Sale of Cultra Station House almost complete

Sketching of Cultra Station House by Cllr Larry Thompson
Cultra Station House in current state
Councillor Larry Thompson has welcomed news that the sale of Cultra Railway Station House has entered the final stages, with the historic listed building set to be refurbished and saved for future generations.

The North Down Councillor has been a vocal campaigner in the fight to save the local landmark and says he now looks forward to working with the purchaser to ensure plans for the refurbishment respect its listed status.

The building is currently owned by Ireland’s ‘bad bank’ NAMA and in recent years has fallen into disrepair, now being on sale for a fraction of its original value.

Councillor Larry Thompson said: “After a concerted campaign to Save Cultra Railway Station House I am delighted to report that contract has been signed, deposit paid and sale almost complete. With everything due to be finalised by Christmas many people are delighted to hear about this early Christmas Present for everyone across Holywood and beyond”

Continuing, Cllr Thompson remarked “I am particularly grateful to NI Environment Agency, Holywood Conservation Group, Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, Dominic Hannigan TD and the many other interested people and groups who helped bring the Save Cultra Station House campaign to this stage. Cultra Station House was designed by renowned architect Charles Lanyon, built in circa 1863 and listed in 2007 when threatened with demolition.”

He added: “With sale almost complete I look forward to working with the purchaser to ensure new plans for residential use respect the historic listed status of the Railway Station House.”

Readers can keep up to date with the refurbishment of the station house by visiting Save Cultra Station House Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SaveCultraStationHouse.

Cultra Station House is currently owned by Ireland's 'bad bank' NAMA. The old disused Railway building has fallen into disrepair in recent years and is now on sale for a fraction of its original value. Purchaser plans to restore the building using it as a residential site.

Muir encourages public to report Kinnegar sewage pollution pong

Cllr Muir at Kinnegar Lagoons attached          
I am continuing my campaign to end the sewage pollution problem in Holywood after recently meeting NI Water officials to discuss lack of progress to end the awful smell endured by many for several years.

I am also calling upon residents to report when the smell is particularly bad in order to establish areas affected and if problem relates to tidal times, heavy rainfall or the nearby waste water treatment plant.

I have been campaigning on this issue since becoming a Councillor over two years ago and am determined to see the issue resolved. After securing over £3m funding to fix the problem I have now been assured by NI Water that work has taken place to investigate exact cause and potential solutions.

Construction work is due to commence next year in two phases. Phase One will involve a new set-up to stop further pollution of the Kinnegar lagoons which are now heavily polluted with raw sewage. Phase Two will involve necessary remedial work to clean up the lagoons.

During my meeting I reiterated my profound disappointment that the problem remains unresolved outlining the high degree of interest shown by many including Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment. Holywood residents, workers and visitors shouldn't have to endure this smell any longer. Our environment should be protected and enhanced not destroyed and abused.

Whilst samples have been taken to ascertain source of the terrible smell NI Water remain unsure of the exact cause and if external factors are causing the problem such as tidal times, heavy rainfall or the nearby waste water treatment plant. I would therefore encourage local residents to report to me when they experience particularly bad sewage smells. Residents should email mail@andrewmuir.net when the smell is especially bad detailing time and date and location. Information gathered will then be passed onto NI Water in early 2013 to facilitate final design of the solution urgently required and sought by many.

Alliance calls for Chewing Gum Tax

The Alliance Party has urged the Minister for the Environment Alex Attwood MLA to consider the introduction of a Chewing Gum Tax to help cover the cost of removal of the sticky substance from pavements across Northern Ireland.
The Party has made their call for a Chewing Gum Tax after conducting research which indicates that removal costs in Bangor Town Centre could be £16,000 p/a with Holywood Town Centre clean-up costs in the region of £6,000 p/a. No clean-up is currently taking place due to the high costs incurred.
Commenting on the issue, Alliance Environment Spokesperson Anna Lo MLA stated "Chewing Gum is rightly seen as a scourge for Town Centre's across Northern Ireland. Many Town Centre's have recently been revitalised through new pavements and street furniture but are now fast being destroyed due to chewing gum and other litter which degrades the beautiful surfaces just laid.
Whilst we can debate whether funding should go towards prevention or clean-up it is clear that concerted action is needed to tackle this sticky problem. The voluntary regulation regime needs tightened up without delay whilst consideration is given concerning whether a Chewing Gum Tax is practical and necessary. No longer should Northern Ireland be denied a voice at the Chewing Gum Action Group. Valuable lessons can also be learnt concerning how Ireland have approached the issue".
Commenting on the tax raising implications, Alliance MP Naomi Long stated "After thoroughly researching the matter it remains unclear whether Northern Ireland Assembly would have the power to raise a specific levy on Chewing Gum products to cover prevention and clean-up costs. I have therefore tabled a question to HM Treasury in an effort to establish if any legal basis exists for a tax and, if not, whether Northern Ireland can be offered a place at the Action Group table".
Concluding, North Down Alliance Councillor Andrew Muir stated "With clean-up costs in North Down potentially in the region of £22,000 each year and both Bangor and Holywood Town Centre's due to receive new pavements and public realm schemes in the near future I am most concerned that Northern Ireland lacks the necessary powers to tackle this problem.
With North Down Borough Council facing the prospect of having to pass on the £22,000 clean-up costs to the rate payers once each Town Centre is spruced up action is urgently required. No longer should chewing gum companies be able to cream a nice profit each year whilst rate payers suffer the financial burden of removal.
I welcome the support offered from the Association of Town Centre Managers toward some form of tax on gum to help fund a clean-up and look forward to hearing the views of Minister Attwood on the issue."

