Northern Ireland

National Trust planned to extend Causeway Hotel years before Runkerry resort row

Image caption The Giants Causeway is at the centre of a legal dispute over a hotel development

A date in November has been set for the judicial review brought by the National Trust to try to block plans for a proposed hotel and golf resort near the Giants Causeway in County Antrim.

As each side prepares its legal arguments, BBC Northern Ireland business correspondent Kevin Magee has been looking at a previous planning row when the trust itself wanted to extend its own hotel, which is partly within the UNESCO world heritage site.

The Causeway Hotel has been standing, sentry-like, guarding the stones at Northern Ireland's premier tourist attraction for almost 180 years.

The hotel's owners, the National Trust, are currently opposing plans for a £100m golf resort which includes a 120-bedroom hotel, located almost two miles from the Causeway.

The trust hopes the planning approval granted by the Environment Minister, Alex Attwood, will be overturned when the case is heard on 29 November.

However, papers on the planning file in Coleraine show it is not long since the National Trust had ambitious plans to expands its own hotel, which is much closer to the Giant's Causeway than the development it is currently opposing.

In 2002, the trust made an application for full planning permission to extend the Causeway Hotel to include 11 extra bedrooms, five self-catering units and extended conference facilities.

The old hotel lies partly within the UNESCO world heritage site.

Back then, one of the main objectors to the trust's planned hotel extension was the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) which, incidentally, is a big supporter of the new proposed Bushmills Dunes hotel and resort.

Image caption The National Trust had planned to extend its own Causeway Hotel, according to documents from 2002

Commenting on the trust's extension proposals, the NITB said it was concerned by the development.

It said: "It is considered by NITB that current planning applications close to the world heritage site have the potential to forever compromise the visual and environmental integrity of the area.

"NITB is keen to ensure that any proposed development will not compromise the integrity of this special area."

That was the 2002 message from the tourist board to the conservation body charged with overseeing the protection of the famous stones.

Fast forward to the present, and the NITB fully supports the other hotel proposal, the Bushmills Dunes hotel and resort.

It was one of the first to congratulate the Environment Minister, Alex Attwood, when he granted the planning approval in February.

In December 2004, the trust withdrew its plans to extend the Causeway Hotel.

The previous year, the Department of Environment (DOE) had sought legal advice which was given by the barrister Declan Morgan - now Sir Declan Morgan, the Lord Chief Justice.

He concluded that it appeared the DOE was prohibited from granting permission for the extension.

Image caption An impression of what the proposed Bushmills Dunes hotel and resort at Runkerry will look like

Eight years later, on 29 November, lawyers will once again debate the vexed question of the commercial development in the vicinity of one of the most famous geological site on these islands.

As for the hotel that has stood guard at the Causeway for almost 180 years, the trust has said it no longer has designs to extend it.

A spokesperson for National Trust said: "We have currently no plans to develop the Causeway Hotel. We recently invested £500,000 in updating and refreshing the hotel for visitors."

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