Belfast Telegraph

Darren Clarke's ‘treehuggers’ jibe as bid to block golf resort begins

By Linda Stewart and Amanda Poole

Major golf champ Darren Clarke has called those opposed to the Bushmills Dunes resort “treehuggers”.

It follows the first day of the National Trust’s legal challenge to the Environment Minister’s decision to grant planning permission for the £100m facility close to the Giant’s Causeway.

The Portrush-based golfer tweeted to his 217,000 Twitter followers last night, saying: “All the treehuggers coming out in support of NT (National Trust) against the new golf course on the north coast at home #seethebiggerpicture #getalife.”

He later added: “Nice to see that a lot of you agree with me regarding Bushmills Dunes.

“It can only help Northern Ireland. For those of you who don't then unfollow me please! #onlymyopinion.”

Environment Minister Alex Attwood has been accused of second-guessing Unesco’s views on the proposed golf resort close to the World Heritage Site.

The National Trust said he acted “unreasonably and irrationally” in granting planning permission for the resort, which would lie within a buffer zone protecting the landscape setting of the Giant’s Causeway.

The conservation charity made the claims during the first day of a legal challenge to the controversial decision which overturns a series of planning policies designed to protect the landscape and environment around the visitor attraction.

On the opening day of the judicial review at Belfast’s High Court, Stuart Beattie QC, trust counsel, said the minister didn’t consult Unesco before his decision, announced in February.

His own conservation department, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency had repeatedly cautioned him to do so earlier and warned the Causeway could be stripped of World Heritage status over inappropriate development.

Mr Beattie said the trust believes Mr Attwood has acted “unreasonably” in granting planning permission without informing Unesco and “irrationally” in repeatedly saying he had “exhaustively interrogated” all the issues .

The minister told the media he had looked at what Unesco was saying in respect of the Giant’s Causeway in making the decision, but Mr Beattie said the National Trust has “difficulty” with this statement and feels the minister sought to second-guess Unesco’s views rather than consult it.

Mr Beattie said the minister asked advisers about Unesco’s probable reaction if planning permission for the resort were granted, but was not informed of a letter saying it had concerns about the project.

After the decision, Planning Service notified Unesco by emailing a link to a website where the planning documentation could be viewed.

Unesco called on the UK Government to halt the development until it could assess if the ‘outstanding universal value’ that had led to the listing of the Causeway as a World Heritage Site would be affected.

The trust had asked for a public inquiry, but this was refused. It also claims the project does not stack up financially.

It said the economic boost promised by developers was cited by Planning Service as exceptional circumstances.

Yet the only body consulted about it was DRD’s economics branch, which admitted it did not have the expertise for an economic assessment.

Correspondence revealed NIEA had repeatedly flagged up concerns over the failure to consult Unesco and the inadequacy of a breeding bird survey.

Decade of to-ing and fro-ing over scheme

  • 2003: Unesco grants World Heritage status to the Giant’s Causeway.
  • 2007: Revised planning application for golf resort development received in 2007. NIEA warns of very significant potential impact on Causeway.
  • 2008: Unesco notified of refusal of planning permission for visitors’ centre at Giant’s Causeway. National Trust takes over application process, consulting with DoE and Unesco for a centre which gets planning permission.
  • 2010: NIEA says it has serious concerns about Runkerry plan and recommends that planning permission to build the golf resort be refused. Unesco issues report saying it must be informed over progress with the application.
  • Spring 2011: Letter from Planning Service says the scheme is generally acceptable but there is no change in opinion of NIEA about the effect on ecology of the area. Economic impact assessment submitted.
  • April 2011: Trust writes to Unesco of its concerns.
  • June 2011: NIEA provides consultation response to planners, warning of the need to inform Unesco.
  • September 2011: NIEA warns that the absence of a suitable breeding bird survey leaves department vulnerable to judicial review. Unesco contacts UK Ambassador.
  • October 2011: Internal memo within department says the breeding bird surveys do not meet standards required.
  • November 2011: NIEA recommends refusal on grounds of threat to ecology.
  • January 2012: National Trust advises minister to consult with Unesco.
  • February 2012 Decision to approve announced by minister, outlining series of mitigation measures.
  • May 2012: Unesco writes to trust outlining concerns over conservation of setting.
  • June 2012: Unesco calls on UK to halt development until an assessment of the impact on the Causeway has been made.
  • October 2012: Unesco suggests a mission at end of the month but UK unable to comply due to timescale.

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