Unesco has called for a halt to the development of a controversial £100 million golf resort on Northern Ireland's north coast, it was revealed today.
Even though work on Bushmills Dunes is due to begin this autumn near the famous Giant's Causeway after a failed legal challenge by the National Trust, a new report has recommended the scheme should not be allowed.
It claimed: “Given the scale and location of the proposed golf resort development, it is recommended that it should not be permitted as its proposed scale and location in order to avoid adverse impact on the landscape setting and important views of the property, which are part of the property’s outstanding universal Value.”
The National Trust said it would not be appealing against Belfast's High Court decision which gave the all-clear for work to start on the 18-hole championship course, 120-bedroom hotel and spa, as well as 70 lodges. It could mean up to 360 jobs.
Instead, Northern Ireland director Heather Thompson said it would be actively seeking ways to influence changes to the planning Bill going through the Northern Ireland Assembly which she believes should give full protection to World Heritage Sites.
She said: “Protecting our only World Heritage Site and other special landscapes in Northern Ireland can only be served by fixing our broken planning system.”
Before February's High Court judicial review ruling in Belfast which rejected the National Trust's attempt to stop the development at Runkerry just outside the village of Bushmills, Co Antrim, and a mile and a half from the Causeway, Northern Ireland environment minister Alex Attwood invited Unesco to inspect the site.
The report prepared by an expert from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) will be presented next month to the World Heritage Committee, the body responsible for overseeing important sites.
It claimed the committee was not fully informed about the development before decisions were taken, and without naming the department of environment reiterated its request to the state party (UK government) to halt the development until its potential impact on the outstanding universal value of the property had been thoroughly assessed.
The report is also asking the authorities to submit to the World Heritage Centre by February 1st next year, a report on the state of conservation of the property as well as a copy of the environmental impact assessment of the proposed development.
Ms Thompson said the independent report raised major concerns and highlighted serious gaps in the law regarding the protection offered to such sites in Northern Ireland.
She said: “Protecting our only World Heritage Site, and other special landscapes in Northern Ireland, can only be served by fixing our broken planning system.”
She added: “This much-loved global icon is our only World Heritage Site and as such plays an important role in our economy. It is also a place that many people in Northern Ireland, and beyond these shores, feel passionately about.
“The report underlines that the law in Northern Ireland does not afford the protection they — or indeed local people — would expect for such important places. It is essential that legislation and policy are strengthened to provide this protection urgently. There is a short window of opportunity to act on this now, while the Planning Bill is making its way through the Assembly.
“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 and other special places in the new Planning Bill which is currently making its way through the Assembly.”
Mr Attwood said he was committed to protecting Northern Ireland’s heritage. “It is no less around the Giant’s Causeway — that is why the Runkerry application was subject to exhaustive, detailed, lengthy and proper interrogation. “My judgment and decision was subject to legal scrutiny.