A charity that runs a café at Hillsborough Castle employing people with learning difficulties, has said it will face a £400,000 loss after being told that it must leave the premises because Historic Royal Palaces is taking over management of the castle.
The mental health charity Praxis runs a market garden and coffee shop, called the Secret Garden, in the grounds of Hillsborough Castle where sixteen people with learning difficulties are employed. It has been told by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) that it must vacate the premises to make way for the new management, Historic Royal Palaces.
The charity said it has invested £400,000 in improvements to the site which would not be returned if they were to vacate.
However, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) maintains that the license to use the premises was never open-ended and has been extended on several occasions.
A spokesperson from the NIO said: “The NIO has been in discussion with Praxis about the way forward for well over a year now. So Praxis has had ample time to identify new premises and plan for the move. Praxis is a large organisation with a significant turnover and a number of other sites.”
The NIO said it considered that Praxis had made an agreement in 2013 that it would move to new premises in order to allow development of the current Hillsborough Castle.
The spokesperson said: “It is unfortunate that Praxis are now claiming the NIO are being unfair to their charity by asking them to relocate to new premises.”
Praxis was given permission by NIO to use the area on the estate nine years ago.
A petition for Praxis to keep using the premises has been started and has reached 1,000 signatures.
The NIO said it no longer has the budget to maximise Hillsborough’s full potential and so is handing the operational management of the castle over to Historic Royal Palaces (HRP).
Historic Royal Palaces is a charity that manages premises including the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace.
Historic Royal Palaces would not comment on the matter.
Regarding the £400,000 improvements that Praxis would miss out on, the NIO spokesperson said: “At no point has there been any agreement, contractual or otherwise, that Praxis' expenditure will be repaid when they vacate.”
The NIO spokesperson said: “HRP has the capability and proven track record to turn Hillsborough Castle into a first class visitor attraction of which Northern Ireland can be truly proud. The NIO lacks both the money and expertise to do this. The agreement with HRP is therefore essential if we are to preserve Hillsborough as a place for future generations in Northern Ireland to enjoy.”
Praxis Care said that it was seeking to enter negotiations with the NIO over its future at the castle.
A statement on its website said: “The Secret Garden offers vital day-care opportunities to people with a learning disability and it is our expectation that the Secretary of State and the NIO would wish to do everything possible to ensure our service users are not deprived of this much needed service.”
It continued: “We feel that as an organisation with responsibility for the care of these service users, we will do everything possible to ensure that we arrive at a mutually acceptable position.”
The BBC have reported that the NIO are willing to flexible about Praxis's timescale for departing Hillsborough Castle.