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The Search is on for the ‘Best Kept’ Places in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Amenity Council (NIAC) has officially begun their ‘hunt’ for the ‘Best Kept’ places in the country. Healthcare facilities, schools, housing areas, towns and villages are all being encouraged to enter the prestigious awards, following a launch event at Ballycraigy Primary School this week.

Sponsored by Open+Direct Insurance (now part of Abbey Insurance), the awards, (which will celebrate their 60th anniversary next year), aim to highlight and recognise outstanding community spirit and the dedication of individuals who volunteer their time to improve their environmental surroundings.

Speaking at the launch, Doreen Muskett MBE, President NIAC said:
“We are thrilled to launch the 2016 Open+Direct Insurance ‘Best Kept’ Awards and offer our sincere appreciation to title sponsors Open+Direct Insurance, without whose support these wonderful awards would not be possible.

“Each year we continue to be inspired by the people we meet as part of this process. We’re proud that the ‘Best Kept’ Awards have such a rich history of discovering and rewarding communities and individuals whose selfless commitment and enthusiasm for creating beautiful surroundings is truly amazing. We’re certain that 2016 will uncover even more inspirational stories, which we can’t wait to hear!

“Entering the Best Kept Awards is important as it provides a goal which entire communities can get behind and support. It promotes a sense of pride in our surroundings and motivates everyone, young and old to get involved in efforts to make the places where we live, work and go to school greener, cleaner and more enjoyable for everyone. This year we are introducing a new ‘Welcome Award’ for schools who are entering for the first time to recognise a new entrant who has really shone. So, whether you’ve entered before or are joining in for the first time, we encourage you to get involved as soon as possible!”

Speaking at the launch, Environment Minister Mark H. Durkan said:
“Our built and natural environment is one of our greatest assets and we all share the responsibility for protecting and improving it, for current and future generations.

“These awards are a great way to recognise the contribution of unsung heroes of environmental progress. These people volunteer their own time and efforts and take pride in their surroundings to make them a more attractive place for people to live, for tourists to visit and for people to do business. They also encourage the development of new partnerships and approaches which strengthen community bonds and enable local people to take even greater pride in the places they live and work.

“Empowering communities and working with them to find innovative ways to achieve positive outcomes that both benefit the environment and the local economy is at the very heart of my vision for the North. I encourage as many schools, healthcare facilities, housing areas, towns and villages as possible to get involved and participate.”

Trevor Shaw, CEO of Abbey Insurance Brokers (new owners of Open+Direct Insurance) said:

“We are delighted to be supporting the ‘Best Kept’ Awards this year. These awards are a fantastic way of recognising the efforts of those who take the time and effort to enhance the community, and echo our sentiments of championing local towns and making Northern Ireland a brighter place to live and work.”

The ‘Best Kept’ Awards are open to schools, healthcare facilities, housing areas, towns and villages across Northern Ireland and entries are now open. For more information or to enter an awards category please visit or call the Northern Ireland Amenity Council on 028 9040 3681.

Year in Review…

In January Open+Direct Insurance was revealed as the new title sponsor of the NI Amenity Council’s ‘Best Kept Awards.’ The awards which are steeped in history, (pioneered in the early ’50s by Professor Arthur Muskett ) champion community spirit to recognise towns, villages and communities (plus schools and health care facilities!) that go above and beyond in making NI a greener, more beautiful place.

Open+Direct Retail Network Manager, John Laverty, takes a look back on our inaugural year of sponsorship…

At Open+Direct, we are a local company for local people, with 12 branches across the province, committed to serving the community – the awards echo our sentiments of championing local towns and making Northern Ireland a brighter place to live and work. Let’s take a look back at the past year…

Success for Scarva at it’s crowned ‘Best of the Best’!
Two weeks has passed since the picturesque Co. Down village of Scarva was named ‘Best of the Best’ at the grand final held in the Guildhall, Derry for the ‘Best Kept’ Town and Village Awards. They beat off stiff competition from across the province and following this fantastic win, the village will now progress to the final of the Ireland’s Best Kept Town competition. Loughgall lady Gretta Young was also honoured to be the first ever recipient of the new ‘Community Achiever of the Year’ award, in recognition of her outstanding work with the Loughgall District Improvement Committee. This occasion marked the culmination of a fantastic few months for myself and all at Open+Direct Insurance.