Muir champions Cycle Hire Schemes for Bangor & Holywood

Cllr Andrew Muir cycling in Holywood
I am delighted to have gained the support of North Down Borough Council to explore if Cycle Hire Schemes can be provided in Bangor and Holywood.* If ratified by Council next week officers will prepare a report on options, issues and costs associated with provision of Schemes in each town.

Cycling is quick, good for your health, the environment and increasingly popular. By providing opportunities for people to hire a bike in Bangor and Holywood for leisurely rides we will hopefully make North Down an even more attractive place to live, work and visit.

Whilst most users will not use the bikes to commute to work introducing Cycle Hire Schemes will give people the chance to try out the bicycle around North Down on the cycle paths and lanes already in place as a result of investment made by North Down Borough Council and the Roads Service with due respect given by all shared path users.

A number of towns have already rolled out cycle hire schemes with great success. I therefore hope that the report will be available shortly and prove that Cycle Hire Schemes in Bangor and Holywood are indeed viable. A variety of options exist which can be adapted to meet the needs of large and medium towns similar to Bangor and Holywood.

Earlier this year former Mayor of North Down Cllr James McKerrow and I visited Dublin and met the Lord Mayor of Dublin Cllr Andrew Montague. Cllr Montague pioneered the Dublin Bikes scheme which has been an enormous success with 95% of people feeling that dublinbikes has had a positive effect on the infrastructure of Dublin.

Dublin Bikes Scheme with Bicycle friendly
Borough Coordinator Mary Lappin
Inspired by stories of success from across Europe I am keen to continue championing cycling as a Councillor, Sustrans Cycling Ranger and Member of North Down Cycling Club putting the wheels in motion towards a Bicycle friendly Borough.

Following the success of similar schemes across Europe the Dublin Bikes Scheme was introduced in 2009 and has since proven extremely popular as one of the busiest bike share rental schemes in the world with 550 bicycles in use, over 4 million journeys taken to date and each bike used on average 10 times a day with extremely low levels of vandalism and abuse.

Dublin Bikes success has since been mirrored in London with 8,000 ‘Boris Bikes’ supplied by Serco facilitating over 17 million journeys whilst plans are now afoot to introduce another scheme in Belfast featuring 300 bikes and 30 docking stations after award of £700,000 funding by Department for Regional Development to Belfast City Council.

*Notice of Notice passed Tuesday 13 November 2012 for ratification by full Council on Tuesday 27 November 2012 - "That this Council welcomes the benefits of a Bicycle friendly Borough and requests that officers bring back a report on options, issues and costs associated with provision of public Cycle Hire Schemes in Bangor and Holywood."

Muir congratulates Holywood Athlete Paul Pollock after achieving NI 10km Champion status

After completing the Dublin Marathon a few weeks ago as first Irish man in a blistering 2hrs 16mins 33seconds Paul’s achievement at the Seeley Cup is yet another sign that Paul is now one of Northern Ireland’s Premier Athletes.

Paul completed the Podium 4 Sport Seeley Cup 10km Road Race on Saturday 17 November 2012 in an amazing 30minutes 40seconds thereby achieving Northern Ireland 10km Champion status. This is a massive achievement for Paul, his club (Annadale Striders), friends, family and Holywood. I wish him every success at future events in 2013.

Whilst I completed the race in a relatively mere 41mins 32seconds it was a great course with nearly 1,000 people taking part. Anyone inspired by Paul’s achievements and keen to try out running should consider joining one of their local Athletics Clubs for the necessary support and guidance to get you across the finish line. Details are available at www.athleticsni.org or locally at www.northdownac.co.uk

More information on Seeley Cup and
Paul's achievement at http://www.nirunning.co.uk/race-review

Alliance Councillors Lead Change for Equal Marriage in North Down

Alliance Councillor Michael Bower raised the issue of Equal Civil Marriage at North Down Borough Council on Tuesday night this week, saying it was simply a matter of equality.
Alliance joined with the Green Party, with Councillor Bower receiving messages of support and encouragement from across the Borough, demonstrating the backing the issue has locally.

In September Alliance became the first main party to form a policy in favour of the introduction of same sex civil marriage. Passing with 80 percent support, the vote took place after months of consultation with party members and associations, led by Deputy Leader Naomi Long MP, and called for equal civil marriage with robust protection for faith groups.

In line with the Party's September ruling Councillor Michael Bower, Councillor Andrew Muir, Councillor Christine Bower, Councillor Larry Thompson and Councillor Anne Wilson all voted in favour of the motion.

