In response to the motion raised in the Assembly, Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP said:
I deeply appreciate the work that Praxis Care has done for people with learning disabilities in the Hillsborough area, and the contribution the charity continues to make to the community in Northern Ireland. So I understand that many people are concerned about the current situation. But it must be recognised that continuing the status quo at Hillsborough Castle was simply not an option. The NIO has neither the finance nor the professional expertise to manage the Castle and enable its full potential to be realised.
In choosing a new operating model for Hillsborough Castle we were seeking the best option for the local area and for Northern Ireland more widely. Historic Royal Palaces took over responsibility for the management of the Castle and its grounds at the beginning of April. Their 5-year development project will see them working with local residents and a range community groups, and they have stressed that their aim is to open up Hillsborough Castle to the widest possible audience. This vision involves inevitable changes to the estate, in order to improve the premises, increase visitor numbers and generate economic growth.
These necessary changes include substantial works at the western end of the site, which will only be possible once Praxis vacates the Walled Garden. However, once the project is underway, Historic Royal Palaces have said they would be pleased to see Praxis’s clients back at Hillsborough for work and participation opportunities - alongside other charities and community groups - and they have already opened discussions on possibilities with Praxis.
The NIO has provided Praxis with generous terms over several years, including an annual licence fee of £1.
Praxis was aware from the outset that the licence agreement was not open-ended. The NIO has extended Praxis’ use of the Walled Garden on several occasions in order to provide them with adequate time to seek an alternative location. This is despite the fact that Praxis had agreed to vacate the property with one month’s notice.
We understand that Praxis have identified a number of potential sites.