Are Council Dragging Their Heels with the Re-opening Blackhead Path or is it an Impossible Situation?

The Path has now entered its fourth year of closure with no sign of immediate change

A large section of Blackhead path in Whitehead, County Antrim has been closed since July of 2014 when Carrickfergus Borough Council shut the path for safety reasons regarding rock-fall and erosion from the sea. The move to close the path off entirely to the public was described at the time by the then Mayor of Carrickfergus Charlie Johnson as only a “short-term” measure and he was reported in a BBC article to have said that he wished to reopen the path “as soon as possible”. Three years on however, Mid and East Antrim Council, the new, larger council responsible for the path, have shown little evidence of progress towards either restoring or reopening.

Alderman Gregg McKeen, a DUP member of Mid and East Antrim Council said that “while personally as an individual I would like to see work start immediately it will likely be a number of years before we see the path reopen” he said that the main issue was finding the money for such a project, saying “the funds required would be quite substantial.” He added that “we need to be seen to be responsible and following the information we have, and unfortunately that means not letting people onto the path at the minute.”

Stewart Dickson, a former member of Carrickfergus Borough Council for 30 years and current Alliance Party MLA for East Antrim described the Blackhead path as a “money pit”. He explained that “every time there is a winter storm or a high tide more and more of it gets washed away and it’s a constant battle with the sea.” He said that “Mid and East Antrim council could literally spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on it today and a storm tomorrow could take it away.” Dickson suggested that there were effectively two alternatives to the current, almost constant, spending which were to either “do nothing and let it return to nature” or a massive project that “of itself could cause further environmental damage.”

Sandra Thompson, a resident of Whitehead and former chairperson of the ‘Blackhead Path Group’ disagreed that too much money was being spent on the path, contrasting, she believes, with the Gobbins path in Islandmagee where she said the council had “spent an absolute fortune”. She believes that the council won’t spend money on the path “because it doesn’t earn money, as it is freely accessed by lots of people every week.” Thompson said that once the path was assessed as unsafe “repairs and maintenance stopped because it was unsafe, like a catch 22”. She did however say that there is “considerable interest in making sure it stays open” within Whitehead. She claimed that “when I was part of the Blackhead path Group we had meetings in the community centre and we would have between 40 and 60 people and we surveyed the path of people going through it and on one day we had over 1200 people using the path.” Thompson argued that council funds were being misused to give the impression of progress, “spending money on contractors to constantly survey the path but not actually paying for the repairs because really the council aren’t interested in repairing it.”

Members Mid and East Antrim Council have expressed ambitious aspirations for the path with Councillor Andy Wilson of the UUP stating that “Eventually I would like to see it linking up with the Gobbins and forming part of a walking tour right around the coast of Islandmagee”. But no councillors were, as of yet able, to give a definitive answer as to when any of these works might start.

The closed section of the path, which goes along the shoreline, through caves and towards the Blackhead lighthouse, is ineffectively blocked to the public by a fence and padlocked gate which is often ignored and walked around. The path was built by the Victorians in 1892, partly funded by the railway company, to attract day trippers and holiday makers to Whitehead which was at the time a growing tourist destination and resort.

Finn Purdy is an A-level politics student in Belfast with a particular interest in local issues. Twitter – @FinnPurdy