BTP-090615BT1-002Schools Out!
Our sponsorship kicked off in April with the judging of the ‘Best Kept School’ Awards – the effort from schools across Northern Ireland was astonishing. Antrim-based Ballycraigy Primary School was crowned, ‘Overall Outstanding School’ at a ceremony in the Education Centre at Crawfordsburn, Country Park. Since winning the ‘Best Kept’ award the school has gone on to win a national competition for ‘Cultivation School of the Year’ beating schools from across GB.

Health and Social Care Awards
The Health and Social Care awards are truly special – recognising the staff and residents of day-care, residential and healthcare facilities who have showcased their dedication and pride in their workplace or residential care homes by improving their surroundings. The beauty of nature and surroundings can have a profound effect on residents in these facilities so it’s wonderful to see this in action. In September, Foyle Hospice was awarded the title ‘Best of the Best’ in the ‘Health and Social Care Facility’ category.

Holywood 11Behind the Scenes in Holywood!
A personal highlight for me was accompanying judge Ken Forbes on a ‘ride-along’ to Holywood, where I got to go ‘Behind the Scenes’ of the ‘Best Kept’ judging process – to read my blog on this click here. I saw the awards through the judges’ eyes and it really made me appreciate the effort from everyone involved.

Overall, it has been a wonderfully enriching experience being involved in the ‘Best Kept’ Awards. I’d like to give a special mention to our staff from local branches that helped the Broughshane


Holywood 11

John Goes Behind the Scenes of ‘Best Kept’ with a Visit to Holywood

Since the beginning of the year, Open+Direct staff have been ‘getting their hands dirty’ and blogging about their experiences, as part of our sponsorship of the Best Kept Awards.

So far they’ve told us how they’ve been helping local improvement committees and resident groups who are gearing up for the judging of the various ‘Best Kept’ categories.

This time, John Laverty, Retail Network Manager is giving us some “behind the scenes” insight about his experience with judge Ken Forbes on a recent ‘ride-along’ to the picturesque Holywood:

It was a huge honour and privilege to accompany Ken on a judging session and get the opportunity to witness first hand just what the judging process entails. Despite it being a miserable day weather wise, we made sure it didn’t dampen our spirits!

We began our journey by driving along the main Belfast to Bangor carriageway – where clear sign posts and approach roads pave the way to Holywood and there is an obvious pride in appearance present. Holywood is renowned for its variety of specialist shops, historical and welcoming pubs, award-winning restaurants and cafes. Of course dominating the centre of the town is Ireland’s only remaining Maypole, which dates back to 1700. It is a magnificent sight as you approach the crossroads on the High Street.

I was struck by how in-depth and detailed the judging procedure is. Recipients of previous awards are taken into consideration, with the drive lasting three hours. We checked the results and feedback from 2014, reviewing past observations and comments.

In total, there are seven categories incorporated into the judging practice; everything from general appearance and cleanliness to open spaces and natural environment is taken into account, in addition to recycling areas, absence of rubbish and vandalism.

Surrounding Holywood are several scenic wooded parks, offering spectacular panoramic views of Belfast and across the Lough to Carrickfergus. Many of its older buildings have been renovated to accommodate new businesses such as consultancies and design agencies, while the railway station is conveniently situated only a short walk from the town centre. We were warmly greeted by passers-by and I was struck by the real sense of community spirit that is evident amongst the town.

It was a personal highlight for me being asked to accompany Ken on the day and be a part of ‘Best Kept’ from a different perspective. The whole experience really made me appreciate the effort that goes into the Open+Direct Insurance ‘Best Kept’ Awards. Everyone involved, from the residents’ groups, community associations and improvement committees to the judges do so much work; all because they feel so passionately about how their surroundings reflect on their community.

All of us at Open+Direct are now looking forward to the ‘Best Kept Town, Village and Housing Area Awards’ final next week at the Guild Hall in Derry.