Speaking in the chamber, Councillor Michael Bower said: "I am someone who values marriage, so why would I wish to exclude anyone who also wants to enter into such a union with the person they love. Who are we to place a hierarchy of importance on two individuals' love for each other?

"One of the arguments against extending civil marriage provision to same-sex couples is that it would be a 'Trojan horse' to forcing religious organisations to officiate over same-sex marriage ceremonies. This would simply not be the case.

"No church or religious organisation would be compelled to do so, no more than any is compelled to officiate over a ceremony involving a divorcee, a non-believer, or absolutely anyone for that matter. The motion clearly addresses these concerns. In fact, were any proposal be made to introduce a law which would force religious organisations to officiate over same-sex marriage ceremonies I would unambiguously oppose it. My commitment to equality in this instance is matched by my commitment to freedom of religion.

"But of course, freedom of religion works both ways and it is wrong, as is currently the case, that couples of same-sex in Northern Ireland cannot have a legal ceremony in a place of worship, even if the religious organisation consents to it.

"This proposal to extend civil marriage rights to same-sex couples effects no-one other than those couples who would now have the right to get married. It does not weaken my marriage or any other persons' and it saddens me to see people claim that it will lead to some breakdown in society and devastation across the land. This is sensationalistic language which does nothing other than to increase the sense of isolation and inequality that many people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender feel today.

"I want to stand up for them. To let them feel that they have a voice. To give them hope, that one day they will experience a Northern Ireland which is genuinely shared, and actually embraces and celebrates diversity.

Councillor Larry Thompson – the oldest male member of the Council – also spoke in favour of the motion, saying it was a human rights issue.

He added: "England, Scotland and Wales have already taken strides towards Equal Civil marriage and Northern Ireland is in danger of being left behind.  Society is changing and we must change with it."

As Chair of the meeting I do not speak in relation to the motion but voted in support.

Muir encourages public to respond to Dog By-laws consultation

Cllr Muir and friend's dog Josh on
North Down Coastal Path
I am encouraging the public to respond to the consultation concerning possible new by-laws affecting dog owners in North Down after securing an extension to the consultation deadline.

North Down Borough Council are seeking the views of the public concerning a number of proposals including possible requirement that dogs must be on a lead in certain areas such as the North Down Coastal Path.

With major concerns already expressed in relation to these proposals I feel that it’s vital that people have ample time to express their views. Council website should also be updated with contact details where feedback should be sent along with the full draft consultation document to ensure the consultation is a meaningful exercise.

I therefore proposed that the consultation deadline be extended from 15 November to 10 December 2012 at a Council meeting last Tuesday 6 November and am grateful to the other Councillors who agreed this proposal. Officers have also agreed to update the website with more information and details how to send feedback.

North Down Coastal Path and the beaches affected by the proposed Dog Control Orders are shared places for use by a variety of users whether they be pedestrians, dog walkers, cyclists, wheelchair users or runners. Safe enjoyment by all can be ensured by everyone showing common sense, respect and courtesy.

If this is not possible then By-Laws exist as an option to ensure safe use of the path and beaches but must be carefully structured to tackle the small minority of irresponsible dog walkers, cyclists, runners etc. Wide ranging overly restrictive and possibly unenforceable rules and bans should be avoided which, if implemented, could deny many people the opportunity to enjoy the jewels in North Down’s crown.

Whilst I do not want to judge the outcome of the public consultation it seems that Council would may be wise to re-think some of the controversial and rather draconian Dog Control Orders to ensure responsible dog owners are not unfairly punished. I recently walked along the Coastal Path with a much loved dog owned by a good friend and encountered many dogs on and off the lead none of which were behaving in a dangerous unruly manner.

This does not ignore the legitimate concerns expressed by some concerning the small number of dangerous dogs sometimes encountered off the lead or a small minority of cyclists who speed along the path in a wreckless manner. Leisurely cycles along recently upgraded sections of the path is permitted, dangerous cycling at speed is unsafe, wrong and should be condemned and forbidden. A wider review to prohibit dangerous and discourteous behaviour by all path users may therefore seem wise to address the legitimate fears and concerns expressed to date.

Readers seeking to find out more about the dog By-Laws can visit www.northdown.gov.uk and send their views to david.brown@northdown.gov.uk until 10 December 2012.

Alliance urges progress on Town Centre Residents Parking

North Down Alliance representatives have called upon the Department for Regional Development to end on-going delays and give a clear timescale for the introduction of Town Centre Residents Parking Permits in Bangor and Holywood.

The Alliance Councillors have made their call after conducting a survey in Bangor and Holywood Town Centres which demonstrated strong support for Residents Parking Permits schemes in areas blighted with parking difficulties.

Commenting on the issue, Alliance Councillor Michael Bower stated "With 97% of respondents calling for a Residents Parking Scheme in their street the demand for action is clear.

Many residents we spoke to recalled the practical difficulties being encountered without a parking permits scheme such as being unable to park close to their home and having to carry shopping extremely long distances. This is unacceptable and preventable. With government now encouraging Town Centre living urgent action is required to address this issue."

