I welcome the decision to transfer the management of Hillsborough castle to Historic Royal Palaces. This will really help to put Hillsborough on the map as a top visitor attraction in Northern Ireland and will open up the Castle and its beautiful grounds to the public. However, it is sad that this change has necessitated the closure of the Praxis Secret Garden and Coffee Shop in the gounds of Hillsborough Castle.
When Mo Mowlam was Secretary of State she very generously offered Praxis the use of the walled garden at Hillsborough Castle for a peppercorn rent. Since then Praxis have provided an excellent coffee shop and gardening faciilites as part of the walled garden complex and offered employment to a number of adults with learning disabilities. This has been a very happy and safe environment for these very special people and any time my wife and I have visited, we have always received the warmest of welcomes.
However, when the Northern Ireland Office decided to open the castle up to the public, it became evident that a new system of management was required and I am delighted that Historic Royal Palaces have agreed to come aboard and to run the Castle. They are already involved in managing a number of Royal residences in other parts of the UK and this will really help to put Hillsborough on the map. The Castle, Hillsborough's historic Fort and Courthouse as well as the beauty of the georgian village itself will attract many new visitors to the area. Plans are already in hand to enhance both the access arrangements and parking at Hillsborough Castle and I will be talking to Lisburn City Council to ensure that the village and all its attractions are properly promoted.
Sadly, the NIO has not been able to renew the lease for Praxis as part of the new arrangements and this is undoubtedly causing much distress for those who have enjoyed many happy years working in this beautiful location. It seems that Historic Royal Palaces have plans to use the walled garden as an integral part of the Castle facilities and therefore have said that they cannot accommodate Praxis in their desire to remain at Hillsborough. I have previously met with Nevin Ringland, Chief Executive of Praxis on several occasions and held discussions with the Secretary of State to see if there was a way of enabling Praxis to obtain a new lease for the walled garden facilities. To date, we have been unsuccessful in resolving the issue. I am due to meet soon with the Historic Royal Palaces project officer for Hillisborough Castle who also happens to be the Governor of the Tower of London. I will be discussing with him the options that may be available for Praxis and exploring the potential to include this excellent charity in their future plans for Hillsborough.