Pictured L-R John Mann (Foyle Hospice), Terri Sythes (Foyle Hospice), John Laverty (Open+Direct Insurance), Doreen Muskett MBE, Chair of NIAC, Gerard Martin and Danny Gorman (both Foyle Hospice)

Foyle Hospice is Best of the Best

Foyle Hospice has been named as ‘Best of the Best’ in the ‘Health and Social Care Facility’ category at this year’s year’s Open+Direct Insurance ‘Best Kept Health and Social Care Facility Awards.’ The awards ceremony for this category, held at Nazareth House Care Village, in East Belfast saw five facilities battling it out for the title, with the Derry-based hospice coming out on top.

The awards recognise the staff and residents of day-care, residential and healthcare facilities who showcased their dedication and pride in their workplace or residential care homes by improving their surroundings. All five of Northern Ireland’s Health Trust areas saw an overall winner and runner-up announced, with Foyle Hospice, Derry, taking the coveted ‘Best of the Best’ title.

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Doreen Muskett MBE, Chair of the NIAC said: “We were extremely impressed by each of the entries in this category. The staff, residents and volunteers at each facility do a sterling job in creating and maintaining such creative, beautiful and well-kept spaces and are to be commended for their wonderful efforts.

“Congratulations to all of the winners, especially to Foyle Hospice, whose impressive array of unique special features across their extensive site impressed our judges so much that they were deemed worthy winners of the ‘Best of the Best’ crown.“

John Laverty from Open+Direct Insurance added, “Congratulations to Foyle Hospice, Derry on their fantastic achievement. They provide a wonderful service to the community on a daily basis and their accomplishment illustrates how the staff and volunteers involved go the extra mile to create tranquil and beautiful surroundings which are an essential part of the therapeutic care provided. As sponsors of these prestigious awards it has been heartening to see so much time and effort expended in creating the right atmosphere at these facilities, which as well as being workplaces are often homes and communities of their own.”

Community Achiever Award – Last Call for Entries

Man picking litter Nic DafisIs there someone in your community that always goes the extra mile to help keep the area spick and span? If so, there is still time to nominate them for the Open + Direct Insurance ‘Community Achiever’ Award.

We know that volunteers are central to ensuring that our cities, towns and villages are litter free, clean and colourful and it’s thanks to their efforts that our communities are a better, cleaner and brighter place for everyone. Over the years, our judges have met and commented on the many inspiring individuals who go above and beyond for the benefit of everyone and for the first time, we’re delighted to introduce an award which officially recognises this.
Nominating an individual for the Community Achiever Award is easy! All you need to do is submit a short summary outlining who the person is, telling us about some of the great work they do and the impact this has on your community.
The winner will be announced at the final awards ceremony of the year for Best Kept Town & Village in the Guildhall in Derry/Londonderry. The individual will win a cash prize, a donation to their organisation and a trophy from the Northern Ireland Amenity Council.
Nominations should be emailed to on or before Friday 28th August.

‘Best Kept’ 2015 School Report

This year’s Open+Direct Insurance ‘Best Kept’ School Awards were a roaring success, with Ballycraigy Primary School upping the stakes and taking the ‘Best of the Best’ crown for the first time!

With the awards now behind Ballycraigy 2  us and many teachers jotting down a few notes for their 2016 school calendar, there’s no better time to list the winners and provide some feedback from the visiting judges.

Remember folks, applications for the 2016 ‘Best Kept’ School Awards will open again in September. We look forward to seeing some familiar faces as well as new!

If you have any questions about entering the Open+Direct Insurance ‘Best Kept’ awards contact us through Facebook or Twitter @BestKeptAwards

A few quotes from our judges;

North Eastern Education Authority

Winner in the Pre Primary School Category is Earlview Nursery School. This is the first time Earlview has won the competition and the judge was particularly pleased with the enthusiasm in the school community.Ballycraigy 3

Ballycraigy Primary School, Antrim won both the Primary School category and Overall ‘Best of the Best’ School 2015. 

The judges both mentioned how much they enjoyed their visit and what a pleasure it was to be shown around such a well-developed and improved school with such an enthusiastic Eco Club. The garden area to the side of the school was a real treat and the pupils and staff should all be very proud of this area.

Ballyclare High School won the Post Primary School Category for their fantastic pond, herb garden and vegetable plots which the judges called brilliant.

