Giant's Causeway resort row: Unesco report calls for halt

The Giant's Causeway is Northern Ireland's best known tourist attraction

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A report for the United Nations cultural body, Unesco, has called for a halt to a proposed £100m golf resort close to the Giant's Causeway.

It said the planned Runkerry development would have an adverse impact on the world heritage site.

Unesco has published extracts of the report compiled after a visit to the Antrim site in February.

Its call is despite a court ruling that found against the National Trust, who opposed the resort.

It found in favour of the Department of the Environment (DoE) who had supported the plan.

The issue became one of Northern Ireland's longest-running planning sagas, dating back more than 10 years.

The report, carried out for Unesco by one of its advisory bodies, states that the planned resort - 550 metres outside the boundary of the Causeway site in north Antrim - would "create an irreversible change of landscape character" in a protected area of outstanding natural beauty.

It also criticises the fact that it was not kept fully informed about the development before decisions were taken by Environment Minister Alex Attwood.

The golf resort, Bushmills Dunes, would create 360 jobs, according to those behind the project, and incorporate a 120-bed hotel, spa and 75 lodges.

But Unesco believes it does not comply with "heritage-led development given its scale and location and would impact on important views in the landscape setting."

It adds the resort "should not be permitted in its proposed scale and location."

The report also calls on the government to consider strengthening the law to ensure the impact of any proposed development near world heritage sites are "adequately assessed."

The report will be further considered by Unesco's World Heritage Committee in Cambodia in June. It has asked the government for a response by February next year.

The National Trust said it shares Unesco's concerns.

Its director in Northern Ireland, Heather Thompson, said: "The report raises major concerns regarding the significant impact of the Runkerry Golf Resort on this special place.

"It also highlights serious gaps in the law regarding the protection offered to such sites in Northern Ireland.

"Minister Attwood made a commitment that his department would listen to the views of Unesco, so we call on the minister to guarantee the protection of our world heritage site."

In response, Mr Attwood pointed out that the Runkerry application had been subject to "exhaustive, detailed, lengthy and proper interrogation".

"My judgement and decision was subject to legal scrutiny. A judicial review was heard in the High Court. The judgement of the court was issued earlier this year. My decision was upheld by the court which rejected all 21 grounds of challenge made to my decision by the National Trust," he said.

"The planning decision therefore stands. It is lawful. I made the right decision measured against all planning requirements and against the high level of protection for the World Heritage Site given obligations under the Unesco convention."

The minister said he was "surprised" by Unesco's approach.

He said the Northern Ireland planning system provided a high level of protection for the Giant's Causeway World Heritage site in compliance with the UK's obligations under the Unesco Convention.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has reiterated its support for the golf resort.

NITB chairman Howard Hastings said: "Runkerry is the right project at the right time for tourism and everyone should get behind it.

"The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has made it clear all along that the opening of a world class links resort so close to Royal Portrush and the other fantastic courses of the north coast will significantly boost our reputation as a golf destination in all our key markets and will encourage golfers from all over to stay longer and spend more in Northern Ireland.

"The process by which Runkerry was granted planning permission has been extremely rigorous."

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