ANTI-LIGNITE campaigners in north Antrim were this week celebrating a victory in their fight against the mining of the fuel source in the area.
Last month North Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey contacted party colleague and Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster, voicing major concerns he had about planning constraints in lignite areas.
Planning authorities had blocked applications in areas where there is lignite in order to preserve the reserve should it be required in the future.
Mr Storey said this was “discriminatory” to those who wished to develop homes and businesses in such areas and has now secured a loosening of policy constraints imposed on lignite zones.
In a letter to Mr Storey, the Minister wrote: “Both I and my officials are aware that a number of planning applications have been refused because they did not meet the conditions required for planning permission to be granted within the Lignite Resource Area.
“My officials have reviewed both the rationale for the designation of the Lignite Resource Area and the extent of the delineated area.
“They have concluded that the rationale for designating the area - the need to protect the lignite, Northern Ireland’s only proven significant fossil fuel resource, against sterilisation by surface development so that it would be able for future use - remains as strong as ever.
“In the light of recent events, which have the potential to threaten Northern Ireland’s future supplies of both natural gas and oil, the 580 million tonne lignite deposit at Ballymoney has a strategic importance which is likely to increase with time.
“There are no current plans to extract lignite but future advances of ‘in situ’ extraction of methane or carbon capture and storage technologies could change this situation within the lifespan of the Northern Area Plan.”
“In response to the representations on behalf of your constituents my officials have met with their counterparts in Planning Service officials to discuss the options available to relax the planning restrictions within the Lignite Resource Area whilst maintaining the protection of the lignite resource for future use.
“At a meeting on 5 April, Planning Service proposed that the planning policy provisions of PPS 21, Sustainable Development of the Countryside, be given precedence over policy MIN1 of the draft Northern Area Plan.
“DETI officials agreed to this approach provided that planning permission for replacement dwellings outside existing active clusters of ribbons would only be granted in exceptional circumstances.
“It is also proposed that the frequency, density and distribution of planning permissions granted under the revised policy would (be) closely monitored and reviewed after two years, to ensure that the lignite resource continues to be adequately protected for future use.”
Last week Mr Storey took First Minister Peter Robinson to see the area which would be affected should lignite mining ever be given the green light.
In response to Arlene Foster’s letter, Mr Storey told the Times:
“This is good news for all those living and working in the lignite area.
“I have along with the just say no committee campaigned for equity of treatment from the Planning Service for those constituents who live and work in the area designated within the lignite zone.
“We have had planning applications disallowed in the area only on the basis of their location. “This is a plight on the area and discriminatory to those applicants who only want to improve their business and enhance their properties.
“While this is good news I will still ensure that a watching brief is keep on this issue, while lignite is in the ground eternal vigilance should be our watch word.
“I will be meeting as soon as possible after the election with the new Minister whoever that will be and the Planning Service to deal further with this issue.”