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Lisburn, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland
 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Bridge Community Centre, Lisburn

Back Yards Bite Back

The Bridge Community Centre, the former Lisburn Temperance Institute, is situated in Railway Street, on the periphery of the recently established Lisburn Historic Quarter. Sir Richard Wallace, who died in 1890, the year the Institute was opened, donated the land on which the building was erected.

The Lisburn Temperance Union was formed in 1887 and the first president James N. Richardson, a prominent local Quaker and a member of the family business of Richardson Sons and Owden, one of the largest bleachers in the Lagan Valley area, contributed �800 towards a total building and furnishing cost of  �3,500, and raised a further �800 from friends. John D. Barbour of Hilden, who was one of the first trustees, was also a large contributor to the building fund and his wife laid the foundation stone on 24th. June 1889. The building, which was designed by the Belfast architects Messrs Young and MacKenzie, was built by Messrs D. & P. MacHenry.

The building fulfilled an objective of the Temperance Union by providing a suitable meeting place for townspeople and visitors; it created a Victorian community centre with recreation and meeting rooms, committee rooms, a billiard room, a reading room and library, and a cafe and kitchen. A suitably equipped gymnasium for boys and young men, offering classes for `drill and callisthenics,' was built at the rear and stables were added at a later date. The Temperance Institute became the established popular venue for meetings of local clubs and associations and became an integral part of the social and business life of the community.

The building usage changed with the times, stables became garages, the gymnasium became a billiard club, a badminton club, a table tennis club and was later converted to a ship for the Sea Cadets, membership of the library expanded and 4500 volumes filled the bookcases before the Antrim County Library supplied the public need, and the cafe, which was a popular venue for lunches and functions, had graduated to wedding receptions before commercial pressures forced its closure. The building was an established feature of the Lisburn townscape serving the needs of a growing community for over one hundred years by providing a base for a variety of clubs, groups and associations, which had been established by the citizens to meet current trends, interests or needs.

The responsibility for providing community facilities, similar to those available at the Temperance Institute, passed to Lisburn Borough Council in 1973 with the reorganisation of local government. The building was sold to the Borough Council in 1979 and following a refurbishment programme it was opened as the Bridge Community Centre in 1981 and continued to provide a much needed and utilized service to the community. This is evidenced by the growth in the usage figure, by some seventy groups, to over 70,000 persons per annum recorded in 2000 by electronic counters, and confirmed by a council report which stated that this represented "a higher percentage of use by comparable Community Centre standards." The future for the Bridge looked assured.

There was outrage amongst users when, in May 2003, a joint committee meeting of the Council recommended that users of the Bridge should be transferred to other council facilities and the premises be vacated by 2004. Public meetings, called by Councillors Close and McMichael who disagreed with the council's action, were well attended and the majority of the users were opposed to the closure, but opinion was divided among the councillors present. A Friends of the Bridge group was formed and officers elected who were tasked with organising a campaign to save the Bridge.

The campaign generated numerous press releases and letters from user groups and the public, which highlighted the likely effect on the community of the closure. A petition calling for the retention of the Bridge, which attracted 1700 signatures, was presented to the Council. The Friends group enlisted the help of The Wallace Collection, London, and U.A.H.S. who wrote letters in support of the campaign. The chairman of the Lisburn Historic Quarter Partnership supported an application by Friends of the Bridge to the Historic Buildings Branch for Listing, but the chief executive of the Council did not respond. The Council's consultation process with user groups commenced in September 2003 some four months after the closure proposal.

A major thrust of the campaign was the two presentations made in October/November 2003 to the Leisure Services and Corporate Services committees of Lisburn Council, accompanied by a twenty page written submission issued to all councillors, and made available to the public on the web site http://www.lisburn.com/. The submission pointed to the Bridge's role in the regeneration of the Historic Quarter, demonstrated its importance to community and cultural identity, emphasized the contribution made to the declared council aims of promoting town centre living and generating evening activity, and highlighted the opportunity to create not only public awareness but also a sense of public ownership of the Historic Quarter. Other sections of the submission identified the Bridge's contribution to the marketing of Lisburn, dealt with investment worth and raised serious questions on the Council's commitment to the Disability Discrimination Act, which required the Bridge to be brought up to the legislative requirements.

A large portion of the submission focused on the issue of a draft report on The Future Use of Bridge Community Centre, which preceded the closure proposal. This report had the collective stamp of approval from a working party of high-ranking council officers at Director and Assistant Director level. Friends expressed concern that the report fell short of accepted commercial standards, failed to fulfil the purpose for which it was intended, was misleading and contained major errors. In addition the figures and information were short on detail and lacking in clarity and balance. The following examples illustrate some concerns. (1) The report stated that the building was given to the Council in 1979, whereas an examination of the title deeds revealed that the Council purchased the premises for �45,000. (2) Estimated savings of �145,000 in the event of closure are overstated by �37,000.

Friends of the Bridge had been active in lobbying councillors and the submission is thought to have contributed to a review of policy among some political groupings. A break through was made in October 2003, when the DUP publicly declared their opposition to the closure following a meeting with Friends. They cited concern over savings, which were overstated by council officials. This was progress and very encouraging from a party, which had proposed and seconded the original closure proposal.

The Friends group believed that the Council's report showed such a predisposition towards closure that it had usurped the principle of democratic decision-making that is central to good local government. This was deemed a matter of public concern and the chairman of the group submitted a formal complaint, in December 2003, under the Council's complaints procedure. The complaint, which was copied to all councillors, focused on the delay in compiling the report, the failings of the report and the use of a Draft report for Council business. The Council's response dealt with the delay issue but refused to discuss the failings of the report or the basis upon which a report is tabled for consideration by the Council. The response was deemed unsatisfactory and the right to have the case reviewed by the Chief Executive of the Council was exercised on 3 February 2004. To date (May 2005) there has been no result from the review, which precludes any investigation by the Local Government Ombudsman.

