After years of controversy over bonfire building on its land at Castle Gardens, Newtownards, the Education Authority has erected cement barriers at the site to prevent locals from the nearby East End estate making a pyre this year for the eleventh night.
Following the Education Authority’s opposition to bonfire building on its site, officers at Ards and North Down Council made a report for elected representatives, in which it was recommended that the council did not support the Castle Gardens bonfire site by withholding funding to bonfire builders from the council’s Cultural Expressions Programme.
However at the recent meeting of the council’s Community and Wellbeing Committee, the majority of elected representatives chose to ignore the recommendation.
They instead voted to defer a decision on the matter for one month so a meeting could be held between the East End Residents Association, councillors and council officers, to continue talks to see “if any solutions exist.”
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The council report states: “The use of this site came under some scrutiny over the last couple of years, and in particular in 2021, mainly due it proximity to Ards Fire Station, and due to the large crowds gathering to watch the bonfire. Access and egress for the fire engines can be impeded, especially with the additional demands on the service on the eleventh night.”
It added: “The size and the location of the bonfire has caused damage to local businesses and residential properties in the past, and each year there are concerns that this damage could escalate due to the size of the bonfire, exacerbated by prevailing winds and weather conditions.
“The bonfire has also negatively impacted on recent environmental improvements made to the canal paths.”
It states: “The site is used by the Education Authority. Each year EA have attempted to secure the site, with fencing and a padlock, to deter the use of the site for this purpose, although these efforts have not been successful.”
It added: “It is also important to note that each year officers have engaged with the builders at the site to encourage them to better manage their bonfire, particularly to limit the size to reduce its negative impact in line with the council’s Cultural Expression Programme.
“Following the concerns raised in 2021, officers have been engaging both with EA and the bonfire builders to try and resolve the situation. EA have taken the decision to better secure the site, and have recently installed cement barriers to restrict access to the site.
“It has not been possible to identify an alternative site, and given that the EA have actively secured the site it would not be appropriate for the council to support a bonfire on this site if it is subject to trespass.”
UUP Councillor Richard Smart, who suggested deferring the decision for a month, said: “We have a significant issue there in terms of the EA’s guidance and what they want to see done with the site. That has been going on for some years.
“I was contacted by the residents association, who tell me they are very keen to help find solutions, wherever they can. It’s maybe difficult to see them right now, but I do think as a council we should take every opportunity to identify those solutions wherever possible, and have that engagement. It may not pay dividends, but it might be worth it.”
Alliance Councillor Nick Mathison asked for officers also to invite the Education Authority to the proposed meeting. He said: “My worry is that if the EA are explicitly withholding support and access to the site, we do need to be careful as a council in leaving ourselves open to what would be perceived as trespass.”
The sole nationalist elected representative, SDLP Councillor Joe Boyle said: “What we are dealing with here is a landowner who seems to have made a permanent decision by installing cement barriers. That to me would seem a firm decision has been made.”
He told the committee: “Some here are up for facing reality, and some are not up for facing reality, and some you could say are making mischief.”