Northern Ireland

File on controversial Waringstown development missing

Early Christian rath
Image caption The site of an early christian homestead was destroyed

Environment Minister Alex Atwood has told the BBC he wants a "full and exhaustive explanation" into how a planning file into a controversial development has gone missing from his department.

However, for many residents of Waringstown in County Down the minister's actions are too little too late.

The site of an early Christian rath or homestead located in a commanding position in the village survived the elements for centuries, but not the mistakes of the Department of the Environment's planners.

The rath was destroyed during recent house-building in the village after planners failed to consult their colleagues in the environment and heritage wing of the DoE.

Later, when they did consult, the planners failed to pass on certain conditions which were supposed to be attached to the developer's permission to build.

Not long after, the same thing happened again.

When approval was given for three new houses on the adjoining site in the garden of a listed grange in the village, planners for a second time failed to pass on certain archaeological conditions to a developer.

"I feel very disappointed. All the policies are there to protect the archaeology, and it just hasn't happened here for some unknown reason," said Harris Jones from the local residents association.

When questions were asked, it transpired the file on the rath development had gone missing. On Wednesday, the DoE confirmed it still had not been found.

"In reality I always thought NI stood for Northern Ireland, not Negligence and Incompetence, which is what we have got from the planning service," said resident Paul Thompson.

In 2005, the then minister Angela Smith gave an answer to Parliament - based on information from the planning service - which wrongly suggested that the developer of the rath site had been given planning conditions but failed to implement them.

This mistake was later corrected by Lord Rooker, who clarified that the planners were at fault, and had not passed on the conditions.

Image caption Harris Jones said archaeology should be protected

In 2008, the destruction of the rath came under further scrutiny.

The most senior civil servant in the DOE, permanent secretary Stephen Peover, accepted that the "range of errors found... was unprecedented and highly regrettable" and was "appropriate for corrective action at a systems level rather than disciplinary action at an individual level".

Last year, the former environment minister Edwin Poots said he was "appalled by the handling of the case" but was not in a position to rectify it.

In another investigation, Ombudsman Tom Frawley said: "There is a clear acknowledgement by (the) Planning Service... of the failings in this case."

But the Ulster Unionist MLA Sam Gardiner said after all this scrutiny, someone has to take responsibility.

He said: "I think the civil servants have made a horlicks out of the whole situation. It has been very, very badly handled and I think some of those people still need to be held accountable for it."

To salvage something out of the debacle, some of the residents had hoped to have a stone dated 1698 which was retrieved from one of the sites, re-mounted in the centre of the village - but like the file, it too has gone missing.

As a token of his goodwill, the Environment Minister Alex Atwood has offered a fake replacement.