Any bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland should start in Donaghadee, says councillor
Proposals for a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland have taken another twist after controversy erupted over calls for a historic Co Down port to be considered in the plans.
Official talks about a proposed crossing over the North Channel may still be in the early stages, but already rivalry is developing over where it should start.
The route options mooted include from the Mull of Kintyre to Co Antrim - a distance of around 10 miles; and from Portpatrick to either Larne or Bangor - around 21 miles.
Now a North Down councillor has said the historic port of Donaghadee should be considered - a suggestion which has split opinion. Some say it could be a social and environmental "disaster" for the area.
Mark Brooks, a local businessman, admitted there are objections - which he likened to when the M1, the Westlink or the Holywood bypass were proposed - but urged his colleagues to "take their heads out of the sand".
"I lived in Al-Khobar for a couple of years and could see the 16-mile bridge linking Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, which was opened in 1981 - nearly 40 years ago," he said.
"There will be a bridge. I want to move this project forward and our council to be the first elected chamber to actively promote and act on the link, the first chamber for over 60 years to do so."
Ards and North Down Borough Council's regeneration and development committee voted last Thursday to write to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley and - in the current absence of an Executive - the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Infrastructure, Peter May.
The council will ask for its borough to be considered in any feasibility study or business case as a possible connection point for a new bridge. The decision must be ratified at the next full meeting of the council, on April 25.
However, opinion is mixed.
Alliance councillor Gavin Walker is adamant he will vote against, calling it a "potential environmental and social disaster for Donaghadee".
"Our coastline is regularly lauded as one of our greatest assets, yet this proposal invites government to visit an environmental disaster on our shore," he said.
"Providing the land for this infrastructure alone would decimate Donaghadee and our coastline - and that's before we even consider the building of the motorway required to serve the bridge.
"We can't simply bring the bridge to the shoreline and then allow the thousands of lorries and cars that will cross every day to trundle up New Street and find its own way out of town.
"Instead we would be required to dig up acres of our beautiful countryside to drive a motorway through."
Mr Walker said the plans were "absurd".
He warned that with a motorway rather than a sea view, local property prices could plummet. "This misguided decision of the committee is already having an immediate effect on Donaghadee, and one that I will continue to fight," he added.
Mr Brooks (inset below), meanwhile, conceded that Donaghadee may not be the most feasible route, but said he wants to ensure it is not left out.
"My point of argument is that the historic link has always been between Portpatrick and Donaghadee, and I wanted to remind them of that in any discussion," he said.
"Donaghadee is the historic link and the original port into this part of the province. The first mapped roads in Ireland were out of Donaghadee.
"I spoke to the chief executive about this, and whether we should put our marker down.
"He then brought a proposal to council last Thursday night.
"Really, it's about seeing whether it (the bridge) is going to come out of our borough, or Mid and East Antrim."
A Scottish Government spokesperson said Transport Scotland officials will be speaking to counterparts in Northern Ireland to "explore the potential of improving the vital connections between our two islands".
"There have been various ideas for bridges or tunnels between Scotland and Northern Ireland over the years although to date there has been no robust assessment of the costs or benefits of such proposals.
"It is clear that the delivery of any fixed link would be complex and present significant challenges and we are at the very early stages of thinking on our approach.
"It would be premature to be speculating on any particular options, impacts or routes at this time."