Northern Ireland

Planners back controversial Gilligan apartments

Planners have recommended that a Belfast property company be allowed to build on a piece of city land at the centre of a controversial deal.

Big Picture Developments Ltd, of which NI Policing Board chairman Barry Gilligan is a director, wants to build 238 flats at the Nelson Street site.

Last year, Mr Gilligan, who denies any wrong doing, stepped aside temporarily from the board as police investigated.

The land at Nelson Street in Belfast had been designated for social housing.

Under the conditions of the planning approval, 20% of the apartments will be designated for social housing.

The Planning Service's recommendation was due to be put before the council's Town Planning committee last week.

However, a council spokesperson said the application was withdrawn by a senior planner which means the committee have not yet formally considered the application.

Mr Gilligan acquired the site in controversial circumstances having been asked to offer advice to a community group which wanted to build 66 social housing units on the site.

But, within weeks, Big Picture Developments, of which Mr Gilligan is a director, acquired the site.

Police investigation

In March 2010, the Housing Executive asked police to investigate its involvement with the Nelson Street site.

For years, the Executive had said the land was designated for social housing.

However, the Executive subsequently appeared to change its mind, with one official writing to planners telling them that it was "withdrawing the request for social housing at the scheme".

It is believed this letter formed part of the focus of the police investigation.

After it was discovered, senior staff at the Housing Executive ensured the letter was withdrawn and its original position was reinstated.

Last year, Mr Gilligan, who denied any wrong-doing, said he would not resume his role at the Policing Board until a police investigation had ended.

He also went voluntarily to police to be interviewed. It followed a police search of his home and the headquarters of the Policing Board.

The new development at Nelson Steel will consist of 238 one and two-bedroomed apartments with 200 parking spaces on ground and first floor levels.

It will also feature an elevated landscaped central courtyard.

One of the conditions attached to the planning permission is that 20% of the units should be for social housing.

The planning officer who recommended approval stated that she recognised the site was zoned for social housing but "finds this an element to which weight needs to be attached, rather than a reason for refusal."

Her report adds that Big Picture's planning agent has informed her that the company is still in talks with Clanmil Housing regarding the possibility of providing social housing within the development.

Sinn Fein MLA for North Belfast and member of the Social Development Committee, Caral Ni Chuilin has welcomed the news that the proposed development had been put off.

"I would urge those behind the development not to do so, to listen to the community and press on with the original social development that the people of North Belfast want," she said.

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