The green light for a £100m golf resort on the fringes of the Giant’s Causeway will not endanger the famous landmark’s world heritage designation, Northern Ireland’s Environment Minister has pledged.
Granting the long-sought planning permission for the 18-hole championship links course and five star hotel complex on the spectacular sand dunes near Bushmills, Co Antrim, Alex Attwood insisted extensive restrictions on the development would ensure the status of the popular nearby visitor attraction would not be adversely impacted.
Mr Attwood approved the application for the Bushmills Dunes Golf Resort and Spa in the face of fierce opposition from the National Trust, which owns the Giant’s Causeway – Ireland’s only Unesco World Heritage site.
Announcing the outcome of the 10-year bid for planning permission, Mr Attwood said he had carefully weighed the environmental implications against the potential economic and tourist benefits of the luxury development.
The complex, comprising the course, a 120-bedroom hotel, 75 villas and conference facilities, will employ around 360 people.
“I will not, and would not, do anything that compromises all the designations that exist in respect of these lands,” said Mr Attwood. “I think that’s why the planning conditions have been so exhaustive and extensive.”
The resort, which is set to open in 2014, is just over a mile from the 38,000 hexagonal volcanic basalt columns that make up the myth-shrouded Giant’s Causeway.
Mr Attwood, who faced tough questions from environmentalists at an event in Bushmills to announce the planning outcome, said his decision had been a demanding one and he had not taken it lightly.
He said he was prepared to fly to France to meet Unesco officials or host them in Northern Ireland if they wanted to raise any concerns about the move.
“Before deciding, I wanted to ensure that I was fully aware of the environmental aspects of the proposal – the likely impact on the setting of the World Heritage Site at Giant’s Causeway, the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the local wildlife – and so recently spent time at the site assessing it from a number of different vantage points including the system of sand dunes,” he said.
“I particularly interrogated the issues around World Heritage status, the role of the World Heritage Centre (WHC)/Unesco and the approach that may be taken by the WHC. I have acted with a high vigilance and challenging approach.
“I have carefully considered both sides of the argument but given the boost to tourism and the economy that the proposal will bring, I have decided to grant planning permission.
“To ensure that the environment is fully respected, my decision will be accompanied by stringent conditions which will mitigate the impacts of the development on the ecology of the site and the local landscape.”
Friends of the Earth was one of the groups which voiced opposition during today’s announcement in Bushmills Inn hotel.
The organisation’s Northern Ireland director, James Orr, said: “A sensible approach to managing our economy would protect the assets of our most important tourist attraction – the Giant’s Causeway.
“There is a sustainable supply of jobs in conservation and heritage. Why put this at risk? Many discerning tourists will not expect to see a new hotel, practice greens, lighting, new houses and manicured lawns so close to the spectacular wildness of the Giant’s Causeway.
“By all means build another golf resort and hotel but not here. Is it too much to ask that we build it in the right place and in a way that is supported by planning policies?
“Planning policies for that area are very clear – the landscape around the Giant’s Causeway should be protected. Instead, a form of landscape trauma is being permitted at Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site. It’s like building a drive-through burger bar at the Taj Mahal.
“The precedent set today is that our planning system still cannot protect our most special places.”
But Mr Attwood said planning policies allowed for development in such areas in “exceptional circumstances” – insisting that the resort proposal met that criteria.
The investment is headed by a New York-based Northern Ireland management expert and scientist Dr Alistair Hanna, 67, originally from Holywood, Co Down – the home town of US Open golf champion Rory McIlroy.
Open champion Darren Clarke lives a few miles from the proposed course, close to neighbouring Royal Portrush golf club where the Irish Open will take place this summer.
Graeme McDowell, a friend of both players and winner of the US Open in 2010, also comes from Portrush.
The first planning application was submitted in 2001 and then renewed six years later.
Dr Hanna said: “This is a unique project which will be world class in every aspect. The dunes are phenomenal. Every course architect who inspected the landscape have raved about the place. They’ve said: ’The piece of earth is just made for golf’. It’s amazing. There just isn’t anywhere else like it in the world.
“With Royal Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock (golf clubs) in the same area, I want this part of the world to become a golf resort on a par with Pinehurst and Pebble Beach (in the USA).
“I know this is a difficult time economically, but times will get better. We are not building for today. We are building for tomorrow. Golf in 2020 will be in a different place from where it is today and I want this place to be among the top 10 golf destinations in the world. There is no better time than now, especially in terms of developing Northern Ireland’s golfing profile.
“Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell have done their bit. Now it’s my time. We’re in the golfing map and this is going to make it even better.”
Dr Hanna’s consortium has held talks with the Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons and Capella Hotels about their potential involvement in the hotel development.
Complex designer Richard Hunter, from nearby Ballymoney, insisted that the development was “environmentally sensitive”.
He said the built up parts of the resort were some distance from the causeway.
“We have designed the buildings in such a way that they create the lowest possible visible impact,” he added.
“There is no part of it more than three storeys, it’s been developed along the side of an existing slope so we’ve designed it in such a way that it blends in very sensitively with the existing landscape, we’ve used local stone for walling generally and the roofs will be grassed so it will create a low level sweep.”
North Antrim MP Ian Paisley jnr urged local people to get behind the development.
“The Bushmills Dunes course will be a significant asset for the region and a significant tourist facility,” said the Democratic Unionist.
“It will become one of the most iconic golf courses in the world, generate employment and write a new chapter in the history of this ancient coastline.”
Stormont Tourism Minister Arlene Foster also welcomed the move.
She noted that golf tourism generates upwards of £14m each year for the local economy.
“Today’s announcement will not only bring major economic benefits and much needed jobs to the north coast but it will also significantly boost our reputation as a golf destination in the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain and in Europe,” said Mrs Foster.
Scotsman David McLay Kidd designed the 18-hole course. He has previously worked on courses at St Andrews, Oregon and San Francisco.
Former Northern Ireland Policing Board chairman Desmond Rea has been working on the project as an adviser since the initial application was lodged.