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The manager of Lagan Valley Regional Park has said a Stormont cut to funding this year risks “the collapse” of Northern Ireland’s most visited outdoor attraction.

Dr Andy Bridge was reacting to a withdrawal of the total Department of Infrastructure funding grant for this financial year, amounting to £42,000.

He said: “The Lagan Valley Regional Park has worked constructively with funding from the Department for Infrastructure for more than 20 years, sharing goals for access to nature, safe spaces and sustainable travel.

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“This sudden loss of income will have severe implications for both Lagan Valley Regional Park and our other funding partners, namely Lisburn and Castlereagh Council and Belfast City Council.

“Given the park operates leanly with just 4.5 full time employees, and an overall budget of just under £210k, such an unplanned reduction of income will inevitably mean staff losses, and push the park below a critical mass of operational functionality. In short, it risks the collapse of the park."

Lagan Valley Regional Park runs from Belfast to Lisburn along the river with the towpath at its centre. It is Northern Ireland’s only regional park and is a dedicated area of natural beauty.

It is the most visited outdoor attraction with more than 1.8 million visitors last year. The park is funded through a long-standing three-way partnership with Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, Belfast City Council and DfI.

Jointly, these funds support the jobs of 4.5 members of staff, the work of 60 volunteers and the delivery of critical monitoring, maintenance and visitor engagement duties within the park’s thousands of square kilometres.

Last year 792 hours were contributed from the local community through volunteering, adding an approximate value of almost £28k to the overall budget.

In a letter last month from the Department of Infrastructure to Lagan Valley Regional Park, Violeta Morosan of the Rivers Directorate wrote: “I am writing to inform you of the unfortunate news that funding for the LVRP work on the Lagan towpath from the Department for Infrastructure will not be available during the 2023-24 financial year.

“As you are aware, the current economic constraints have led to the difficult decision to implement budget cuts, impacting our department’s funding allocations. These cuts have resulted in a significant reduction in resource allocation for the current financial year.

“Regrettably, the discretionary spending of £42k to LVRP for the minor towpath maintenance work is directly affected by the unavailability of funding. As such, the Department will not be able to enter into an Operational Service Agreement with LVRP for this financial year 2023-24.

“It is planned that the Department’s Rivers Directorate area staff (Lisburn) will carry out the inspection and maintenance services on the Lagan towpath in the area previously looked after by LVRP."

The Park replied to the Permanent Secretary of the Stormont department stating: “We would like to emphasise that withdrawing the expected £42,000 funding, during this current financial year, could signal the end of the current structures in place to manage Northern Irelands’ only regional park.

“Specifically, on behalf of DfI, our small team has been acting as the 'eyes and the ears' of the towpath, carrying out patrols twice per week, and ensuring it is maintained by cutting back vegetation, and keeping it free from rubbish and debris.

“We also manage more than 1,000 complaints or queries related to this active travel corridor from the public each year, and where possible we resolve these quickly at a local level.

“We monitor, record and support in the management of visitor numbers, we run events, facilitate outside groups with events, and have carried out risk assessments on DfI’s behalf.

“Our conservation expertise means we are best placed to advise on risks associated with biodiversity loss, and to control and relay information to users about invasive species, such as the health and safety risks associated with giant hogweed.”

The reply added: “You will be aware that none of this work can stop. DfI, as owner of the towpath and associated ancillary structures, through its legal and safety obligations, will be required to continue these services to the public.

“In the short time we have stopped delivering these services (since the receipt of your letter dated July 7) we have noted a distinct degradation of the towpath and an increase in the number of complaints that we are now directing to your offices.

The River Lagan seen from the Noah Donohoe Bridge at Annadale with the towpath running along side
The River Lagan seen from the Noah Donohoe Bridge at Annadale (Image: Belfast Live)

“Furthermore we understand that the work carried out in good faith on your behalf from April to July will not be reimbursed.

“We would strongly urge you to reconsider your decision to remove our funding. The unique partnership funding approach with the two councils enables our small team to offer a variety of services and expertise at extremely low cost.”

Alliance Balmoral Councillor Micky Murray said the decision by the Department for Infrastructure was “disastrous”.

He said: “Lagan Valley Regional Park welcomes over 1.8 million visitors every year, it's an area of outstanding beauty, and is a wildlife corridor between Belfast and Lisburn. It simply must be protected at all costs.

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“LVRP manages and maintains the park, and offers year round events and opportunities. Their conservation and biodiversity work is incredibly important and feeds into the work of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan and wildlife surveys.

“The decision by the department to remove their funding is incredibly short sighted, as the ongoing maintenance and management of the park would then fall into the hands of Belfast City Council, Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, and the Department for Infrastructure themselves.

“This is yet another failure of not having an Executive in place at Stormont, and I strongly urge the incoming permanent secretary to reverse this decision urgently.”

Councillor Murray has called for a meeting with partners from both councils and Lagan Valley to discuss the future of the park.

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