Doubt cast over stadium revamp
Doubt has been cast over the future of a multimillion-pound revamp of a stadium capable of hosting 2023 Rugby World Cup matches in Northern Ireland.
A High Court judge has ruled that the decision to grant planning permission for a 38,000-seat sports facility in the heart of west Belfast was unlawful.
Mr Justice Horner told a packed sitting of Belfast High Court the decision-making process had been "inadequate and unlawful" but stopped short of quashing the approval of expansion plans for the Gaelic Athletics Association's (GAA's) Casement Park.
The judge said: "The department (of environment) was wrong legally and factually to make the decision."
Permission for the £77 million stadium, which has a pivotal role in Ireland's 2023 Rugby World Cup bid, was given by Northern Ireland's Environment Minister Mark H Durkan in December last year.
The GAA want to build a 38,000 all-seated stadium including conference, bar/ restaurant and community facilities plus car parking on the site at Andersonstown Road.
However, residents from about 60 nearby homes objected to the size of the planned development and launched a legal challenge to halt construction which is being part-funded by the taxpayer.
The Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents' Association (MORA) contested that their homes would be dwarfed by the new stadium and their lives would be negatively impacted by the traffic congestion in the area during high profile events.
Delivering his ruling to a packed courtroom, Mr Justice Horner said process used by the minister had been fundamentally flawed.
He identified failures in the environmental impact assessment of the increased facilities and said there had been a reliance on an unrealistic figure of 32,600 capacity as a baseline for the project.
The judge said: "There was no cogent evidence that it (Casement Park) was ever going to play host to crowds of 20,000 in the future never mind one of 32,600."
He later added: "It appears that the department merely determined what the capacity of the ground was and took this as the baseline.
"This was both an inadequate and unlawful approach and it meant that the likely significant effects of full capacity attendances at the ground were not and could not be adequately assessed."
The effect of huge crowds on the road network to the stadium was also not properly considered, according to the judge.
Justice Horner said: "There was a fundamental flaw in the approach of the department when it assessed what effects a capacity crowd attending Casement Park would have. It was an unlawful approach."
The judge found the Environment Minister had granted approval without being informed of police concerns about traffic congestion; lengthy evacuation times and the ability of emergency services to access the grounds which could pose a risk to life.
This was "irretrievably flawed", he said.
The case was heard over 13 days in October and was among the longest judicial reviews to be held in the region
During his deliberations over the past two months Justice Horner visited Casement Park to help assess the impact of the proposed development.
He conceded that the present grounds were outdated.
He said: "Casement Park is run down and dilapidated. It requires substantial capital expenditure.
"While the GAA may well have the money to spend on this, it is certainly not evident from their past behaviour that such work would have been carried out unless it was grant-aided."
There was standing room only in courtroom Queensbench Number Two as dozens of residents and high profile GAA members spilled out of the public gallery.
Northern Ireland's sports minister Caral Ni Chuilin, whose west Belfast constituency includes Casement Park, was also in court.
Outside, Carmel McKavanagh, a spokeswoman for MORA, said they were "confident" construction would not now go ahead.
She said: "MORA welcomes the High Court decision that the planning permission granted for a new 38,000-capacity seater stadium at Casement Park was unlawful.
"The judicial review hearings took place over 13 days in the High Court, giving sides ample scope to present their respective arguments.
"We appreciate the thoroughness with which Mr Horner (the judge) approached the case and the rigour of his decision-making. We believe his decision is robust."
Rodger Watts, solicitor for the residents, praised the homeowners for "having the guts to stand up for what they believed in".
He said: "The court has found that the decision-making process was unlawful and the outcome will be finally determined on Wednesday to give the Government an opportunity to make further argument.
"The grounds on which the decision was found to be unlawful were serious; they go to the heart of the decision- making process, so I think that speaks for itself."
Anne-Marie Hughes said locals were not opposed to redevelopment of Casement Park, but objected to the sheer scale of the current plans.
She said: "We were not against Casement being rebuilt - to a certain degree, maybe 20-25,000, but not any higher and not for us to suffer in our daily lives.
"We were happy enough to go ahead on a smaller capacity to fit in with the local area."
The redevelopment of Casement Park is part of a Government drive to upgrade Belfast's three major sporting grounds.
Work has already finished at Ravenhill, the home of Ulster rugby, and is ongoing at Windsor Park football ground.
With the GAA promising a number of stadiums for Ireland's 2023 Rugby World Cup bid, a re-vamped Casement Park would also have been a likely venue for games.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said: "I have been advised that the court found that the decision was unlawful on a number of counts.
"I understand that the judge wishes to reconvene on Wednesday to hear both parties' proposals before making a final decision. Before then, I will consider what the judge has said very carefully.
"Clearly I am disappointed, both for my department and for the GAA."
It was emphasised that judicial review proceedings were not an appeal against the minister's decision to grant planning permission but a "legal audit" of the process adopted.
Justice Horner stated that his review was not influenced by the financial and sporting advantages or disadvantages claimed by the respective parties and should not be considered a comment on the merits or otherwise.
Ms Ni Chuilin vowed that the project was not dead.
She said: "I am disappointed for the GAA given the fact that my responsibility is to bring facilities which are fit for purpose. I am disappointed for the 1,500 people I was hoping to provide employment for in an area that has been denied investment for decades.
"But I am determined that the GAA has facilities which really reflect the needs of the games going into the 21st century."
The GAA wanted the increased capacity to facilitate major games including Ulster Senior football finals and All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Tom Daly, chairman of the Casement Park Project Board, said he was "deeply disappointed" by the outcome.
He said: "The proposed redevelopment of Casement Park would have provided the opportunity of a world-class provincial stadium for the GAA and the broader community in the heart of Belfast.
"The project would also have provided much-needed economic and social benefits to West Belfast and beyond, including financial investment, new jobs, apprenticeships and community projects.
"The new stadium would also have supported the GAA's plan to develop and grow grassroots Gaelic games within the city and the county of Antrim.
"Over the coming weeks we will reflect on this decision and consider what the next steps are for Casement Park.
The court is expected to reconvene on Wednesday when a final ruling will be delivered.
Justice Horner concluded: "The applicant succeeds in this judicial review. As agreed, I will hear counsel on the issue of the relief that I should grant given the court's decision and the lack of promptitude with which these proceedings were issued."