In their letter published on May 14, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) clearly state their intention to proceed with a planning application for a new provincial stadium in the coming weeks.
Given the issues that have recently emerged around safe capacity at Casement Park, a new planning application would seem premature at this time, particularly as the project is set to receive over £61 million of public funding.
The fundamental problem faced by the GAA in meeting the official government guidance on safety of sports grounds is that Casement Park is surrounded on three sides by residential properties which abut directly onto the perimeter of the ground. For a ground of its size, that is unique within these islands.
The Government’s guidance recommends that a modern stadium should have continuous circulation around the ground, to facilitate safe entrance and exit, including in emergency situations. The guidance allows for ‘deviations’ from the recommended standard, but any such ‘deviations’ must provide “an equal or greater level of safety”.
Currently, Casement Park only has continuous circulation around one quarter of the ground. That is a 75 per cent shortfall compared to the safety guidance. For that reason, the current safe capacity of the ground, under modern standards, is in the range 14-19,000.
The GAA’s problem lies in how to deal with an emergency evacuation situation which closes off the Andersonstown Road exits, which account for around 70 per cent of current exiting capacity.
The Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), which is providing the £61m funding for the project, set up the Safety Technical Group (STG) to provide advice on meeting the government’s safety requirements. The STG met on at least seven occasions over 2013 and 2014. Serious concerns over the emergency exiting issue were a constant and recurring theme in their deliberations.
Nonetheless, in June 2013, the GAA proceeded with a planning application for a 38,000 all-seated stadium design that would not, according to the STG, have complied with the guidance for implementing the Safety of Sports Grounds legislation. That planning approval was quashed following MORA’s judicial review action. But a 38,000 stadium with a safe capacity of 14-19,000 would surely have been a white elephant by any definition.
Based on their latest statement, the GAA seem set to do the same again i.e. to first apply for planning permission for a provincial stadium (35,000+) and leave the fundamental safety issues until later.
But the GAA have yet to clarify how they propose dealing with the fundamental problem of ensuring safe evacuation from Casement Park. How much more would they need to spend to do that? And where would the funds come from?
To that extent, where is the wisdom of applying for planning permission for a provincial stadium of 35,000+ when, clearly, the safety experts think the safe capacity is much less than that? That’s a strategy that represents a gamble with £61 million of public funds.
Tony Dignan, Committee member, Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents Association