Continuing, I remarked "I am often contacted by people residing in Holywood Town Centre concerned about the parking situation in places such Trevor Street, Downshire Road and Spencer Street puzzled why no scheme has yet been introduced to let them park near their home and querying how much the permits will cost.

Whilst a mixed response was received concerning how much the fee should be (47% of respondents willing to pay a fee, 14% up to £30, 22% £30 to £60 and 53% feeling that no charge should be made) the clear opinion of those surveyed indicates that discounted permits should be available for the elderly and those in receipt of benefits with 74% supporting such. The previously proposed fee of £80 would clearly be unacceptable in light of the survey findings".

Commenting on when the permits should apply, Alliance Councillor Christine Bower stated "Whilst 86% of respondents want the scheme to apply All Week 58% want it in operation 24 hours a day and remaining opinion split between 8am to 6pm and 8am to 10pm."

Continuing, Stephen Farry MLA remarked "Although no strong desire seems to exist for a second permit per household with 73% against it is, however, recognised that some system should be in place to cater for visitors whether this be a permit per property (58% in favour) or a token book (21% in favour). We have written to the Minister for Regional Development to pass on all of our findings and hope he will give them due consideration.".

Concluding, Cllr Michael Bower stated "Whilst I recognise that the issue is not simple and straightforward on-going delays dating back to 2008 are unacceptable. A clear basis for action exists based upon sound research. We have therefore written to the Minister calling for an end to the dither, delay and indecision and a confirmed timescale for action".

Muir congratulates Holywood runner on Dublin Marathon success

I have expressed my congratulations to Holywood man Dr Paul Pollock on his success at the 2012 Dublin Marathon. Paul was the first Irish man to complete the Marathon in a blistering 2hrs 16mins 33seconds, inside the time required to qualify for next year’s World Championships.

To finish as the first Irish Male amongst the 14,535 athletes who took part in the Dublin Marathon is a fantastic achievement. Both Paul, his friends and family, his club (Annadale Striders) and Holywood should be extremely proud of this amazing attainment with Paul running faster than any Northern Irish athlete in 20 years.

As a Holywood resident and keen member of North Down Athletics Club who can only dream of completing a Marathon in such an amazing time I look forward to watching Paul achieve even further successes. Paul has now established himself as one of our premier athletes.

Muir delivers cycle rack at Sainsbury's Bangor

Cllr Andrew Muir and Sainsbury’s
Bangor Manager John Lockhart
with new Cycle Rack
I am encouraging people to use the new cycle rack at Sainsbury’s Bangor after I successfully lobbied for installation of the rack.

Following opening of the store late last year I was contacted by cyclists keen to have somewhere secure to leave their bike when shopping in the new Sainsbury’s store.

After contacting Sainsbury’s and following up the issue with Headquarters and Store Management I am delighted that the landlord has now provided a cycle rack outside the store.

With a rack now in place I would encourage anyone wishing to pick up a few items to ‘Try something new today’ and consider cycling which is quick, environmentally friendly and good for your health.

After securing this rack I am determined to keep working to build a Bicycle friendly Borough and would encourge readers to support the campaign at www.facebook.com/bicyclefriendlyborough

Muir comments on Alcohol Law change proposals

The Department for Social Development are currently consulting on proposed Changes to the Law Regulating the Sale and Supply of Alcohol in Northern Ireland.

Consultation documentation can be accessed at this link.  Deadline for comments is 12 November 2012.

Whilst some of the proposals seem wise and will help to clarify the law to deal with recent developments such as a new bitter with 44.7% alcohol content many of the plans put forward for consultation could be seen as unnecessarily draconian.

We must be careful not to adopt a prohibition mind-set when considering Alcohol Licensing.

The general desire to safeguard society from the ill effects of alcohol must not dissolve the right to enjoy alcohol responsibly.

In these difficult economic times we need to be focused upon supporting businesses and safeguarding society without adopting a ‘nanny state’.

Full justification is therefore required before applying any more red tape and rules which could limit ability of businesses to trade and result in significant extra running costs.

Muir privileged to be awarded Honorary Membership of North Down Cycling Club

I feel very privileged to have recently been granted Honorary Membership of North Down Cycling Club, described by the club as an "exceptionally rare distinction".

The club further states on their web site that I have been awarded membership "In recognition of the work that he has performed to promote safer cycling in the North Down area. Anyone who has cycled on our roads will know that this is a massive battle since most North Down drivers have, at best, a vague understanding of how to share the road".

Since becoming a Councillor over two years ago I have greatly enjoyed combining this role with my interest in sustainable transport as a Sustrans Cycling Ranger and sport as a member of North Down Athletics Club to establish a Bicycle friendly Borough. Cycling is good for the body, mind and environment and must be made safer and more attractive.

When I became aware of inconsiderate and sometimes dangerous driving by lorries servicing quarries in the Craigantlet Hills I immediately took action liaising with the Police and meeting quarry owners onsite. Through this determined approach I hope that lorries will no longer endanger the lives of cyclists. I do however encourage anyone with concerns to contact me if the problem reoccurs.

