Praxis: Theresa Villiers rules out compensation for charity

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said that compensation was not going to be possible

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The Secretary of State has turned down requests for a mental health charity to be compensated for the money it spent on improvements at Hillsborough Castle.

The charity Praxis has been told to leave its site before a new body takes over running the castle grounds.

Praxis said it had invested £400,000 developing a garden and coffee shop.

Theresa Villiers said: "Praxis always knew the arrangement was not open-ended. They always knew the government did not agree to pay compensation."

But the charity's chief executive, Nevin Ringland, said he remains hopeful a solution can be found.

Start Quote

We simply can't afford to move to another site. We have identified several sites but the infrastructure is not sufficient on those sites to replicate the sorts of jobs those learning disabled individuals have”

End Quote Nevin Ringland Chief executive, Praxis

He said Ms Villiers rang him last week to arrange a meeting on Wednesday, and added: "I will be meeting her and I'm still very hopeful the secretary of state will respond positively."

He also told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme Praxis had an agreement with the previous Labour government to extend their lease on the site to 20 years.

Compensated

Seven staff and 16 people with learning difficulties currently work at the Praxis complex.

The charity has been told to vacate the premises to make way for Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) to take over the running of the castle.

It is thought that HRP has plans for a reception centre on the site currently used by Praxis.

Praxis said it should be compensated for the refurbishment work it has carried out there to help fund its relocation, but Ms Villiers said that is not possible.

She told BBC News NI: "The reality is Praxis always knew the terms for which they were allowed to use Hillsborough Castle.

"It's simply not possible to provide them with additional funding in this instance."

Mr Ringland said: "We simply can't afford to move to another site. We have identified several sites but the infrastructure is not sufficient on those sites to replicate the sorts of jobs those learning disabled individuals have.

Self-esteem
Hillsborough castle Praxis said it had spent £400,000 developing its site in the grounds of Hillsborough Castle

"The focus has to be on the 16 people with learning disabilities and the fact that they are very very distressed at losing their jobs. I think that has to be the real focus of our discussions.

"They rely on the Secret Garden and their work there for their self-esteem and their self-worth, and that can't be lost in this whole story.

"We would much much prefer to stay on the site, and I can't understand why those 16 learning disabled people can't stay on the site and be part of the reception centre."

Politicians across the political spectrum, including Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, have come out in support of the charity.

Mr McGuinness said: "The decision by the new management of Hillsborough Castle to evict Praxis from its Secret Garden Café is insensitive and shameful. It should be reversed or properly compensated."

Health Minister Edwin Poots is expected to meet the secretary of state shortly to discuss the notice to quit.

Hillsborough Castle is the royal residence in Northern Ireland and provides residential and office accommodation for the secretary of state.

'Flexible'

Historic Royal Palaces is an independent charity that looks after conservation at the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace.

Ms Villiers declined to say exactly when she wants the charity to leave Hillsborough, but said the time has come for it to go.

She added: "We have given them considerable notice. We think it is now time for Praxis to leave. The legal terms enable us to give them notice of a month but we are prepared to be flexible."

Praxis was first granted the free use of a five-acre site at the castle almost 10 years ago.

According to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), Historic Royal Palaces will run the castle on a more cost-effective and financially sustainable basis, reducing the cost to the taxpayer.

It will charge an entry fee and aims to significantly increase visitor numbers.

Ms Villiers said HRP needs the part of the estate occupied by Praxis in order to make its own plans for the castle a success.

"The site that is currently run by Praxis is crucial for their infrastructure, particularly their visitor reception, so that is why we have had to take the decision to ask Praxis to leave."

HRP running of the castle is expected to start at the beginning of April, although the NIO has said many of the changes will not take effect for two or three years.

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