Businessman's Alliance row over kayak school
A Belfast businessman has criticised the Alliance Party for not doing more to develop a kayaking facility in the east of the city.
Peter Boyle, who owns the Argento jewellery business, has also been a committed kayaker for 25 years.
Although an Alliance voter, he has hit out at party leader Naomi Long and MLA Chris Lyttle for what he alleges to be a lack of support for the planning application.
A solicitor for Alliance said his clients deny acting improperly at any time, calling Mr Boyle's accusations "spurious, inaccurate, bizarre, false and potentially defamatory."
Two years ago Mr Boyle bought the 13-acre Ormiston House property in east Belfast, which had a neglected outdoor 50 yard pool. He restored the pool complete with a temporary marquee at a cost of £500,000. He said he donated the pool and cost to the Belfast Kayaking Academy - an independent charity which runs classes for about 50 local children aged 8-18. A planning application was made to retain the marquee, but to date no decision has been made.
"When we put the planning application in, we knew there had been a group of neighbours that had been objecting to plans for any development around Ormiston," Mr Boyle said. "We knew we would face some local opposition, that was fine. Then we got a call from the planning officer to say that Chris Lyttle and Alliance had contacted them directly to say they were against it and there was significant local opposition. We were a bit annoyed that Alliance hadn't spoken to us first. While there was a group of local people objecting, there was also significant local support and so we felt it was unfair of them to go directly to the planning officer."
Responding to the allegation that the planning office had been contacted, Belfast City Council said that only written responses were considered in planning matters, adding: "Unless comments are made in writing and formally submitted as part of the consultation process, they will not be considered by the council in the decision-making process."
Mr Boyle said he was advised to lobby Alliance directly, with Mr Lyttle visiting Ormiston House a year ago. Mr Boyle says that no agreement was reached at that meeting. Ms Long visited the house around six months ago but again no agreement was reached.
This week Mr Boyle said he became angered when an Alliance newsletter delivered to his house contained an article headlined: 'Support for Sport in East Belfast', referencing Alliance's backing of projects like a new football stadium for Glentoran Football Club.
"Our point was that this pool was meant to be a community facility and should be within the community it serves," said Mr Boyle.
He said the issue was not personal, having voted for the Alliance leader himself on three occasions.
"When Naomi Long came round she said she was representing her constituents and yet I said to her 'I'm a constituent'. This is something I've put so much time, effort and money into developing. I spent seven years driving children around east Belfast in minibuses, teaching them kayaking, so I think this project should be fully supported by our politicians."
Mr Boyle said he now expects his planning application will be rejected and go to appeal.
"So far we're out about £50,000 in professional fees of the council asking for reports. It's been soul destroying," he said.
Mr Boyle is also building an outdoor facility in Carryduff, but says the indoor facility is needed for the winter months.
In response, a solicitor for the Alliance Party said their clients would not be responding to these "spurious, inaccurate, bizarre, false and potentially defamatory statements, to do so would lend the statements a credibility which even cursory examination of the facts of this case does not justify."
They also noted that nine planning enforcement cases had been brought against Mr Boyle by Belfast Planning Office as of May 2, 2017. These include unauthorised works to: trees, a listed building, swimming pool and marquee, and the unauthorised use of CCTV, use of the pool as Kayak Academy, unauthorised hard standing, new entrance, unauthorised fence and floodlighting.
A council spokesperson commented: "Belfast Planning Service can confirm it has a number of planning enforcement cases relating to Ormiston House."
Mr Boyle replied: "These planning enforcement cases are just complaints by neighbours, there's no prosecutions. We have nothing that isn't covered by a planning application, retrospective or otherwise. I've been restoring this for two years and never had a fine."