Casement Park STG Chair: “we were being attempted to be coerced, pressurised into signing off something that we were singularly uncomfortable with…”

The BBC reports on the latest wrinkle in the on-going saga of the controversial £70million redevelopment of Casement Park in west Belfast – stalled in December last year when Belfast High Court quashed the decision to grant planning approval for the redevelopment.

At the start of April this year, the BBC obtained the minutes of the last meeting of the Casement Park Development Safety Technical Group (STG), in November 2014, under a Freedom of Information request.   The STG is made up of representatives from Sport NI, police, the fire and ambulance services, Belfast City Council and the GAA.  From the BBC report (1 April 2014)

The GAA did not attend that meeting, but the minutes noted that “neither the design team nor members of the STG are aware of any stadium in Great Britain with similar exiting arrangements”.

It adds that the last set of plans it had been given “indicated that the stadium did not comply with the content of the green guide/red guide”, which are the safety industry’s standard recommendations.

One of the group’s major concerns was that any blockage on the Andersonstown Road could push the exit time limit well over the recommended eight minutes.

According to some estimates, in the event of some emergencies, it could take more than 20 minutes for a crowd of 38,000 to get out of the ground to somewhere safe.

This has been rejected by Ulster GAA, which said in a statement that it had employed an experienced design team, that the Casement Park stadium conforms to the guidance in the current red and green guide regulations, and it carried out its own extensive exercise to ensure that 38,000 spectators could be evacuated to a place of safety within eight minutes.

It said these findings had been presented to the STG group.

With approval from Stormont’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), the GAA went ahead with a planning application and appointed a contractor, even though the safety group had been advised this would not happen before it had approved the design.

The BBC has also learned that while DCAL had been asked over a 13-month period for documentation on the proposed emergency exiting strategy, it did not provide this.

A DCAL spokesperson said on Wednesday that the STG continued to inform the design process and event management plan, to ensure all the issues raised were addressed.

It added that the stadium could not operate at the required safe capacity without a fully compliant general safety certificate.

Today the Chair of the Safety Technical Goup, Paul Scott, briefed the NI Assembly Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure “on health & safety issues in relation to the redevelopment of Casement Park, Belfast”.  From the current BBC report

Mr Scott was addressing the Culture, Arts and Leisure committee on Thursday on the issue of Casement Park’s proposed redevelopment.

I and Sport NI have received undue pressure from the GAA and from DCAL about my view of the safety of the Casement Park plan,” he said. An email was received that our comments were at odds with the requirements.”

Mr Scott claimed the GAA had “made a number of accusations about Sport NI officers on the STG” including that the group had treated the Casement Park project differently to the development at Windsor Park and Ravenhill.

He said that on Wednesday [yesterday], he was told he had been removed as chair of the STG.

The committee will have several DCAL appointees on it, and there will be measures put in place so that freedom of information requests cannot be aired – bearing in mind that it was through a freedom of information request that the committee learned of the issues,” he added. [added emphasis]

Mr Scott was asked on Thursday, if he felt he was being “sidelined”.

“Sidelined and gagged,” he replied.

The BBC NI Live reporters have been following developments at the Committee.

11:30 Casement safety briefing at Stormont

Paul Scott, chair of the Department of Culture’s safety technical group, tells a Stormont committee that rules on stadium design state an evacuation time of eight minutes is required.  He says that’s because after 8 minutes crowds start to panic. Mr Scott is briefing politicians on the redevelopment of Casement.

12:02 Evacuation times

Mr Scott says the Safety Technical Group agrees with DCAL’s decision that a risk-based approach should be taken to designing the stadium. But, he says, “sadly DCAL have failed to provide an emergency exit strategy, despite repeated requests”.  Under the current design, he says, the majority of exiting capacity was on the Andersonstown Road side of the ground and while exiting can be achieved under normal circumstances, if an incident occurred at a well-attended fixture it could lead to “an extremely dangerous situation, putting spectators at risk”.

12:06 ‘Very challenging’

Paul Scott tells the Stormont committee looking at issues surrounding the proposed redevelopment of Casement Park that a design architect has warned that evacuating the stadium with the proposed 38,000 capacity could take 22 minutes, making it “very challenging”.

