£100m golf resort faces legal challenge

DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr has described as a “disgrace to Northern Ireland” a legal challenge by the National Trust over planning permission for a £100m golf resort on the County Antrim coast.

An application to build an 18-hole golf course and hotel complex at Runkerry was given the go-ahead in February.

However, the trust is seeking leave for a judicial review of the decision.

Mr Paisley said he feared court action would take two years and the developers would begin looking elsewhere.

It has been one of Northern Ireland’s longest running planning disputes.

The North Antrim MP said the National Trust had months to make the challenge, adding: “I think their timing stinks - we’re three weeks away (from the Irish Open), one of the biggest golf tourism events here.

“Thanks National Trust, at a time of economic depression, you put the two fingers up to everyone in Northern Ireland and say you’re going to try to hurt rather than help the economy.

“You are a disgrace to Northern Ireland.”

Mr Paisley’s DUP colleague, enterprise minister Arlene Foster said she and her executive colleagues from all parties were “highly disappointed”.

“I believe it is an attempt to stop what we see as a key tourism development, in the middle of one of the worst recessions for years,” she said.

Plans for the development include a championship course, a five-star 120-bedroom hotel and 70 golf lodges. It is just over a mile away from the entrance to the Giant’s Causeway, located at the junction of the Whitepark and Causeway Road, close to Bushmills.

The new development, on a 365-acre site, is to be known as Bushmills Dunes Golf Resort and Spa. It is expected to create 360 new jobs.

Mr Paisley said: “This wasn’t some Johnny-come-lately application that Alex Attwood approved on a whim,” he said.

“This was 12 years in the process, five ministers examined it, and it went through every conceivable twist and turn of consideration.

“The longer you delay, the more chance the private sector will go somewhere else to invest their money.”

In February, Environment Minister Alex Attwood said the decision to approve the development had not been “taken lightly”.

The National Trust said, it was given the go-ahead, it was convinced that “the planning application was contrary to a range of the department’s planning policies”.

On Wednesday, the charity confirmed the legal move saying it had “consistently opposed the planning application”.

It added that, in particular, it was concerned that the entire development was on land zoned in the draft Northern Area Plan as the “distinctive landscape setting of the World Heritage Site in which no development should take place”.

The trust said: “This is based on a recommendation by UNESCO - the body responsible for World Heritage designations - that there should be a buffer zone to protect the special landscape surrounding the Causeway.”

The charity added that having “carefully considered” all the information relating to the planning decision, there remained “fundamental issues of concern”.

It said it had “no option” but to seek leave for a judicial review, so that the decision could be given the “fullest possible consideration.”

In a statement on Thursday, the trust denied it had deliberately timed the legal action and said it was “considering the comments” made by Ian Paisley.

“A meeting has been scheduled for a considerable time with Ian Paisley Junior on 22 June 2012 with the senior executives of the National Trust,” the statement said.

“It is planned to discuss a wide range of strategic issues at this meeting and we will take the opportunity to dwell on the important matter of the initiation of legal proceedings on the Runkerry Golf Development.

“For clarity, the National Trust is not responsible for the timing of this legal action. The National Trust is complying with a strict timetable which is set out in relation to lodging a legal challenge against a decision made by a public body.

“In the case of a judicial review, this is a three-month window, with a legal obligation to act quickly. This timetable applies irrespective of what the issue is, and any suggestion that the National Trust has chosen the timing of this action, are inaccurate.”