A LOCAL woman who launched a campaign to make beaches, such as those in her hometown, accessible to people of all abilities, has voiced her concerns that the project is not progressing at a suitable pace. Disability rights advocate Naomi Herron first urged Newry, Mourne and Down District Council to make local beaches accessible to all in 2021. However, almost 18 months on, the young Newcastle woman – who has cerebral palsy and routinely uses a wheelchair or a walking aid to help her with daily life – said not enough has been done to date. Naomi, who received support from the outset from local MLA Patrick Brown, who was a district councillor at the time, along with Cllr Alan Lewis, fears it will be 2024 at the earliest before the council scheme comes into effect. At the time, Naomi and the two elected representatives said the provision of specialist wheelchairs for use on sand and in the sea would transform people’s lives. She and Mr Brown have again joined forces to highlight the problem and say far too little progress has been made. Mr Brown said the notice of motion, brought forward by himself and Cllr Lewis, and which was intended to ensure the provision of these specialist chairs, received unanimous support. Yet, despite this unequivocal support for the introduction of the equipment, he says the project “has been subjected to a saga of council bureaucracy.” “What should have been a fairly straightforward project has now been subjected to a saga of council bureaucracy with departments continuing to pass the buck, unnecessarily hire external consultants to tell them what to do, and generally drag their feet. “It has now been almost two years since this motion was passed, and we have just learnt that yet another summer will pass in Newcastle without these inclusivity-boosting accessibility aids,” he said. Local Alliance councillor, David Lee-Surginor, said that since joining the council last May he has “been continually pressing for updates on this project and council officials have finally conceded that there is no firm date for delivery of this project.” This, Cllr Lee-Surginor, said, is “a direct result of the council taking the decision last September to move the beach access project out of the Active and Healthy Communities (AHC) department and into the Neighbourhood Services department’s public toilets strategy. Mr Brown continued: “The Neighbourhood Services department has been without a permanent director for several years and a number of senior posts are vacant or soon to be vacant. As a result, this department’s ability to efficiently deliver capital projects like the public toilet strategy is massively diminished, which begs the question why councillors from the two largest parties were so keen to unquestioningly delegate it there. It is vitally important that efforts are now redoubled to ensure the Neighbourhood Services department delivers this strategy in a timely fashion.” Echoing the Alliance elected member’s comments, Naomi said: “As someone who has campaigned for many years to see enhanced access for people like myself with disabilities, I find it very frustrating that it is taking so long to see Newcastle beach become more accessible. “It has now been almost two years since this idea was first discussed but sadly it seems like very little progress has been made by the council. “I hope the council will soon tell us when these important facilities will be provided,” Naomi added. Mr Brown also took the opportunity to remind people that it is still possible to rent an allterrain wheelchair from Glenada YMCA, which is provided by the Mae Murray Foundation. Praising this charity for “fantastic work across NI boosting beach accessibility”, Mr Brown said more details of this can be found at maemurrayfoundation.org or by sending a message to the comdev@maemurrayfound ation.org e-mail address. The party’s election candidate for the area, Jill Truesdale, also voiced her frustration at the length of time it is taking to roll out the scheme. She said it is “particularly frustrating” the district council is promoting the Mourne Mountains Gateway Project as a means of improving accessibility in the Newcastle area while they “cannot even deliver this simple project to provide beach access for those with disabilities”. Responding to the concerns raised, a council spokesperson yesterday told the Mourne Observer that, at a meeting of its Active and Healthy Communities committee last September, councillors agreed to progress the plans for the Inclusive Beaches project. “In consultation with the Mae Murray Foundation, the council has identified the area around the Downs Road public toilets in Newcastle as a preferred location for new facilities, including Changing Places toilets and inclusive beach car parking. “The project sits within the Council’s Public Toilet strategy, which is currently at Outline Business Case (OBC) stage. The OBC is providing costs for a number of different options which not only cover capital costs but lifetime costs of up to 25 years,” she concluded.
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