In addition to this work I continue to lobby the Council and other bodies to upgrade the final section of the North Down Coastal Path to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians alike. More recently I have also called upon Council to change the by-laws, remove the No Cycling Signs and lift the threat of prosecution for any cyclists using sections of the path already upgraded to accommodate cyclists.

In recent months I personally raised concerns with the Justice Minister concerning the need for an improved response from the Criminal Justice System concerning motorists who injure cyclists on the road. Every ghost bike is one too many.

I am also campaigning for the provision of improved cycling parking facilities in Bangor and Holywood Town Centres, a Cycle Hire Scheme, greater enforcement to ensure safe unobstructed passage along cycle lanes, improved Cycle Path cleanliness through regular sweeping to remove debris and a new cycle path network between Belfast and Donaghadee using the pavement and spare road space near Orlock.

I will continue to work with all relevant partners in the Bicycle Friendly Borough campaign to address these and other issues. Together We shall Overcome and put the wheels in motion towards a safer and more attractive cycling culture in North Down.

I look forward to engaging with North Down Cycling Club, geared up to attend next Social Event and maybe one day soon will be found out with the club zooming past in the legendary pink and black North Down Cycling Club colours on a club run.

Councillor, North Down Borough Council (Alliance Party)
Sustrans Volunteer Cycling Ranger
North Down Athletics Club member -
competing in 5k, 10k and Half Marathon Road races
Vice Chair, Alliance Party of Northern Ireland 

Muir raises questions concerning Creationism at Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre

I recently submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) questions to various government departments to ascertain background to the decision by the National Trust to reflect Creationism within their new Giant's Causeway Visitors Centre.

Whilst Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure responded detailing no information was held, Department of the Environment released one document revealing lobbying by "Causeway Creation Committee" sponsored by Dunluce Christian Fellowship.

After making a compliant and raising the matter with the media Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) released some information which 
raises more questions than it answers. 

Whilst I am grateful that Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment have finally released the documents requested on 8 July 2012 I am disappointed information is so heavily redacted and strangely sparse. On the basis of the information provided some serious questions do however need to be answered by the Department.

Within DETI FOI response is an email dated 9 November 2009 which states “I’ve amended draft to take on board NITB comment re National Trust unwillingness to accept Creationism to be included in the exhibition , as a grant condition. Are you content for submission to be submitted?

Did the previous or current DETI Minister seek to impose requirement to include Creationism as a Grant Condition? 

Were any contractual obligations imposed upon the National Trust to meet the needs to creationist campaigners such as Caleb?

Transparency and openness in relation to this issue is urgently required. I therefore call upon DETI to clarify without delay the role played by previous and current Enterprise Ministers in relation to inclusion of Creationism within the new Giants Causeway Centre.

Organisations such as Caleb should not be given any undue influence on independent organisations such as the National Trust as a result of the political inclination of government Ministers. Religion and Politics must be kept separate. The place for creationist theories is in Church not tourist attractions such as the new Giants Causeway Visitors Centre.

A further Freedom of Information request has now been submitted to the NI Tourist Board to find out exactly why creationism appeared at the Visitors Centre.

Muir welcomes Twisel Bridge agreement

I welcome news that North Down Borough Council and Roads Service have formally agreed future arrangements concerning upkeep of Twisel Bridge, Holywood. 

The bridge is known locally as the Kissing Bridge and used by pedestrians to travel between Victoria Road and Church Road, Holywood.

Twisel Bridge, Holywod
© Copyright 
Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
After a significant amount of lobbying I am glad to see Twisel Bridge tidied up and agreement reached concerning future upkeep. 

Two years ago Twisel Bridge and associated path was in a terrible state but after relentlessly raising the issue safe passage is possible, memorial stone cleaned up and formal agreement in place to ensure it doesn’t fall back into disrepair.

Alliance concerned viewers will lose Irish television stations through digital switchover

