High Court judge approves Runkerry plan

High Court judge approves Runkerry plan

A High Court judge has given the go ahead for work to begin on a controversial £100m golf course development near the north coast's Giant's Causeway.

On Wednesday, Mr Justice Weatherup dismissed a legal challenge lodged by the National Trust and endorsed the initial planning application more than a decade after it was lodged.

The Trust had attempted to block planning approval by Environment Minister Alex Attwood, stating he had acted unreasonably and irrationally.

Their legal bid was based on the argument that a body responsible for granting World Heritage Site status, UNESCO, was not properly consulted on the project.

The planned 365-acre development at Runkerry, to be known as Bushmills Dunes Golf Resort and Spa, received the green light in February last year.

Along with a championship links golf course, the blueprint includes a five-star 120-bedroom hotel and 75 villas.

The charity argued a UNESCO recommendation stated there should be a buffer zone to protect the special landscape surrounding the Causeway.

But Mr Justice Weatherup backed a counter submission by the Department of the Environment that World Heritage convention guidelines have no standing in UK law.

He said: "The court must step away from seeking to implement, directly or indirectly, what obligations there may or may not be under the convention.

"I must not grant to citizens of the state a right that only exists in international law, if it exists at all."

Developers claim the proposed Bushmills resort would create around 360 jobs and a further 300 through suppliers and construction.

The investment and advisory team, led by US-based Northern Ireland man Dr Alistair Hanna, have predicted the course and hotel could be ready by 2015.

We will strive to regain the investment that the National Trust potentially lost for Northern Ireland over the past six months, and focus on the construction of a world class championship golf course in Northern Ireland.

DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr

After dismissing the Trust's argument on the UNESCO point, the judge threw out further arguments on the potential impact on the environment, wildlife and plant species.

During the course of a one hour 40 minute judgment, he detailed issues around newts, bats, birds and other creatures in the area.

Claims that the Department failed to carry out a proper inquiry into the economic impact of the scheme were also rejected.

"I'm not satisfied there are grounds to intervene," he said.

Additional grounds based on setting a potential precedent and the alleged failure to give adequate reasons for the decision were thrown out as well.

"I propose to dismiss the application," the judge confirmed.

However, he added: "I think that there are a multitude of reasons why the National Trust was warranted in bringing this application and I'm minded not to make any order for costs."

The conservation charity said that it was bitterly disappointed by the ruling, adding it remained convinced a massive development in the setting of the World Heritage Site was wrong.

A statement read: "We still believe that if a development of this scale does go ahead in this location, the message is that nowhere in Northern Ireland, no matter how important or protected, is safe from development.

"The ruling today has served to highlight aspects of very serious concern for those partners involved in the care and protection of the World Heritage Site.

"It is essential that we work together to get planning policy right in Northern Ireland to ensure that appropriate development can happen, but not at the expense of our beautiful landscapes and historic places," the statement continued.

"There are also significant issues regarding the relationship between government in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and UNESCO that must be addressed to ensure the protection of our World Heritage Site for the long term."

What can we expect to see next - a casino at Westminster Abbey or a funfair in Stonehenge?"

Friends of the Earth

But Environment Minister Alex Attwood welcomed the high court judgement and said his conclusion to grant permission was finely balanced and the right decision.

"I am extremely grateful to the Court for the speedy delivery of its judgement and for its deliberations on each of the issues raised," he said.

"I had requested that the full hearing was brought to a conclusion as soon as possible in order to bring certainty to all parties involved.

"The proposed development which is designed to be a world class golf resort will be major boost to the local economy and to Northern Ireland's tourism offering.

"I have always said that the economic benefits of tourism in the North potentially knows no bounds."

Friends of the Earth said it was now clear that nowhere in Northern Ireland is special or safe.

The charity's Northern Ireland director James Orr added: "This judgment confirms that the Northern Ireland planning and environmental regulatory systems fail our priceless heritage and the people of Northern Ireland.

"The High Court made clear that it did not have any grounds under Northern Ireland or UK law to intervene against the Department on this matter.

"The ruling today also shows that UK law is unable to protect our precious World Heritage Sites."

Developers say they are looking forward to starting work as soon as possible.

Dr Alistair Hanna said the injection of investment in the area will create significant numbers of jobs.

"My team and I are focusing on turning the plans for one of the most spectacular golf developments ever seen in Ireland into reality," he said.

"Work will start as soon as possible now that we have been given the green light following a judicial review of the planning application."

"Not only will the resort provide a world-class golf links course and facilities attracting thousands of visitors each year, it will also protect the vulnerable topography of the coastal area which has been left vulnerable following decades of neglect."

Commenting on the outcome, Ian Paisley, DUP MP for North Antrim, said justice had been done.

"The judge has made the correct and rightful decision at the end of a case which should never have been brought before the courts.

"It justifies what I said from the beginning, that the National Trust knew they had no case, but rather this action was a deceitful attempt to delay the development and scare investors away from Bushmills altogether.

"Their actions I still believe have been disgraceful and damaging for the Northern Ireland economy, but we must take heart in today's decision and look to move forward as the course progresses."


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