“whilst there may be evidence of a smoked lobster, there is, at this stage anyway, no smoking gun..”

Mark Devenport notes that despite some feverish speculation on the Causeway controversy, there is not as yet anything to see here yet.

During an extremely confident performance in front of the Stormont Environment Committee this morning, Arlene Foster stressed that Seymour Sweeney’s private proposal for a Causeway Visitor Centre is still very much on her ‘tentative list’. He may be in pole position but no final decision has been taken and she hopes her announcement will provoke some dialogue between the planning service, the developer and the key stakeholders such as Moyle Council and the National Trust.

She was also adamant that she met no one lobbying for or against the private planning application and that no member of her party made representations to her about the matter.

  • Nevin

    So ‘minded’ has slipped to ‘tentative’ in just over a week.

    As the developer’s project on private land is a non-starter from a UNESCO stance and a likely failure from a PACNI one what do the planners, the developer, Moyle Council and the National Trust have to talk about?

    Have we had the Minister’s view on the memo reported in the Belfast Telegraph?

    “The document was written in April by a senior Department of Enterprise (DETI) civil servant closely involved in plans for a publicly-funded visitor centre. The recipient was DETI’s permanent secretary Stephen Quinn. Referring to the current position regarding Mr Sweeney’s Causeway planning application, the memo stated: “A recommendation to decline the application is expected to go to the Planning Service Management Board this week. It will be a matter for the Management Board to decide what action is taken next.”

    Perhaps the Minister will review her current stance after she has resolved the problems with the developer’s project in Coleraine.

  • Alan

    Surely the appropriate move here would be to defer a decision in order to request an application from the DETI consortium so that a comparison can be made.

    There really is a leap of expectation here. All of a sudden because of a “minded decision” by Foster, Sweeney is seen as a partner with the consortium, where previously he merely held a piece of undevelopable land close to the entrance.

    To be honest this raises a key constitutional issue. While one parliament cannot bind another’s actions, they have to honour previous contracts or the system won’t work. If, as I understand it, the DETI has a contractual relationship with the NT | Moyle proposal, then they have a duty to ensure that the rights of that proposal are upheld. They can eventually decide not to fund, but the rationale for that has to be reasonable.

  • Nevin

    Alan, I’ve provided some links here to PPT presentations at the 3rd Causeway Coast Masterplan Forum – 28th March 2007. The files may take a minute or two to download.

    The public proposal is, or was, being led by Giant’s Causeway Visitor Facilities Ltd, a wholly owned not for profit Government company.

    This would appear to have the support of all the councillors in Coleraine and about two-thirds in Moyle; both councils are likely to be under the same roof in the nearish future.

    There are, however, major concerns about overall cost, that a more modest design would suffice. Perhaps a cost ceiling was missing from the design specification.

    The two Ministers were of a mind to go for the private developer’s proposal on a green field site and the junior Minister is not only a close friend of this developer; his 2001 views on the role of a private developer are detailed here.

    Northern Ireland stands on the threshold of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get the private sector to build, manage and run a state-of-the-art tourism centre. However, the private sector will be guided by the wishes of the local council.

    Would the developer who was favoured by the Ministers be so guided? What would the shareholders in Seaport (NI) Ltd (formerly Seaport Investments Ltd) have to say about the fate of this part of their real estate if the public proposal proceeds? (click first image)

  • Nevin
  • unionist

    I wonder where all of this fits within the forthcoming round of EU funding. Imagine the situation if the NITB favoured Interreg funding being spent on the six signature projects including the causeway and it was likely that capital grants were available.
    DETI’s proposal would have included this but that would have knocked out Sweeny’s proposal. Imagine if at this stage any application for funding would need some certainty of having the relevant permissions i.e. planning which Sweeny’s proposal would now have should he seek a grant for the project.
    Of course for this to be accepted SEUPB would have to agree to the proposal. SEUPB answer to OFMDFM where Jr is a minister. It would also have to be signed off and agreed by DFP where Peter holds total power.
    This issue ain’t going away and the timing issue may show more than a little collusion within the DUP.

  • Nevin

    “SEUPB answer to OFMDFM where Jr is a minister.”

    Are you sure about that? Have you seen this site? It appears to fall within the remit of the North South Ministerial Council and so funding would probably need the joint authorisation of Robinson in Belfast and Cowen in Dublin.

  • Ian

    “Surely the appropriate move here would be to defer a decision in order to request an application from the DETI consortium so that a comparison can be made.”

    No, that’s not how the planning system works. Applications should be decided on their individual merits, not when compared against other schemes that haven’t yet been submitted.

    Of course, the Sweeney scheme is of dubious merit and if its granting would threaten the World Heritage Site status of the Giant’s Causeway then it should be refused.

  • Nevin

    Ian, I understand this is an Article 31 application.

    How are Article 31 applications determined?

    When the Department decides to apply the Article 31 procedure to a planning application, it has the option of:

    * serving on the applicant, a Notice of Opinion either to approve or refuse planning permission; or
    * causing the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) to hold a public local inquiry, for the purpose of considering representations made in respect of the application, and to report on the outcome of the inquiry. The Department shall, in determining the application to which the Article 31 procedures have been applied, take the report of the PAC into account. The decision of the Department is final.

    At any time up to at least 28 days from the date of service of a Notice of Opinion, an applicant may also request a Hearing before the PAC. As before, the Department shall, in determining the application to which the Article 31 procedures have been applied, take the report of the PAC into account. The decision of the Department on Article 31 applications is final.

    How is the process route decided?

    The procedures involved in the processing of a planning application provide the Department with substantial information on the nature of the proposal; their impact on the environment and the amenity of residents; and the views of
    the public and elected representatives.

    The vast majority of applications, including Article 31 cases, can be determined on the basis of current plans and policies, taking account of the views of consultees, the public and elected representatives.

    In practice, most Article 31 applications in the past have been dealt with by Notice of Opinion, indicating that the Department proposes to either grant or refuse planning permission. This is likely to remain the case in future.

    However, the Department may cause a public local inquiry to be held where it is considered that the inquiry process will provide additional information to inform the Department in making a final planning decision.

    A key test for the Department in deciding the process route will be whether a public local inquiry is necessary to provide all the information to enable the planning decision to be taken.

    The volume of public objections received to a planning application will not be a determining factor in the decision as to whether a public local inquiry is required. An important issue for the Department in respect of public comment is the content of all types of representations rather than the volume, and whether they raise issues that cannot be satisfactorily considered through normal consultation arrangements.”

    Was/is there an opportunity for the public to raise objections? Does Article 31 facilitate a cosy deal between a Minister and a developer? Have public representatives been excluded from the decision-making process? Deliberately?

  • Aquifer

    Any hint of scandal builds a good head of journalistic froth, but does the Sweeney design LOOK scandalous? We know what the competition winner looks like.

  • Nevin

    Just for you, Aquifer.