Tuesday, June 25, 2024


A COUNCIL committee has endorsed reports that aim to improve sea swimmers’ access to Newcastle Harbour and disabled access to the town’s beach. The Active and Healthy Communities (AHC) Committee gave its backing to recommendations included in Outdoor Recreation NI (ORNI) documents, authored as part of its service level agreement with the local authority, on Monday.

The ORNI harbour report said that ‘sea swimming should not be viewed as the activity that is causing all the issues at Newcastle Harbour’, highlighting the intense use of one of its slipways combined with ‘a lack of management or regulation’. ‘The issues at the slipway are symptomatic of the overall harbour’s poor functioning, largely caused by the harbour’s fragmented layout, uncoordinated management and absence of partnership working,’ it read. ‘A collegiate approach is essential to induce change and effectively manage the harbour holistically – shared problems, shared solutions, shared responsibility.’

The document recommended ‘the establishment of a joint harbour management group, comprising all partners involved in the direct management of the harbour with a genuine appetite to work together’, and the creation of a masterplan for Newcastle Harbour. It also advised that council – to ‘help it understand the importance of the role of the harbour facility within the wider agenda of economic regeneration, tourism and community development’ – develop a coastal access and water-based recreation strategy and update its tourism strategy.

The ORNI beach access report, which examined beaches across the district, stated that Newcastle Beach ‘currently benefits from accessible parking, toilets and ramped access points in close proximity to a wider destination experience within Newcastle town’. ‘While the site lacks a Changing Places facility and equipment offering, its location and existing infrastructure means that Newcastle Beach is a prime site for further development as an all-inclusive beach,’ it read. ‘Newcastle Beach has the potential to meet all the criteria required to be a fully inclusive facility. ‘It is recommended that adapted infrastructure is developed to include: provision of an inclusive hub, including inclusive changing facilities to Changing Places standard, upgrade of existing accessible toilet facilities, and provision of a storage block for beach access equipment and support; and enhances parking provision to include accessible parking bays and pick-up/drop-off bays.’ Speaking in relation to the harbour, committee chair Róisín Howell (Sinn Féin, Slieve Croob) said that it had been affected by a “lack of vision”, and her proposal that a task and finish group – including DEA councillors, businesses and local stakeholders – be established to develop a masterplan for the facility was adapted.

Laura Devlin (SDLP, Mournes), who had requested the harbour access study in 2022, welcomed the report and thanked ORNI for “all the work that went into it”; however, she voiced concern that, despite all the research, work and effort that had taken place, “we are not massively further forward”. “We knew that the situation up there is complicated due to the land ownership issues, which have been identified very clearly in the report,” she said. “It was due to these complex issues that I raised my initial request in the first place, so I support the conclusion that a harbour management group is formed, but my question is, how soon will this happen and who will take the lead? “Secondly, the issues at the slipway are well rehearsed – I would like council to look at other locations to access the water. “I still believe that if council were to create an area that had benches, some hooks and, perhaps, a couple of changing huts, you would entice some swimmers away from the slip – not them all, but some.”

The councillor also suggested that the local authority investigate the possibility of a lifeguard being located at the harbour next summer, and this will now be looked into by the Enterprise, Regeneration and Tourism (ERT) Directorate. Andrew McMurray (Alliance, Slieve Croob) also welcomed the report, but highlighted that there also needs to be a focus on inland water swimming as well as open water swimming. “Outdoor recreation does get people enthused, people want to endorse it and people want to get behind it, but there doesn’t really seem to be a focus group within this council that takes this stuff on,” he stated. “There does need to be some sort of setaside group. “I have raised it before in council through motions, a set-aside group that looks at these things. “I think that is something that needs to noted and acted upon.” Willie Clarke (Sinn Féin, Mournes) described the harbour sea swimming report as “very comprehensive”. “But, because of the landowner issues I think we knew we were going to end up at this stage,” he said. “I think ERT are leading in regards to the regeneration and the management plan, and setting up that management forum. “I think that is key because there are all the stakeholders in the harbour area. “There has to be a sense of urgency.”

The local representative stressed that “Newcastle Beach is ready” to become an inclusive beach and that this needs to be in place by 2024, and highlighted that he had brought a notice of motion on this issue to council in 2019. His party colleague Siobhán O’Hare (Slieve Croob) said that the beach access report was “very welcome”, and that it was important to “ensure that the capital is ring-fenced to deliver the recommendations”.

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