12:11 Safety chair accuses DCAL

Political correspondent Gareth Gordon tweets that Paul Scott, chair of the safety technical group who refused to sign off on Casement Park plans, claims DCAL tried to remove him.

12:14 ‘GAA and DCAL reticent’

The GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) has been offered the opportunity to look at new design proposals, says Mr Scott, but along with DCAL they “appear to be reticent”.

He says if there are concerns around the STG’s assessment, obtaining a second opinion from the Sports Ground Safety Authority is the “most appropriate and logical step” as they have knowledge of the green/red guide (the safety industry’s standard recommendations) and are independent.

12:18 ‘Treated differently’

Mr Scott says the GAA “made a number of accusations about Sport NI officers on the STG” including that the STG had treated the Casement Park project differently to the development at Windsor Park and Ravenhill.

12:18 Safety group under ‘undue pressure’

Paul Scott of the safety technical group claims to have come under pressure about the safety of the new Casement Park proposals.  Mr Scott said: “I and Sport NI have received undue pressure from the GAA and from DCAL about my view of the safety of the Casement Park plan. An email was received that our comments our were at odds with the requirements.”

12:21 Closed session call:

Chairman Nelson McCausland suggests the committee should go into closed session.

Sinn Fein’s Oliver McMullan, Basil McCrea of NI21 and the SDLP’s Karen McKevitt say the meeting should continue in a public setting.

12:56 ‘Sleepless nights’:

Basil McCrea MLA asks Paul Scott about the “undue pressure” he feels he’s been under regarding Casement Park.

“I’ve spent many a sleepless night,” Mr Scott replies. “I am also seeing a stress counsellor. I’ve worked for Sport NI for 13 or 14 years and not had a single sick day. I’ve not even seen a doctor in that time. I’ve been to see the doctor several times now.”

He added that he feels “very isolated and very alone”.

13:18 Group wants a safe stadium at Casement

Chair of the Casement safety group Paul Scott tells a Stormont committee the safety group is “supportive” of the Casement redevelopment.  “We want a good stadium, but we want a safe stadium where supporters are not at risk.” Mr Scott claims he was put under pressure to approve plans for the ground.

13:29 ‘Pressurised’:

DCAL committee member William Humphrey asks Paul Scott his view on responses made to the views of the Safety Technical Group (STG) during the planning stages of Casement Park.

“I was taking that we were being attempted to be coerced, pressurised into signing off something that we were singularly uncomfortable with,” he says. [added emphasis]

 

Update According to BBC News NI Live

16:22 Urgent review of Casement project:

Political correspondent Gareth Gordon tweets that Sports Minister Carál Ní Chuilín urgently commissions full review into Casement stadium redevelopment after hearing Paul Scott’s evidence to her committee.

And we have the Ministerial press release

“I have listened to the evidence presented to the CAL Committee, and in light of the safety concerns raised in relation to the proposed design of the redeveloped Casement Park, I have asked my officials to urgently commission a full review of the project, including independent specialist advice as appropriate, which will draw on experts in the field of public safety.

“I am aware that a number of grievances were raised at the committee, including allegations of bullying, and they are currently the subject of an ongoing investigation by Sport NI.

“These allegations need to be fully investigated and I will seek independent advice to ensure that they are dealt with appropriately.

“I have also asked the Permanent Secretary of DCAL to convene a meeting of the Safety Technical Group to hear their concerns at first hand.”

Hmmm… The specific safety concerns raised today are not new. DCAL were asked about the proposed emergency exiting strategy for over a year. As the BBC reported 4 weeks ago, based on FoI requested minutes of the STG meetings last year… And safety concerns featured in the High Court ruling in December.

But would that be a meeting with the newly constituted Safety Technical Group? [With a new DCAL appointed Chair? – Ed] And who removed Paul Scott as Chair the day before he was due to give evidence to the Assembly Committee?

[Are Sport NI in a position to investigate DCAL officials about any of those grievances, or the allegations of their bullying? – Ed] Probably not…