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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.