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Viewpoint: Consensus needed on Causeway centre

Published 12/09/2007

Any country that has one of the geological wonders of the world should be making the most of it, so it is not so surprising that Environment Minister Arlene Foster has said she is "minded" to let a private developer get on with building a much-needed visitors' centre at the Giant's Causeway. It is the only plan on the table, after seven years of stalling, but surely her warning should spur the other candidates to agree an alternative proposal, using public money.

So many public bodies have been involved that their scheme has failed to make progress, but that should not mean that the executive should withdraw its support. Yet the combination of Ms Foster's surprise intervention, and the decision of Economy Minister Nigel Dodds to drop plans to spend £21m on the centre shows a decided preference for the application by Seaport Investments Ltd.

The disagreement throws into sharp focus the problems facing the executive when two ministers from the same party, the DUP, make up their minds on a course of action before it is discussed at executive or Assembly level. Opponents will feel they are being railroaded, even if there is general frustration with the length of time it has taken for the local authorities and the National Trust to come up with a solution.

The scandal is that although the Giant's Causeway is Northern Ireland's premier tourist attraction, with more than 500,000 visitors a year, it has always lacked the dedicated infrastructure that any World Heritage site deserves. The destruction of the previous centre opened up an opportunity to expand the tourist potential, and use the profits elsewhere in the locality, but there has been foot-dragging by all concerned. Now, £1.2m of public money which has been spent on preparing a plan, and organising an international competition, stands to be lost.

One of the main objections to the favoured plan is that the new facilities would be built on a greenfield site, which opponents say would jeopardise the Causeway's status as a UNESCO-approved World Heritage site. Ms Foster has said she will consult with all the authorities before coming to a final decision and it must be hoped that a proper debate will now take place, at all levels, reaching the consensus that has so far been lacking.

Minds should now be focused on providing the best possible visitor centre, on the most environmentally-friendly site, for the sake of the visitors who will continue to make their way to a unique site, served by inadequate, temporary buildings. They are the ones who matter, for the good of the tourist industry as a whole. A long-delayed debate must begin, with total transparency and all options open - and may the best scheme win.

Belfast Telegraph

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