Alliance representatives have raised concerns that people across Northern Ireland will be unable to pick up RTE, TG4 and TV3 television channels, after the digital switchover starts tomorrow, October 10.
Earlier this year Ministers confirmed RTE 1, RTE 2 and TG4 will be available via Freeview following completion of the Digital Switchover on October 24, 2012.
However Alliance Councillors Andrew Muir and Patrick Clarke have now discovered viewers will need to obtain a new Freeview HD box to receive RTE and TG4, with TV 3 set to remain unavailable.
And with supplies of Freeview HD boxes running low, some viewers could face a longer wait to have full access to these channels.
BT Vision viewers will also have to wait until early 2013 to get RTE, whilst Saorview coverage will be patchy limiting ability of Northern Ireland's residents to pick-up Ireland's Freeview service.
Whilst I welcome the move to provide RTE and TG4 via Freeview, it is important that the public are aware of the technical limitations.
Viewers currently watching Digital Terrestrial TV need to check if they have a Freeview HD box if they wish to pick-up RTE rather than the traditional Freeview Standard boxes which won't be able to show RTE 1, 2 and TG4.
Anyone eligible for the Digital Switchover Help Scheme should make sure they request a Freeview HD box at the time of ordering if they wish to pick-up RTE, otherwise they could be left with just the standard channels currently available.
I am very disappointed to learn that the Digital Switchover scheme has run out of Freeview HD boxes, but encouraged that they will provide a standard box straight away and return a few weeks later to upgrade viewers to HD free of charge.
I am also disappointed at the exclusion of TV3 from the Freeview platform, and that BT Vision boxes cannot be upgraded to Freeview HD.
I accept that Freeview can never offer a limitless number of channels, but I am particularly disappointed that TV3 will remain unavailable due to the technical and commercial reasons cited by Department Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in their recent letter. TV3 is a popular channel watched by many and should be available across the Island of Ireland.
With many people now watching Freeview via BT Vision I was particularly concerned to learn that the boxes cannot be upgraded to Freeview HD.
After contacting BT's Chief Executive I am however assured that their Belfast based Global Development Centre plans to adapt the boxes and stream RTE 1, 2 and TG4 via the internet to each BT Vision box, with a full release currently planned for January-March 2013. Whilst a number of months after the completion of the Digital Switchover this innovative development built in Belfast should help provide a useful workaround.
Cllr Patrick Clarke
Commenting on the patchy Saorview coverage across Northern Ireland, Down District Alliance Councillor Patrick Clarke added: "With many viewers unwilling to upgrade to Freeview HD boxes and keen to view the many Irish Channels via Ireland's Freeview service Saorview, I am very concerned that many parts of Northern Ireland will be unable to pick-up a Saorview signal.
"Many of my constituents in Newcastle and Dundrum will remain unable to pick-up broadcasts from South of the Border due to the Mourne Mountains and rightfully request a booster signal.
"I have therefore written to Ireland's Communications and Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte seeking an update if any plans exist to boost Saorview coverage in the North and look forward to his response.
"Through concerted action Alliance is determined to ensure all viewers are able to avail of the Digital Switchover benefits. Anyone with any further questions concerning the Digital Switchover should visit www.digitaluk.co.uk"

Alliance Leads Change for more locally grown food

Alliance North Down Councillors have planted the seeds for more locally grown food in the area, with Cllr Harbinson and I jointly persuading the Council to assess current options and costs for increasing allotments within the Borough.

We have also called on the Council to consider other Big Society Community alternatives, if the cost of increasing allotments within the Borough proves too great.

Speaking after the ratification of the proposal to examine allotment provision, Councillor Adam Harbinson said: "I welcome the Council's decision to explore the possibility of increased allotment provision and look forward to working with my Council colleagues as we move forward on this issue.

"The Alliance Party is a long time campaigner of community food initiatives, which can help cut household budgets and are good for the health and our communities. There is a broad consensus that growing your own vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers is a therapeutic activity, good for the environment and our economy.

"The benefits of allotments and other initiatives promoting locally grown food can already be seen in Kilcooley, where produce is being distributed to needy families in the area."

We look forward to receiving the Officer's report and, conscious of the need to keep any rates rises to a minimum in the current economic climate, also call on the Council to explore other Big Society alternatives, such as the fantastic Growing Connections initiative currently being delivered near Six Road Ends and the Community Orchard idea being championed by Holywood Transition Town.

Alliance Leading Change for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people

Alliance at Belfast Pride

On 1 September over 80% of Alliance delegates voted in favour of Marriage Equality by endorsing a motion in favour of same sex civil marriage after an internal process led by Alliance Deputy Leader Naomi Long MP.  A copy of the motion is provided at the end of this blog entry.

Whilst some would seek to focus on this significant step in isolation I see it as part of wider efforts by Alliance to build an inclusive Shared Society for all.

Our move to support Same Sex Civil Marriage (which I will touch upon later) was preceded by the inspirational and decisive announcement in late July by Alliance Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry MLA to fund a project to raise awareness amongst over 2,000 employers on the issues which affect lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the workplace.

Alliance Justice Minister and Party Leader David Ford MLA has meanwhile been standing up, speaking out and taking strategic actions to tackle all forms of Hate Crime as a key partner in the Unite Against Hate campaign.

Alliance fought hard for Hate Crime legislation and the inclusion of homophobia and disability as motivating factors and is determined to stamp out all forms of Hate Crime through the new Community Safety Strategy recently unveiled by Minister Ford.

It is often said that together we are stronger. In this sprit Alliance has continually pressed Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMdFM) for a Sexual Orientation Strategy. On International Day Against Homophobia this year Alliance MLA Anna Lo again demanded publication of the long awaited strategy which has been promised since 2008. Joining up government to build a better future for lesbian, gay and bisexual people makes sense. Dither and delay doesn’t.

Inclusion of lesbian, gay and bisexual people within a new Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy (CSI) also makes sense. Adopting hierarchies and a separate but equal approach by focusing merely on religion, political opinion and race fails to recognise the need to tackle the underlying prejudice that exists towards many minorities.

Alliance OFMdFM spokesperson Chris Lyttle MLA has been working relentlessly for a better, stronger and more inclusive Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy despite the shambles and shenanigans within the CSI Working Group. Casual scant references to gay people will not be acceptable to the LGB community nor Alliance. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people should be integral parts of any new strategy not afterthoughts.

