Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

No breakthrough in Causeway debate

A Giant's Causeway talks process ordered by Environment Minister Arlene Foster looks doomed to fail, the Belfast Telegraph understands.

And the likely outcome leaves the Minister with no prospect of a non-contentious verdict on the proposed visitor centre project tabled by developer Seymour Sweeney.

DoE Planning Service officials have held meetings with the current operators of the Causeway visitor facilities - Moyle District Council and the National Trust - to establish if they would come on board with Mr Sweeney's commercial scheme.

But both bodies are believed to have reiterated their view that a new centre should be publicly-owned, with proceeds being used to look after the famous attraction and enhance the wider tourist infrastructure.

That leaves open the potential for the Causeway to end up with two visitor centres - facilities run by the Trust and council and the rival project devised by Mr Sweeney for nearby land in his ownership.

Court action in the protracted controversy is also a very real possibility.

Mr Sweeney stated last month that he would challenge any renewal of the planning permission for the current Causeway visitor facilities.

There could, meanwhile, also be a judicial review challenge on any planning approval for his commercial centre development.

The Environment Minister announced in September that she was "of a mind" to grant Mr Sweeney's scheme permission.

She said she saw "considerable merit" in the proposed development - due to the possibility of it replacing existing premises on the Causeway headland.

But that would seem to depend on a surprise three-way deal being sealed.

Any hopes Mrs Foster had of such an agreement are likely to be dashed when she receives a report on the outcome of Planning Service's recent round of separate talks with each grouping.

While all sides are refusing to comment on the meetings, it is understood that both the Trust and council remain of a similar mind on the way forward.

Planning Service chief David Ferguson was criticised last week for personally conveying an offer to the council from Mr Sweeney.

This would have involved it agreeing to clear its existing buildings and car-park in return for compensation. It appears highly unlikely that Moyle councillors will endorse such an arrangement.

The National Trust, meanwhile, has not been tempted to date by a suggestion of renting space in Mr Sweeney's proposed centre. It argues that the scale and location of the businessman's scheme contravene both the requirements of world heritage body Unesco and planning policy restrictions on greenfield development.

Mrs Foster still has to take her final decision on Mr Sweeney's project. This will involve choosing between refusal, approval or a public inquiry held by the Planning Appeals Commission.

There can be little doubt that any of these options will involve political fall-out.

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