Southern Education Authority

Tandragee Nursery School won the title for ‘Best Kept’ Pre Primary School in the Southern Education Authority with the judge stating it provided a most fantastic experience for pre-school children.Tandragee Nursery

Winner in the Primary School Category, Blessed Patrick O’Loughran Primary School, won the title for the first time with the judge commenting on the pristine order of the school and the lovely sensory garden which included a water feature powered by wind energy.

Sperrinview Special School won the Post Primary School Category for its lovely grounds which incorporate woodlands and a stream with a variety of trees and plants.

South Eastern Education Authority

Winner in the Pre Primary School Category, Downpatrick Nursery School, displayed a range of activities within an “outstanding” compact site.

St Joseph’s Primary School, Carryduff won the title of ‘Best Kept’ Primary School for a third consecutive year!  The judge was impressed again by the enthusiasm, knowledge and drive displayed by pupils and staff, mentioning that their efforts were “just exceptional.”

Beechlawn Special School, won the title of ‘Best Kept’ Post Primary School Category winner, bringing their total wins to five!  The judge was particularly amazed by the school’s up-cycling design projects which included recycled materials being used to enhance the schools garden.

Western Education Authority

Pre Primary School Category winner, Denamona Pre School, Fintona impressed the judges with their bird watching box and the activities which allow children to watch the different species of birds that visit the garden.

Jones Memorial PhotoJones Memorial Primary School, won the ‘Best Kept’ Primary School title for a fourth time. The school attracted the judge’s attention with its use of water butts, which have been placed to collect rain water, which is then used to water the plants around the school being colourful with lots of bright flowers is lovely but being ‘green’ is even better.

Winner in the Post-Primary Category, St. Comhghall’s College has not entered the ‘Best Kept’ Awards since 1997. The judge said the school has a very good Eco Council to make sure the school is recycling and being energy efficient. They are currently developing a farm area which presently consists of a donkey, ducks, goats and hens.

Belfast Education Authority

Last year’s runner up, Matt Talbot Nursery School showed improvement this year and won ‘Best Kept’ Pre Primary School.  Improvements included water butts which are used for watering plants, old wellington boots used as planters and a wonderful wild flower area.

‘Best Kept’ Primary School winner, Harberton Special School, collected an award for the sixth time. The judge was impressed with the beautiful sculptures along the tree trail and the several examples of sustainability on show.

Victoria College collected the ‘Best Kept’ Post Primary Award for the tenth time! The judge highlighted the mature trees with nesting boxes and the lovely wild flower area.

Overall it is important that ‘Best Kept’ schools demonstrate strong ‘green’ credentials and showcase their energy efficiency systems, however, this is just one part of the judging criteria and schools will be expected to have high levels of cleanliness and evidence of staff and pupil participation.

Top Tips for Maintaining Trees and Hedges 

Trees and HedgesThe recent unseasonable weather conditions in Northern Ireland have left our ‘Best Kept’ volunteers the hard task of clearing up the debris. The strong wind and heavy rain has weakened many branches on trees and allowed hedges to become overgrown and untidy.

With the weather now set to improve and the summer holidays on the horizon we thought now would be a good time to share some tips on how to maintain the trees and hedges in your local area.

Where hedges are located next to public roads it is important to cut them back and trim on a regular basis to ensure the safety of road users and pedestrians. With this in mind we would recommend the following clearance for hedging on roads and footpaths;

  • 5m clearance on footpaths for safe passage
  • 2m clearance for hedges overhanging roads
  • 1m clearance for hedges overhanging footpaths
  • 5m clearance for hedges overhanging cycleways

It is also important to note that hedge banks should not be cut bare as this may cause them to dry out or become vulnerable to frost and plant life may be damaged or lost.

In regards to the trees in the local area, the recommended minimum clearance for branches overhanging on public roads and residential areas is;

  • 2m for trees overhanging roads
  • 1m for trees overhanging footpaths
  • 5m for trees overhanging cycleways

If there appears to be large, unstable limbs hanging over the road or footpaths please inform the local council straight away. It is important that a qualified and competent tree surgeon assesses the tree and removes the branch safely.

Good luck to all our ‘Best Kept’ volunteers!

Top Tips to Brighten Up the Town

Broughshane 2011Preparations for the ‘Best Kept’ Awards are already well underway in many of the new super council districts. Entries from both local community groups and private residential committees mean that 2015 will be another superb display of Northern Ireland’s ‘best kept’ towns, villages and residential areas and the competition will be keen!