Strategies are however worthless if Ministers stand idly by whilst lesbian, gay and bisexual people face discrimination, bullying and harassment. Actions speak louder than words.

Alliance has therefore been persistently lobbying the DUP Health Minister to end the discriminatory Gay Blood Ban. Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy continues to question, probe and demand action and will not rest until this irrational ban is lifted and Northern Ireland brought inline with the rest of the UK.

Alliance Education Spokesperson Trevor Lunn MLA also continues to seek action from the Sinn Fein Education Minister on the issue of Homophobic Bullying. Alongside Judith Cochrane MLA Trevor has tabled many questions asking why no specific concerted action is being taken to stamp out this particularly evil form of bullying against perhaps the most vulnerable people in our society.

Alliance Chief Whip Stewart Dickson MLA and I greatly enjoyed meeting representatives from the Rainbow Project last week to discuss these and other issues.

A significant amount of our time also focused on the battle for Marriage Equality, recently described by the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore TD as "the civil rights issue of this generation".

Same Sex Civil Marriage is immensely important to the Alliance Party because it sends a strong message about the type of shared society we desire where lesbian gay and bisexual people are respected and valued as equal citizens.

As Vice Chair of the Alliance Party I welcomed the internal debate which took place during the consultation phase and have no issue if dissent and debate continues internally in a disciplined and moderate manner but no longer can the issue be considered a matter of individual conscience. A binding position has now been reached.

With the right to freedom of religion robustly protected within the motion Alliance has agreed a way to deliver Marriage Equality whilst ensuring that no church or religious celebrant is forced to undertake same sex civil marriages if they disagree, perfectly balancing individual rights and views (for and against) alongside the responsibility of the state to treat all citizens equally. Active public opposition won’t be accepted nor is it expected from any Alliance Elected Representative.

Some people say that Same Sex Civil Marriage isn’t necessary after the introduction of Civil Partnership legislation in 2005. Whilst Civil Partnerships provide many legal entitlements akin to marriage a form of discrimination is still being upheld similar to the ‘cups incident’ recalled within Nelson Mandela’s autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’.

Within Mandela’s book he recalls the seemingly kind offer of a cup of tea made when he commenced employment at a legal practice in Johannesburg. Everyone was offered tea but when it came to the cups a small but crucial distinction was made. Black employees were not allowed to use the same cups as their white co-workers.

Lesbian and gay people in Northern Ireland are today also being offered a cup of tea but when it comes to the cups opposite sex couples get china cups (Civil Marriage) whilst same sex couples get a mug (Civil Partnerships).

While this is unfair and must stop Northern Ireland faces the real risk of being stuck in a legal limbo for a generation whilst Scotland, England, Wales and possibly Ireland legislates to enable Equal Marriage. Inaction by NI Assembly due to the veto held by the DUP could cause a significant inequality strangely caused because of the Peace Process and devolution which, despite delivering many positive benefits also hands the DUP the right to put the brake on gay equality.

Those who wish to leave the issue for the courts to decide fail to realise the length of time that will have to elapse for a case to be built and considered. We would also be entering unknown territory with Article 14 not tested in Dudgeon v United Kingdom (Decriminalisation of homosexuality in NI at European Court of Human Rights) re disparity of treatment in NI compared to GB.

For many years Alliance has called for an end to the sectarian carve up the Assembly. Designating MLAs as Unionist, Nationalist or Cross Community and handing the DUP & Sinn Fein a veto over everything (via Petition of Concern) must end for Same Sex Civil Marriage to become law. We’ve offered the alternative (weighted majorities) and it’s up to others whether they wish to join us, make the changes and put their own principles over any lust for power.

Michelle Obama recently said that 'Change is hard and change is slow'.

Alliance is prepared for the hard slow battle ahead based because, as Labi Siffre says  “Something Inside So Strong”

‘Something Inside So Strong’ - Labi Siffre

Same Sex Civil Marriage Motion agreed by Alliance Party Council

That, in line with Alliance's core commitment to equality and to freedom of religion, Party Council supports the extension of civil marriage provisions to same sex couples, provided that robust protections are provided through legislation to ensure that faith groups and religious celebrants will not be forced to conduct same sex marriage ceremonies or to have them conducted on their premises.

In recognition of the importance of freedom of religion, Alliance further believes that faith groups which, in conscience, wish to marry same sex couples should not be prevented by the state from doing so. We would also support the extension of the authority to solemnise marriages to accredited Humanist Celebrants, which cannot currently do so.

