Belfast City Council has approved a controversial section of the Forth Meadow Greenway in west Belfast, despite objections that the site could also be used for housing.
Campaigners have been arguing the old Mackies factory site should be used for both social housing and a new greenway.
At the council’s Planning Committee this week in City Hall, they told members the plan for the area was “undemocratic” and would create a haven for anti-social behaviour.
However, councillors at the Planning Committee voted for new parkland — section two of the Forth Meadow Community Greenway — which includes foot and cycle pathways, lighting columns, new entrances and street furniture.
The application, which is from Belfast City Council itself, went to a vote. Seven votes were in favour from Sinn Féin, the DUP, and the PUP.
One vote was cast against the plan by People Before Profit, and two abstentions came from Alliance.
The site to be developed includes vacant land bounded by the Forthriver Industrial Park in the east, Springfield Road to the south, and Paisley Park and West Circular Road and Crescent to the west.
The area also includes links through the Forthriver Industrial Park to Woodvale Avenue land at Springfield Dam (Springfield Road), Paisley Park (West Circular Road), and the junction of West Circular Road and Ballygomartin Road.
The greenway is funded by the EU’s PEACE IV Programme, and is intended to be a physical representation of the peace process in Belfast and to promote reconciliation between interface communities.
The £5m project will see the creation of a 12km route from Clarendon Playing Fields in the north of the city, through the west to the new transport hub in the city centre. Some £3.2m has been spent so far.
Objections came from Participation and the Practice of Rights, the Take Back Our City Coalition, and the Town and Country Planning Association.
A representative for the objectors told the Planning Committee: “We are not opposed to the greenway. There is a more efficient way to use the Mackies land, to produce both a greenway, and either employment or housing development.
“The Forth River Valley physically splits the Mackies land. It can’t be used for buildings, and it is the logical centrepiece for a fully planned site. The proposal before you ignores the Forth River Valley, which will become a no-man’s land, and a certain source of anti-social behaviour if it goes ahead.”
He added: “There is a better way, to replan the Mackies site so that the greenway is the centrepiece of a mixed use development that overlooks and protects against anti-social behaviour. The land remains zoned for employment, and is protected from non-employment uses.”
He said: “This application prejudices the decision on the status of the land. There is an overprovision of employment land and an under provision of housing land, including a huge shortfall in social housing.”
A representative on behalf of the applicant said: “These planning application proposals comprise a key part of the project which aims to enable reconciliation and interaction between divided communities – acting as a catalyst for regeneration for local neighbourhoods, and breaking down many of the physical and metaphorical barriers that currently exist, with a network of shared open spaces.”
He said that all plans for the full greenway had to be submitted before two deadlines in December this year and March next year – or the project would lose funding.
He said: “Non completion of the project within those timescales would mean clawback – this would represent a significant financial and reputational risk to the council.”
This section of the Forth Meadow Greenway was initially approved by the council Planning Committee last September, but was subject to judicial review on one ground of illegality.
The council’s decision to grant planning permission was quashed and the status of the application reverted to ‘undetermined’.
The application was reported back to the committee earlier this week with alterations for a new decision. A council planning officer said the nature of the application did not preclude future development at the site, and recommended approval to elected members.
An objector from Take Back Our City told the chamber: “You as councillors are placing your trust in council officials here who previously advised you to vote for an unlawful plan.
“We aren’t totally sure how this process can be considered as democratic or participative in general.”
There were no objections from statutory or non-statutory consultees.
The City Solicitor speaking on behalf of the council said: “In relation to the judicial review, I can reassure the committee that the decision was quashed on the basis of interpretation of employment policy.
“That judicial review challenged the council because it had failed to adequately take into account policies which would protect the economic zoning.
“I want to be really clear – that decision was not quashed on the basis of participation, consultation or anything of that nature. The decision was quashed as a result of the interpretation of a technical policy in relation to employment. That issue has now been addressed.”