THE National Trust has launched a legal bid to block the development of a £100 million golf resort near the Giant’s Causeway, it was revealed yesterday.
It is seeking a High Court judicial review challenging the decision by the Department of the Environment to give the go-ahead for the project on land outside the village of Bushmills.
Work on the course and hotel development two miles from the Causeway – a World Heritage Site and Northern Ireland’s number one tourist attraction where a new visitors’ centre is opening next month – had been due to get under way before the end of the year.
Conservation groups bitterly opposed the project. It took the best part of a decade before Environment Minister Alex Attwood announced last February that work could begin on the Bushmills Dunes golf resort and spa, creating 360 direct jobs and an estimated 300 ancillary jobs.
With 100,000 fans expected on the north coast later this month for the Irish Open golf championship at Royal Portrush, it is understood the Stormont Executive is furious with the trust’s decision to go to court – especially after it made a £9 million grant towards the new visitors’ centre which opens on July 3.
The golf investment project, headed up by US-based Northern Ireland businessman Dr Alistair Hanna, involves a championship course as well as a five-star 120-bedroom hotel and golf lodges.
The National Trust yesterday confirmed plans for the legal action.
A statement said: “The National Trust has consistently opposed the planning application and in particular has expressed concern that the entire development is on land which is zoned in the draft Northern Area Plan as the distinctive landscape setting of the World Heritage Site in which no development should take place.
“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 trust said that having carefully considered all the information relating to the planning decision, there remained fundamental issues of concern. It therefore believed it had no option but to seek leave for a judicial review so that the decision could be given the fullest possible consideration.”
The legal challenge has outraged the power-sharing Executive in Belfast as well as North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jnr, who accused the trust of being spiteful and introducing delaying tactics.
He said: “This is the same organisation who have a tourist centre paid for by public money on a World Heritage Site, a hotel on a World Heritage Site and a money-spinning car park on the same World Heritage Site.”
The Irish Open golf championship at Royal Portrush, five miles away, is close to becoming a 100,000 sell-out, making it the best attended golfing event in Europe this year outside The Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes.
Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and current Open champion Darren Clarke are among those who will be teeing up on the famous Dunluce links on June 28.
Bushmills Dunes also expressed their disappointment at the delay.
The project, they claimed, was central to the Executive’s objective of promoting Northern Ireland’s tourism offering on the world stage.
They added that the resort would not be visible to the National Trust property.
A statement said: “The development will provide a much-needed piece of world class tourism infrastructure on the north Antrim coast.
“It not only has the strong support of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, but also enjoys unanimous cross-party political support.
“We have been working in very close partnership with landowners and the Executive’s environmental agencies for many years to ensure all protective measures are in place.
“In addition, at a difficult time for the Northern Ireland economy, the provision of hundreds of jobs will also be delayed.”
Mr Attwood said legal challenges to planning decisions were part and parcel of the democratic planning process, and rightly so.
But the action by the trust was deeply disappointing and, coming on the eve of a golfing tournament which would help build the future of tourism, the decision and its timing raised questions for the National Trust on how it viewed itself.
He said: “This decision was taken by me only after a long time and after full consideration of planning, economic, environment, heritage and other issues. The decision went to great lengths in protecting the natural environment and heritage and I made sure that it did.
“I have and will discuss this matter with Executive colleagues. I know that my disappointment is shared at a political level. I believe it will be shared by the general public.”