welcome people is truly tremendous, and they make it fun and enjoyable to visit the estate and the Building.

There are still a number of small restrictions. You may not know, Mr Speaker, that, when they come into the Chamber, visitors are not allowed to sit in the Speaker's Chair. Maybe in the time ahead someone will look at that. I do not know whether you know that that is a rule. At City Hall, that is the big thrill. It is the big money that you get to sit —

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

For a long time, I was not allowed to sit in it.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

The thrill of the City Hall is sitting in the Lord Mayor's chair, and, here, I ask the Minister, where we can say yes to people to increase use, we should do so. There is always a reason to say no, but, if we can stretch ourselves to increase usage, that would be a victory for us. Anything that increases ownership of the place and that makes people have a higher regard for Stormont and its representatives would be a good thing.

I have two final points. We do not have any shelters at the bus stops, and I know that the Minister will get that sorted. There are four bus stops and no shelters, and we are trying to encourage people to access Parliament Buildings and the estate without having to use a car.

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP

The Member has made some very good points. Sustrans is now looking at having a bicycle hub here, not just for tourists but for Members. Will the Member agree that that would be an excellent idea?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

That would be first class. Anything that Sustrans is involved in, you can sign me up for.

I wanted to make that point about bus stops, and I want to make the point about disability access. Mr Andy Allen has pointed out how poor disability access was, and it was not his job to get it sorted out. In fact, it is an indictment on us that it was not sorted for him and for other wheelchair users. It is absolutely imperative that we measure up and shape up and that we make sure that, if you are a wheelchair user, you have exactly the same access as anyone else in this Building. I hope that that will happen in the time ahead.

Mr Lyttle mentioned the parkrun. I know that his medical team are a bit worried about a man of his advanced years taking part in the parkrun, but I was glad, and it was a victory for modern science, that he was able to finish the parkrun. An interesting point about the Saturday morning parkrun is that the biggest ever parkrun was on New Year's Day, as you said. There were 500 little tags, and 514 people took park. That shows that, when we allow people to take ownership of this Building and the estate, they will do so. I wish them well in the time ahead.

Finally, in West Belfast, we have a famous flâneur, tour guide and walker — Tom Hartley. I see in Robin Newton the Tom Hartley of the Stormont estate. I would go on a walk with him to see all the different icons of Stormont that he mentioned, plus the GAA tree, of course. A little birdie tells me that Mr Newton been selected again, so I presume that he will return in May. I think that there may be a future for him — I do not know whether he will be in your Chair, Mr Speaker, after the break — moonlighting as a tour guide for the Stormont estate.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

I call the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Mervyn Storey, who sat through all of that.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have to say that I have enjoyed the opportunity to come and listen to the Members who contributed. I want to return to a few things that were raised during the debate.

This is only a preliminary comment: we need to draw a distinction between the Commission, which is responsible for this Building, and my Department, which is responsible for the estate that lies beyond the railings. Sometimes, those barriers can become an impediment, so we may need to look at that. There are priorities that have to come to the Commission, and it, therefore, has its own responsibilities. I will work my way through the comments that I want to make and then come back to comments made during the debate.

First, I thank the Member for initiating the debate and commend him for securing it for this evening. I am grateful to my friend and colleague Robin for seeking to ensure that the marvellous facility that is the Stormont estate is used to the maximum benefit of the community, although I think that he should have declared an interest because he does not live too far from it. Either we are in his back garden or he is in ours — I am not sure which.

I particularly welcome the opportunity that the debate affords us to take Members' views on how we might move forward with the use of the estate, and I think that we will have something positive to say about that.

Stormont estate could be described as a mixture of country park and working area. As we hold this debate and take forward the business of government, along with in the region of 2,500 civil servants, we are surrounded by iconic and historic buildings, all of which are sited in the most beautiful and majestic natural environment, as mentioned by most contributors.

The original land for the estate was purchased in 1921 for the princely sum of £20,344, and the estate grew continuously up to the 1960s to what we see today. If you go on to the Executive's website, you will find out about the interesting history of Stormont Castle and Rev John Cleland. Just to prove that my preparation for the debate went beyond the work of my officials, I can tell you that you will find information on two websites — that is an issue that we will have to look at — the Stormont Assembly website, which is under the jurisdiction of the Commission, and the Northern Ireland Executive website. The Assembly website is very good and gives pictures and additional information, and I commend those responsible for it for the work that they have done.

As well as the Assembly Building, we have Stormont Castle, buildings of various lineage, over 400 acres of land — grassland and woodland — and a formal processional avenue. The double rows of red-twigged limes that flank Prince of Wales Avenue are the originally planted trees and are over 80 years old. In fact, some of the original forested areas, dating back to 1830, are still in existence. The estate has acquired Green Flag status, and careful management means that our wooded grounds are fast becoming an important educational site. Our whole estate is, as was referred to, an important tourism and heritage site. I hope that I sound proud of the estate because I think that we all have a right to be proud of what we have.