Most of you will be working to a tight budget and with this in mind we thought we’d lend a hand and share a few top tips on how to impress our judges with your gardening skills.

Sometimes all an area needs is a touch of colour! Here are a few tips on what our judges are looking for when viewing flowers in urban settings;

• The planting container must be in proportion to its situation and adjacent to any street furniture.
• Take a look at the colours used on buildings in the surrounding area and select flowers, which will tie in, both in terms of colour and height with the area’s natural landscape. This should immediately brighten up the area.
• Once planted, make sure you keep the flowers sufficiently fed, watered and deadheaded. Also, take care that they aren’t too much in the shade or too exposed to the elements if they are delicate plants.
• Lastly, keep the area free from weeds and ensure grass verges/hedges are kept trim.

To volunteer with your local community group and get involved in the Open+Direct Insurance ‘Best Kept’ Awards contact us on 028 9040 3681.

Good luck!

How to Make Sure Your Health Facility Receives a Clean Bill of Health from Our Judges

Our final 2015 Open+Direct Insurance ‘Best Kept’ Awards deadline is fast approaching (Friday 22nd GillarooMay) and we are keen to drive entries for each of the three Health and Social Care categories. We would like staff and residents from daycare, residential and healthcare facilities to get on-board and showcase the beautifully kept gardens and cleanliness of their premises.

For this reason we have decided to share a few quotes from our judges regarding last year’s winners. Remember you still have time after entry submission to get outdoors and spruce up your facility, as judging will not commence until later this summer.

A few quotes from our judges;

Gillis Memory Centre, Armagh

“A wonderful oasis of peace and tranquillity for the residents, most of the garden features are an abundance of colour and summer flowering baskets and tubs – A real gem of a garden!”

Gillaroo Lodge Nursing Home, Larne

“This facility continues to improve its general standard every year and this year has added new areas.  The immense variety of flowers, plants and shrubs is very impressive. A truly outstanding facility cared for by the residents and staff.”

Knockbracken Day Centre, Belfast

“This facility has maintained the high standard it set last year.  It has a delightful small courtyard garden which is well-kept by enthusiastic day clients and staff.  A deserving winner!”

Adelaide House, Belfast

“The excellent garden at this facility is well used and appreciated by residents, with some new design features and a very high standard of maintenance. The resident who leads the ongoing development of this garden is to be commended – A joy to visit.”

Slievegrane, Downpatrick

“This facility has retained the high standards of recent years and is again a worthy winner.  The absence of litter, the extensive provision of colourful summer flowers and a number of design features highlighted the significant input by all the residents.  Well done!”

St. Luke’s Hospital, Armagh

“St Luke’s Hospital is a massive site, which is very impressive. It was very tidy and free from weeds and litter with new trees planted and old garages removed. This has helped the overall view, a truly deserving winner.”

‘Best Kept’ Spring Gardening Tips

Following a few stolen days of summer, spring is now well under way with the appearance of lots of fresh growth. Grass, plants and weeds have been sprouting up in towns, villages, yards and parks all Enniskillen 4over the country. The recent spike in good weather has, we’re sure, inspired many avid gardeners to embrace the sunshine and prepare their flower beds for the coming months.

Bearing in mind, each and every gardener aims to prolong the abundance of colour in their area for as long as possible we thought it would be a nice idea to share some of our ‘Best Kept’ spring gardening tips.

  • When preparing to cut the lawn for the first time of the season we would recommend not cutting it too close. Perhaps adjust the cutting height to approximately 2”/5cm
  • Running a garden rake through the lawn helps to aerate the grass by removing dead growth and moss
  • The last Sunday of April has traditionally been labelled ‘Dandelion Day’. Around this period of the season the profusion of ‘gold’ is very visible and it is a good time to dead head to prevent spreading
  • Although weeds can be referred to as ‘plants in the wrong place’ it’s best to extract them and tidy up the surrounding ground before planting for the new season
  • Lastly, our top tip is one for prolonging freshly cut flowers for the home, simply add two ice cubes or a spoonful of sugar to the water in the vase, this will allow the flowers to last longer.

Remember: A garden is a thing of beauty and a job forever!