Belfast Telegraph

Safety experts verify safety procedures in Casement Park redevelopment plan

Representatives from the main emergency services have endorsed steps taken by the GAA to ensure spectator safety in an emergency evacuation scenario

A panel of experts has unanimously backed spectator safety procedures in the redevelopment plan for Casement Park.

The endorsement from the group comprising all the main emergency services comes more than three years after the former chair of the same body triggered a Stormont inquiry when he revealed his concerns about the ill-fated first design for the west Belfast venue.

The Safety Technical Group (STG), which was set up to scrutinise plans to redevelop stadia in Northern Ireland, has verified steps taken by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) to ensure the proposed 34,000-plus capacity stadium could be evacuated safely, with emergency vehicles able to get appropriate access.

The approval of the STG comes as planners continue to assess the second design proposal.

Even if the planners ultimately give the green light for the £60 million-plus rebuild, work on the site is still likely to be a way off, as the powersharing impasse means there is no minister in place to sign-off on the revised budget plan.

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Casement Park is currently lying derelict and overgrown (Liam McBurney/PA)

When, or if, a new stadium gets built, a final Safety Certificate will still need to be granted by Belfast City Council, with the approval of the police and fire service, for it to be able to host events.

But the GAA has hailed the backing of the STG in the planning process as a significant milestone toward that objective.

A spokesman for the Ulster Council of the GAA said: “As Casement Park’s planning assessment process moves into its final weeks, we welcome that the Safety Technical Group (STG) has unanimously verified our work regarding the stadium’s design and spectator safety.”

He said the STG had been involved in “every step of the project’s design development”.

“We will continue to work with our dedicated team as we look forward to the conclusion of the statutory process and a formal view on the application from the Planning Service,” he added.

At this stage of the development process, the PSNI is assured that the issues of concern have been addressed Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd confirmed the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which had concerns about the original proposal, was now content with the safety aspects of the design.

“At this stage of the development process, the PSNI is assured that the issues of concern have been addressed,” he said.

“We will continue to engage with and provide input to the Safety Technical Group to ensure safety, access and egress requirements are met.”

A spokeswoman for the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS) said: “NIFRS is satisfied with the revised proposals for emergency exiting and is continuing to engage through the Safety Technical Group on all fire safety requirements for this project.”

The GAA’s efforts to develop the old stadium site have been mired in controversy, with initial planning approval for a 38,000-capacity venue quashed by the High Court in 2014 following a challenge by nearby residents.

Subsequent to that court decision, safety expert Paul Scott told a Stormont oversight committee that he had serious concerns about the original design.

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Planner are currently in the final stages of assessing an application from the GAA for a 34,000 capacity stadium at Casement (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Scott, who was then chair of the STG, said the stadium envisaged could not be emptied safely in an emergency and warned of a similar situation to the Hillsborough tragedy.

His claim prompted an investigation by the Culture, Arts and Leisure (CAL) committee. The GAA insisted it acted appropriately throughout the first design process.

Nevertheless, given the High Court judgment, it was forced to scale back on its original design, with a second planning application submitted in March 2017 envisaging a target capacity of 34,186.

Despite the reduced size, the plan continues to face vocal opposition from some residents living around the venue. Other residents however are supportive of the plan to revive and regenerate the currently overgrown and crumbling stadium site.

The Department of Communities, responding to a request from planners, has now confirmed that a safety report compiled by the Ulster Council of the GAA earlier this year has the unanimous backing of all members of the STG.

The STG comprises representatives from Sport NI; Belfast City Council, the PSNI, the NI Ambulance Service; the NI Fire and Rescue Service; and the GAA’s ground safety management.

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Some nearby residents oppose the GAA’s plan while others support it (Liam McBurney/PA)

A DfC spokeswoman said: “The Department for Communities (DfC) received a request from the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) Strategic Planning Unit for the Safety Technical Group (STG) to verify stadium design and spectator safety information submitted by UCGAA.

“The STG responded by unanimously verifying the accuracy of the spectator safety submitted information. DfC subsequently submitted this information to DfI.”

A spokeswoman for the Ambulance Service said: “The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service cooperated with our partner agencies to review issues relating to public safety and the proposals for the redevelopment of Casement Park.”

A Belfast City Council spokesman said: “Belfast City Council as a member of the Safety Technical Group (STG) provides advice on matters relating to safety in the context of the Safety of Sports Grounds (NI) Order 2006. Belfast City Council has, within the scope of its engagement in the STG considered safety and evacuation in the process to date. The Council will continue to consider these matters when issuing a General Safety Certificate based on the final stadium design.”

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