PLANNING permission for a £100 million golf resort close to the Giant’s Causeway was granted without properly consulting world heritage authorities or challenging the developer’s economic pledges, a court has heard.
Stormont Environment Minister Alex Attwood acted irrationally and second guessed the views of Unesco when he gave the green light for the complex last year, a lawyer for the National Trust claimed yesterday in Belfast’s High Court.
Mr Attwood also did not have enough information to assess whether the backers of the ambitious scheme could make it fly financially or deliver on their job creation targets, the barrister said.
The Trust is taking a judicial review against the minister’s decision to allow the development – which is planned for a 360-acre site around a mile from the Unesco World Heritage Site at the famous Causeway stones.
The proposal envisages a championship course, a 120-room, five-star hotel, 75 villas and conference facilities in the sand dunes at Runkerry, near Bushmills.
The Trust claim any development on the dunes could have a huge environmental impact on one of Northern Ireland’s top tourist attractions, destroying the habitat of many rare species.
The resort’s development group, led by US-based Northern Ireland businessman Dr Alistair Hanna, claim it will boost tourism figures and create approximately 360 direct jobs and an estimated further 300 ancillary jobs through suppliers and construction.
Stewart Beattie QC, outlining the case for the National Trust, told judge Mr Justice Ronald Weatherup that Mr Attwood’s actions were at odds with his claim that Unesco’s view was integral to his decision.
“The minister has in this case presumed to second guess what the view of Unesco would be in coming to his decision because he has never had an engagement with Unesco,” he said.
Since Mr Attwood’s decision last February, the World Heritage Committee of Unesco has called for a halt to the development until a fuller assessment of its impact is undertaken.
Mr Beattie expressed shock that the minister was not informed by officials that Unesco had specific concerns about development near the Causeway prior to granting approval.
“It is difficult to believe that it would not have been a relevant consideration to the minister before he took the decision,” he said.
Mr Attwood’s department contends that it did comply with Unesco guidelines prior to giving approval – claiming that practice in the UK sees the committee only informed of proposed developments and any subsequent decisions to allow them.
But the Trust insists that Mr Attwood and his officials should have canvassed the committee’s opinion on the proposal, and any ramifications it could have on the heritage designation of the Causeway, ahead of making any planning decision.
Mr Beattie claimed the minister had been wrongly advised by officials.
He also questioned the minister’s assertion that he had “exhaustively interrogated” all the matters around the decision.
“He acted irrationally in assessing that he had properly investigated the issue,” the barrister said.
Mr Beattie told the court one of the Department of Environment’s own bodies – the Northern Ireland Environment Agency – consistently opposed the application and raised concerns about potential breaches of Unesco guidelines.
In granting permission, the department acknowledged that it ran contrary to policy framework for land close to the protected Causeway site.
But it said “exceptional” circumstances had outweighed the policy concerns – namely the potential tourism and jobs boost the resort could provide for the area.
Mr Beattie claimed that officials had not undertaken any rigorous assessment of the economic factors.
He noted that an advisory group within Stormont’s Department of Regional Development had raised some concerns that the project might not yield the developer’s predicted benefits.
The lawyer said Mr Attwood’s department did not test any of the claims and instead took them at face value.
“It appears they simply accepted what the applicant put forward and ignored the concerns of its own consultee (DRD’s economic branch),” he said.
Mr Beattie said there was no evidence of a “challenging frame of mind” in the Department of Environment’s approach to the resort’s pledges.
The department claims it took a strategic approach to the application and therefore had not undertaken forensic analysis of the proposal.
Mr Beattie will finish presenting the Trust’s case today, when he outlines the resort’s alleged impact on the environment.
Dr Hanna was present in court for the first day of the review, as was Heather Thompson, the regional director of the National Trust. Mr Attwood was not in attendance.
The review is set to last three days, with a reserved judgment from Justice Weatherup expected some weeks later.