Up to £10million is to be spent on Hillsborough Castle, taking in the courthouse and nearby fort, in a project ultimately expected to attract more than 200,000 visitors a year .
Richard Harrold of Historic Royal Palaces revealed the plans in a meeting with Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson.
HRP is in final-stage negotiations with the Northern Ireland Office to take on management of Hillsborough Castle, a move dogged by controversy over the forced eviction of Praxis Care from its ‘Secret Garden’, in which it invested £400,000 while employing 16 people with learning difficulties.
Denied compensation and unable, it says, to afford the move to an alternative site, Praxis has won widespread local support by way of a protest campaign and petition.
Mr Donaldson raised the issue with Mr Harrold.
“I urged HRP, in conjunction with the NIO, to find a way of accommodating Praxis in terms of a continuing relationship with Hillsborough Castle,” he said, “and I understand discussions are ongoing between Praxis and the NIO.
“I have also made clear to the NIO that if they are unable to accommodate Praxis at Hillsborough they should assist the charity to find an alternative location and also compensate them for the investment they have made.”
The Secret Garden sits in grounds very much part of HRP’s development vision, with which it reportedly hopes to enlist the aid of the Royal Horticultural Society.
“They are developing a plan which would envisage an investment of up to £10million in Hillsborough Castle, to enhance facilities, including the visitor experience at the castle,” said Mr Donaldson. “Their research suggests that by 2019 they could hope to be attracting over 200,000 visitors a year, this based on Mountstewart, which attracts 130,000 visitors a year; research indicates Hillsborough would be an even more popular attraction.
“A key element of the plans will be provision of substantial additional car-parking for visitors, which will probably be located close to the A1 carriageway, towards the back of the castle grounds.
“Part of the investment plan envisages significant enhancements to the grounds and gardens of Hillsborough Castle and HRP is hoping to involve the Royal Horticultural Society in the development of the gardens.”
Mr Donaldson said HRP plans also included an education centre at the castle and would involve enhancement of both the courthouse and Hillsborough Fort as part of the overall visitor experience.
“This means there is likely to be a significant increase in the level of activity at Hillsborough Castle, including staged events as well as year-round visitor access; presently public access to Hillsborough Castle is very limited and there is only a short period each year when the public can arrange a tour.
“HRP plans to make it much more accessible to the public and all kinds of organisations.”