Sometimes I think we become accustomed. It is interesting to hear the comments of the Member for South Belfast about taking a picture of it every day. We come here and can easily forget the pleasure and privilege that is ours to come to what is a very iconic building, which is also set in the most stunning of surroundings. I am convinced that none of us would wish to consider anything that would have significant and ongoing impacts on the estate. That means that we need to ensure that whatever events occur or work is carried out on the estate is done in a way that is caring and is reflective of our commitment to the environment and to ensuring that we enhance it, rather than create any difficulties.

We have to reflect the fact that the estate is open 365 days a year. The traffic arrangements and the comings and goings throughout the average day actually equate to those in one of our small towns. We run a myriad of events every year — some 37 events per year — from the smallest Boy Scouts charity run to the major international events like the Giro and the Crashed Ice event, which all bring their own particular complications and challenges. We have already referred to some of that. I think Robin raised the particular issue in relation to what more could be done in terms of the promotion with children and youth organisations. I am more than happy to task my estate team with considering how we can promote the use of the estate amongst youth organisations.

One of the issues that we may also need to raise with the Commission here, and with the department that is responsible for the tours is that, while the tours in this Building are primarily in relation to this Building, I think that a lot of people come and go away but do not actually have a full understanding of what is still available. To that end, some work has been done to produce a leaflet. Even during the course of this debate some other things have come to mind that we might want to amend the leaflet and add to it. After the debate we will take cognisance of what more we can put in it. That will be produced shortly, so it will available for people as a point of reference. It will also be online, which is helpful for those people who are more amenable to using modern technology. I have to say that I always feel safe when I have a piece of paper in my hand, rather than an iPad or a computer. I am quite happy to pursue that issue on behalf of the Member. Maybe the first step is to also liaise with the education department in the Assembly and have a discussion with it around that issue.

We also have to be cognisant of the fact that people who live around and nearby the estate have raised concerns in the past. Our neighbours are an important consideration, and I am particularly keen to ensure that we keep to a minimum any impacts on or disruption to their lives, both from the day-to-day operation of the estate and from any events that we hold. With bigger events, we know that, for example, we have finite parking facilities, and they are often fully utilised. It is an issue that gives us considerable concern as to how we will provide additional car parking in the future. There are issues that we have to take into consideration as the estate has developed over the last number of years, particularly since the bringing back of devolution and the opening up of the estate. We also want to be sensitive to the need to ensure that noise levels are kept to a minimum. We want to, for example, ensure that events are held within restricted time periods to ensure that our neighbours are not disturbed. When appropriate to events, we will therefore work closely with all other agencies that might have a responsibility or an interest in the aspects of the safe traffic management of the surrounding area, such as Transport NI and the police.

That brings me to the issue that was raised by the Member for South Belfast in relation to bus shelters and the issue of Sustrans. I will have my management team take a look at that particular issue.

There is also an issue around the number of buses. Sometimes, I use public transport to come from north Antrim to the House, and the train service is outstanding. I appreciate it and enjoy using it. The difficulty comes when you have to get a connection. I may be wrong, and I trust that I am not placing something on the record that is totally inaccurate but, from memory, I think that only two buses access the estate. That can become a particular challenge, and we may need to have a conversation with the Minister for transport on that.

It is also worth mentioning that two other organisations occupy part of the estate; the Assembly Commission, which I referred to, and the Northern Ireland Civil Service Sports Association. That issue was raised by my colleague Mr Lyttle, and the estate management team met the Pavilion management on the issue of access and will continue to work with them to seek a resolution that is acceptable to all. I am quite happy to keep the Member informed as to any other issues that come from that.

My officials will continue to liaise with those organisations to ensure that events do not clash and that areas of the estate for which my Department has responsibility are available as appropriate. I will take the comments made by my colleague Mr Douglas on board around the difficulties someone had getting wedding photographs taken. I have a wedding this year in my own home. I want to reassure you that it is not my own; I did that 28 years ago. I better not say any more or I will get into trouble, but I have a daughter getting married later this year, and I appreciate that, for those involved in that very special day, coming up against difficulties like that is an added pressure. I will ask my officials to look at that to see if we can have a more streamlined, open approach, and we will come back to the Member.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance 8:00 pm, 19th January 2016

I thank the Minister for giving way. I extend sincere thanks for his attendance at the debate this evening. I echo the calls for a first-class cycle storage facility on the estate. Another issue raised with me was to request the presence of a defibrillator, given the extent of the events that are going on in the estate now, if, indeed, that does not already exist. I just want to put that on the record. Thank you again, Minister.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for that. I will give an assurance that we will look at those additional issues. Having taken cognisance of all the comments that have been made, we will write to the Members present and give you an update on the issues that we will undertake following on from the debate.

In conclusion, we have to take historical, environmental and practical concerns into consideration in any discussion about using the estate, but, generally, if an event can be approved, it will be. Every event is facilitated as well as it possibly can be. I want to place my appreciation on record. When I came into office, I was made aware that we would have this Adjournment debate tonight, and I want to place on record the immense work carried out by the rangers and estate staff, and also include those in relation to the Commission here and those who look after this Building. We are well served by dedicated and professional staff who give a very good impression of the estate and the Building when visitors come, and I trust that we, collectively, can continue to ensure that Stormont estate and the Stormont buildings are the jewel in the crown in relation to our tourism product and the history of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

Thank you all very much. That was a very interesting debate.

Adjourned at 8.04 pm.