Bangor theatre: Stephen Farry says planning was valid
Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry has said he is confident the planning permission for the South Eastern Regional College's (SERC) new performing arts centre is valid.
An investigation began into the development after concerns were raised by Bangor residents.
Residents contacted the BBC after a £12m funding announcement for the new Bangor theatre was made on 24 October.
They claimed SERC's planning permission had expired.
SERC has said all work started on time and that approval is still valid.
When the BBC visited the site on 22 January some construction was evident but the area was still being used as a car park.
The Planning NI website states that planning permission for the theatre was granted in 2008 and expired on 23 October 2013.
In a statement on Thursday evening, the DoE said: "If work was carried out at this site within five years of the application being approved then everything is fine.
"DOE planning today carried out an inspection of the site which established that the vehicular access to the development has been constructed in accordance with planning permission.
"DOE planning now just need the relevant paperwork supplied to it to confirm when this work was actually carried out which, in turn, would confirm that a breach of planning control did not take place."
Earlier, Dr John Barry, a Green Party councillor in Bangor, said the whole situation was "hugely embarrassing".
"I think it's a huge embarrassment for Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry and Environment Minister Mark H Durkan in terms of two government departments not communicating with each other," he said.
"There needs to be some clarity. It clearly says on the planning portal website the permission for the theatre expired on 23 October, the day before Stephen Farry made the funding announcement, so it only adds to his embarrassment."
The Green Party MLA Steven Agnew has said he will be submitting urgent questions to both ministers in the assembly to clarify the situation.
On Thursday, Mr Farry said: "I would stress that when dealing with developments that have the potential to enhance the local economy and the education offered to our young people, local political representatives act in a responsible manner and seek to ensure that they are informed of all the facts before seeking to undermine the potential for development.
"Planning Service officials inspected the site today (Thursday) and confirmed that works had been commenced in line with planning permission. My officials are now liaising with the DoE to provide the formal evidence of the dates when those works commenced.
"I look forward to the economic, social and skills benefits the new centre will bring to Bangor, North Down and indeed Northern Ireland."
The DoE has guidelines about what happens when planning permission expires and what it looks for to see if work can continue.
"Following the granting of full planning permission, there needs to be evidence of the commencement of development in accordance with the approval," the DoE said.
"In the case of buildings this is often clear through the digging and laying of foundations, the construction of brick courses, the creation of an access etc. Where a change of use is permitted, it needs to be clearly established that the new use has started.
"Deciding if development has commenced in accordance with an approval takes careful examination of the planning permission and the nature and amount of change made to the site in question."
Dr John Barry said the same rules must apply to everyone.
"It cannot be that planning laws are flouted when ordinary citizens who would have achieved planning permission and went through the same process would have enforcement action against them. The planning law has to be applied equally to everyone," he said.
"It really makes a mockery of any sense of joined-up thinking between the departments. It's just another one of a sorry litany of planning mistakes and people are getting fed up with it."
SERC has always maintained that the development is legitimate and has said it will continue with the plans.
In a statement, a spokesperson said: "SERC are pleased to announce that work on the new Performing Arts and Technology Innovation Centre commenced before the application expiry date.
"This has been confirmed by the senior planner at the area planning office. Work continues on the site."
There were about 50 objections to the development, according to the original planning file which is held in Rathkeltair House in Downpatrick, County Down.
Objections had been received from local residents, the South Eastern Education and Library Board and the DUP MLA Peter Weir.
The new performing arts centre is due to be built opposite the SERC campus on Bangor's Castle Park Road, and is expected to open in 2015.
It will feature a theatre and rehearsal studios, along with teaching facilities for students to learn about technology.
Plans for the facility were shelved in 2010, but were given another lease of life when Mr Farry said he had secured the necessary funding.