Northern Ireland

Praxis: Charity refusing to leave Hillsborough Castle

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Media captionSupporters of Praxis held a protest outside Hillsborough Castle on Wednesday

A charity that has been told it has to leave the coffee shop it runs in the grounds of Hillsborough Castle, County Down, is refusing to move.

Mental health charity Praxis said it has "nowhere to go".

Campaigners trying to save the coffee shop held a small protest outside the castle on Wednesday.

It came as the government reaffirmed Praxis would have to leave before the grounds are redeveloped in a bid to increase visitor numbers.

Praxis said it has spent £400,000 developing a garden and coffee shop, but the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has turned down a compensation request.

"If they [Praxis] spent a lot of money on the site then they did so at their own risk," a NIO statement said.

"Praxis has had well over a year's notice that they have to leave. The terms of its licence make it absolutely clear that they cannot be compensated when they do. They have always known this.

"However, they have benefited from extremely generous terms over several years at the site, including an annual rent of just £1."

Alternative site

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

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

Image caption Seven staff and 16 people with learning difficulties work at the Praxis complex

Praxis chief executive, Nevin Ringland, said: "We have said to the secretary of state that we have nowhere to go.

"We have asked her to help us to develop an alternative site or help us stay on the site and be part of this new big society project.

"The money is not the issue, the issue is that there are 16 learning disabled people whose jobs are being put in jeopardy by the new development.

"What we are really saying to the secretary of state is that we want those 16 learning disabled people to stay on the site and keep their jobs. And if that is not possible, then the secretary of state would help us develop a new site.

"We are not looking for £400,000... we're just looking for sufficient monies to develop a new site to provide 16 jobs for the learning disabled individuals."

On the four-week deadline to leave, Mr Ringland added: "We have said to her [Theresa Villiers] it cannot happen.

"We have found a couple of alternative sites but we cannot afford to develop those sites.

'Further discussions'

"We'll be here for as long as it takes to develop another site and 16 jobs on that site, and really we're saying to the secretary of state that she must help us, or HRP must help accommodate us on the existing site. Or we're not going to leave."

The NIO statement added: "The space Praxis currently occupies is crucial to Historic Royal Palaces' plans for the new infrastructure on which its vision depends.

"It is not possible to have both Praxis in the Walled Garden and the Historic Royal Palaces project; it is one or the other.

"Nevertheless, the NIO and HRP have invited Praxis to take part in further discussions, and are keen to see if there is some way for its service users to remain involved at Hillsborough in the long term, under the new operating model.

"We believe it is essential, in the best interests of all concerned, that any dialogue takes place in private, not in public. To date, Praxis has not responded to this invitation."

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

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.

According to the 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.

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