Muir takes Kinnegar pollution problem to Europe

Sewage pollution at Kinnegar Lagoons is now so bad that I have been forced to take the problem to the European Parliament.
I have made the move after Holywood was left to suffer yet another smelly summer at the hands of Northern Ireland Water.
Fed up with the pollution and associated pong, I have arranged for an MEP to ask Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment, what action the EU is taking to resolve the issue.
I am shocked to discover NI Water has shelved plans to fix the problem until 2013/14 - issues like the pollution at Kinnegar Lagoons proves the need for an Independent Environmental Protection Agency.
In August 2010 I was assured that Holywood would not have to ensure yet another smelly Summer but it's now clear that NI Water have been slow to stop the sewage smell which has been particularly bad in recent weeks. I have therefore arranged for an MEP to ask Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment if he is aware of the situation and what action the EU is taking.
Whilst awaiting a response from Commissioner Potočnik, I recently convened a meeting with Senior NI Water officials to find out why NI Water is prolonging the pollution problem. During my meeting I was shocked to discover that whilst a solution must be in place by 2015 due to regulatory requirements budgetary pressures meant that the scheme has been deferred until 2013/14 due to other competing priorities.
Whilst I am glad at the progress I have achieved to date including £100,000 to identify the cause and over £3.5m earmarked for a solution, implementation has been held up for far too long.
During my meeting I was also informed that bore hole soil samples are being taken to discover the extent of the pollution now caused and that more regular maintenance and de-silting of the Combined Sewer Overflows is taking place to reduce amount of raw sewage emptied into the Lagoons.
Whilst this work is welcome the impact has unfortunately been negligible and the full scheme is required without delay including closure of the Combined Sewer Overflows, a new Emergency Storage Tank and cleaning up the lagoons to remove the massive amounts of sewage which regularly causes the problematic pong. Planning Applications must be made as soon as possible to get things back on track. Local wildlife, residents, workers and commuters have suffered for far too long.
The entire situation proves yet again that an acceptable level of pollution exists in Northern Ireland. Without an Independent Environmental Protection Agency and strong enforcement action by the Department of the Environment, NI Water are able to drag their heels and continue pumping raw sewage into Kinnegar Lagoons. Alliance will continue to campaign for such an Agency despite the opposition of others.

Campaign to save Cultra Station ready to depart

North Down Alliance Councillor Larry Thompson has welcomed news that a secure future may be on the horizon for Cultra Station House.
Currently owned by Ireland's 'bad bank' NAMA, the old disused Railway building has fallen into disrepair in recent years and is now on sale for a fraction of its original value.
Alliance Councillors Larry Thompson and myself have continuously campaigned to save the local landmark - have recently learnt of a potential purchaser who, if successful, plans to restore the building, using it as a residential site.
Councillor Larry Thompson said: "Since becoming aware of the building's current plight I have been working with Councillor Andrew Muir, Holywood Conservation Group, local residents and others to save this historic building, which faces a bleak future if not saved soon.
In the last few weeks I was delighted to learn about the unconditional interest being shown by a potential purchaser who seeks to acquire and restore the building for residential use. A condition Survey has been commissioned and bid for purchase made despite the building's dilapidated state.
After reading the Condition Report, which outlined the dire state of the building, I was particularly pessimistic, but news from NAMA provides a glimmer of hope that the campaign to save Cultra Station House may soon be ready to depart."
Through my contacts at The Dail I have sought to expedite the sale and am glad to report that, despite initial problems, NAMA now report that a 'competitive sales process is being conducted' and parties are 'in further negotiations'.
I now understand that these negotiations are in a final stage and whilst I accept NAMAs statement that 'the final sale price will have to reflect independent assessment of market value' sale possibilities seem positive."
Cultra Station on 9th November 1957 Photo from Downpatrick and County Down Railway
Readers can keep up to date on the campaign by visiting Save Cultra Station House Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SaveCultraStationHouse.
Condition report
The Condition Report, conducted as part of the sales process, outlines some of the issues affecting the building after lead valleys and artificial slates were stolen and it was allowed to fall into its current state. The report makes the following conclusions;
Cultra Railway Station consists of a single storey station building and attached two storey stationmasters house located within a popular and much sought after part of Co. Down close to main arterial routes into Belfast City Centre.
The property is listed, however, it is evident that a large number of alterations have been carried out in the past which would likely not have been approved if the property was listed at the time the alterations were carried out namely the removal of the chimney stacks, the replacement of the original roof covering with artificial slates and the fitting of uPVC rainwater goods.
The property is in an extremely dilapidated condition with holes to the roof where lead has been stolen, dampness to chimneys due to a lack of lead trays, some movement to external walls, significant dry rot throughout the property, poor plaster, poor ceilings, significant dampness to walls, and dated services. The entire property will require complete gutting should any future use be considered.
It is the opinion of the author of this report that given the level of refurbishment necessary to the subject property for any future use following refurbishment it would likely prove more economically viable to demolish and rebuild the property. However due to the listed status of the building this is unlikely to be possible.
It is considered essential that the property remain fully secure due to the health and safety risk associated with the property where no balustrading exists, dry rot exists to first floor areas and where much asbestos appears to exist.
From 'A Letter From Ulster' supplied byDownpatrick and County Down Railway
Cultra Station House was built in 1897 assumed to be designed by G.P. Culverwell. The property is built in typical decorative red brick late Victorian fashion. The property consists of a listed building partially two storey and partially single storey positioned to the side of the railway tracks at Cultra. The two storey portion of the property was originally living accommodation for the station master and the single storey portion was the area for waiting, ticket collection and other areas associated with a railway station.
Property has been a private dwelling since at least 1937 and in private ownership since 1957, vacated 1970s when it fell into disrepair, vandalised and used for anti-social behaviour.