The Corporate Services and Leisure Services committee's agreed reaction to the submission in November 2003 was to Ask for a detailed structural survey and professional costing for the refurbishment of the building. This procedure, which involved two departments with differing agendas, was protracted and unnecessarily complicated, and almost a year had elapsed when the directors reported in October 2004. During that period costs had escalated, but on a positive note Historic Buildings Branch had indicated their intention to list the building. For the user groups and the staff at the Bridge it was a period of great uncertainty but bookings were renewed for the 2004/5 session.

On 25th October 2004 a joint meeting of the Leisure Services and Corporate Services Committees met to discuss the future of the Bridge. The lobbying of councillors continued to the last and supporters filled the public gallery of the council chamber. A lively debate ensued and the outcome was unanimous agreement to retain the Bridge Community Centre in Council ownership and implement the refurbishment programme. The full Council subsequently ratified this proposal. A victory for common sense.

In 1969, Charles Brett and Lady Dunleath wrote in an UHAS publication, "if the ratepayers of Lisburn choose .... to allow their splendid heritage to decay, that is their right; but their children and grandchildren are unlikely to thank them for their shortsightedness." We have made progress in the intervening years and the citizens of Lisburn now have a growing awareness and pride in their heritage, which was demonstrated by their support in saving the Bridge Community Centre.

F G Watson

 

The Back Yards Bite Back
The UAHS shared in the delight of campaigners in Holywood when the town's conservation area was designated in May 2004. However more was at stake than planning status and the publication of some new guidelines by the DoE.

The Holywood Conservation Group had been fighting to save a pair of early 19th century houses at 9-11 Bangor Road, which were not listed despite being substantially unaltered. Planners had refused permission to demolish them to make way for an apartment block but this decision was controversially overturned at appeal. The residents sought a judicial review of that decision, and kept an eye on the buildings. A few days before the announcement of the conservation area designation (after which demolition would require planning consent) the last occupants of the houses moved out and it seemed the bulldozers were about to move in. The residents sought an interim injunction to prevent the demolition of the buildings before the conservation area was in place. This was granted and the conservation area was duly announced the following day. The judges hearing the case declared that developers MAR Properties Ltd had "acted unconscionably" in proposing to demolish the houses covertly at 5.30am on the morning of the conservation area announcement. This story epitomises the importance of local residents forming a group, becoming knowledgeable about, and committed to, the built heritage of their area, and having the courage not to be cowed by the power and financial muscle of large scale developers.

A similar story applies to the Bridge Community Centre, formerly the Lisburn Temperance Institute. It is situated in Railway Street on the periphery of the recently established Lisburn Historic Quarter. The Lisburn Temperance Union had been formed in 1887, and the Institute was built in 1890 on land donated by Sir Richard Wallace, with local linen families providing much of the funding. The architects were Young & Mackenzie.

In the true spirit of Victorian philanthropy, the Institute offered meeting rooms, a billiard room, a reading room and a cafe, and later a gymnasium was added at the rear offering classes for `drill and callisthenics' for young men. It served the needs of the community for over a hundred years, the library expanding to 4500 volumes and the stables becoming a hall for sea cadets, till commercial pressures threatened its closure. Lisburn Borough Council took it over in 1979 and in 2000 some 70,000 people were using the centre each year.

Not surprisingly, there was outrage when the Council proposed to close it in 2004 and a Friends of the Bridge group was formed, with a senior member of our Committee in its vanguard, to campaign for the building's future. The UAHS supported the group, along with bodies including The Wallace Collection in London and the Lisburn Historic Quarter Partnership. Members of our Committee viewed the building and made suggestions about its improvement, restoration and future use.

After a year of energetic campaigning by the supporters of the Bridge Centre, the Council rescinded its decision to close the building last October, and it is now about to be listed. Full details of the campaign can be viewed at www.lisburn.com.

The residents also rose up in defence of their townscape in Bangor West. In July 2002 a developer submitted an application to subdivide a fine Victorian house on Maxwell Road in Bangor and to build a new house in the rear garden. This was such a crass despoilation of a perfectly sound dwelling and a classic example of town cramming, that a number of local residents decided to challenge the proposals.

It is a long story, including arbitration by the Planning Appeals Commission which, despite all the clear policy set down in the fine series of Planning Policy Statements, approved the outline application. This particular story has in fact a happy ending; the developer suddenly left and sold the property to a family who are now happily occupying the property.

Stimulated by the first victory, and seeing an almost weekly series of planning applications in the Victorian and Edwardian area of Bangor West, the small group of residents decided to test the mood of the neighbourhood to see if its disquiet was shared. A public meeting in March 2004 saw standing room only and it was clear that a raw nerve had been touched. There was unanimous support for the establishment of a properly constituted group, and the Bangor West Conservation Group has since been established. With over 600 members it speaks for over 50% of the residents of Bangor West.

It has been very active, in responding to planning applications, appearing at planning appeals, making representations to the local Council and to the Management Board of the Planning Service, and in getting crucial Tree Preservation Orders in place. With the publication of BMAP, Bangor West is now a designated Area of Townscape Character which BWCG has warmly welcomed; there are already signs that this designation is leading to more sensitive planning decisions.

The UAHS has supported all three groups with advice and expertise, and we are always pleased to assist local residents fighting to retain buildings of character. We can provide perspective and experience, but local knowledge and determination have also been crucial in cases like the above.