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Plans for new sports pitches at Stranmillis College approved after knife-edge Belfast council vote

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Stranmillis University College in south Belfast

Stranmillis University College in south Belfast

Stranmillis University College in south Belfast

An application for new sports pitches at Stranmillis College has been approved on a knife-edge vote by Belfast City Council, despite a flood of objections from local residents.

The chair of the council’s planning committee, DUP Councillor John Hussey, gave a casting vote in favour of the proposal this week, after there was a 50/50 split on the controversial application.

The proposal from Stranmillis College involves the redevelopment of an existing all-weather playing field to provide a new 3G flood-lit sports pitch, and redevelopment of former tennis courts to provide a new flood-lit multi use games area, also known as a MUGA pitch.

The plans also included pitch-side fencing and ball-stop nets, car parking, landscaping and associated works on land including and adjacent to the existing all-weather sports pitch at the site off Stranmillis Road.

The proposal was recommended for approval by the council planning case officer.

Some 116 objections to the college’s plan were received on a range of issues, including noise and disturbance to existing residents, and “associated emotional distress,” a council report noted.

Issues of traffic and associated noise at Cleaver Park and Clear Park were raised.

Residents also complained about the proposed floodlighting, the impact on the conservation area, listed buildings and historic parklands around the college, and the impact on flora and fauna, including protected species.

Objectors also stated the application “failed to provide up-to-date ecological information.”

The report also referred to a “perception of fear with strangers coming into the area to use the facility.”

Residents also complained that there was “inadequate neighbour notification undertaken by the council.”

Despite the objections, the council report stated: “The proposal would not adversely impact on amenity, traffic, heritage assets or flooding.”

None of the statutory bodies consulted – including DFI Roads, the Historic Environment Division, NI Water, Rivers Agency, and Environmental Health – had objections to the proposal.

Robert Gilmer, a local resident, told the Belfast planning committee the college “has proven to be a bad neighbour.”

He added: “If this development is approved I worry for the destruction of one of the last conservation areas in south Belfast. I worry for the downward spiral in mental health of friends and neighbours. Ultimately I will lose the peace and sanctity of my own home.

“It is extremely unpleasant to be bullied by a bad neighbour, and to be impotent to prevent a development like this from happening. If this was parked on your front door, I’m sure you would be in agreement.”

South Belfast MLA Matthew O’Toole supported the objectors, and said at the last planning committee meeting: “Having read the proposed planning conditions, there is nothing to control how this scheme will be built and how the residents are protected from serious traffic issues.”

He added he was concerned about the application being pushed forward at this time. He said: “The restrictions imposed have caused a real problem in the ways residents can meet each other, in the way they can discuss things

“There are a number of residents in Cleaver Park who are vulnerable to Covid-19 and are shielding, and that is clearly affecting their ability to engage in this proposal. They are the people most affected by it.”

A proposal by Green Councillor Aine Groogan, to defer the application for analysis of the potential effects upon the substantial badger community in the area, was voted down by the committee.

DUP Councillor David Brooks said: “There are some of us who will have great sympathy with the residents in what they are arguing. But this is a case where all the statutory consultees are coming back and saying there is no issue.

He added: “It is not just solely down to our opinions but also the legal standing of some of these issues. To my mind there isn’t enough for us to vote against this.”

In the final vote, five councillors voted for the proposal, from the DUP and Sinn Fein, and five voted against, from Alliance, the SDLP, the Green Party and People Before Profit. Two councillors abstained.

In deciding approval with the casting vote, Councillor Hussey said: “Were it not for the fact that the flood lighting issue was sorted out and Roads didn’t object, I would take a different opinion on this application, but because of those factors, I think it is unsustainable to refuse the application.”

Belfast Telegraph