The Director of Neighbourhood Services reminded the Members that this matter had been deferred from the December meeting to enable the Committee to hear deputations from representatives of the Friends of Crescent Park, South Belfast and also from a delegation of those opposing the possible gating of the Park.
Accordingly, the Chairperson welcomed Mr. Hetherington, Ms. Bonhomme, Mr. Mulgrew, Ms. Hayles and Ms. Johnston to the meeting.
Mr. Hetherington and Ms. Bonhomme (representing Friends of Crescent Park) commenced and thanked the Members for the opportunity to address the Committee.
Mr. Hetherington (Chair of Friends of Crescent Park) advised that Crescent Park, which was owned by Belfast City Council, was an invaluable park to the people who resided on or near the Crescent and to many other users daily. He advised the Members that for many years the park had suffered as a hotspot from incidents of anti-social behaviour, highlighting that these problems were much worse at night-time, particularly with substance abuse and drinking and he provided a detailed overview of the ongoing issues.
He advised that approximately six years ago some improvements had been made to the park, including improved lighting, the pruning of shrubbery and a better maintenance programme. The representative continued, however, that, since the pandemic, things had again deteriorated and Friends of Crescent Park (FoCP) had been looking at what measures could be taken to try and improve the park to try and reduce the ongoing incidents of antisocial behaviour (ASB).
The Members were advised that, following a scoping exercise, FoCP had produced ‘Improving the Crescent’, which considered proposed actions to try and address anti-social behaviour and increase the attractiveness of the park to all members of the public. One of the actions recommended was the installation of gates at the four entrance points of the park, with the Council taking on the responsibility for the daily opening and closing of the gates. The representative continued that, whilst the installation of gates was a sizable structural project, following local consultation they had received majority support from residents and businesses supporting the proposed work.
Ms. Bonhomme, who had resided in the park? since 2018, then provided a detailed overview of the antisocial behaviour that she was subjected to daily which made her feel unsafe in her own home at night-time, this included details regarding groups of aggressive and loud individuals inhabiting the park, drug dealing, alcohol and drug misuse, knife crime, littering and urination in shrubbery.
The Chairperson thanked the representative for their input and then asked Mr. Mulgrew and Ms. Hayles to address the meeting.
Mr. Mulgrew thanked the Committee for the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. He advised that he worked near to the park and very much enjoyed using it as did many others. He stated that, in recent years, much work had gone into making Crescent Park the area that it now was and noted that these were all very welcome measures. He continued that, whilst he appreciated that there were issues with ASB, he did not feel that simply ‘locking’ the park with the use of gates would resolve all the problems. Instead he would rather see the ASB problems addressed and he suggested that the Council should be taking a lead role, to bring together the various stakeholders with a view to working together to try and further enhance the park and encourage its use which might ultimately help to decrease ASB incidents. He also stated that he did not feel the railings around the park were sufficient to stop people trying the climb over them to gain access to the park.
The representative referred to the Council’s feasibility study regarding the lighting of its parks across the city, which might enable longer opening hours for some parks, and he sought clarity as to the status of this study prior to a decision being taken regarding Crescent Park.
Mr. Mulgrew concluded his contribution by advising that this position was supported by the Forward South Partnership.
Ms. Hayles and Ms. Johnston (Representing Crescent Arts Centre) were then welcomed by the Chairperson.
Ms. Hayles advised that the Park was a muster point for Crescent Arts Centre in the event of an evacuation being necessary . She advised also that evenings were the busiest time for the Centre, the facility was open until 10.00 p.m. Monday – Saturday, with up to 300 people using it daily. She stated that, given that park currently formed a huge part of any evacuation procedures, she asked the Council to ensure that this was factored into any decision taken from a health and safety perspective as any alternative would involve crossing a busy road. She also concurred with Mr. Mulgrew in that Crescent Arts Centre would be keen to work with the various statutory agencies to try and keep the park open and accessible to all and welcomed its use for the book festival and she encouraged its further enhancement as a civic space.
Detailed discussion ensued between the Members and representatives, during which it was apparent that more work needed to be done with the various stakeholders prior to any decision being taken. A Member noted that it might be preferable to look at further enhancing and animating the park, with alternatives to gates such as CCTV also being explored.
The Members noted that the request needed to be considered in a citywide context.
Following consideration, the Committee agreed to defer the decision to enable wider consultation to be undertaken with the various stakeholders, including the PSNI, with a further report to be submitted to Committee in due course considering all options available.
The Chairperson thanked the representatives, and they left the meeting.