Moyle District Council (population less than 15,000) is the UK's smallest local authority. Perched on the north-east coast of Northern Ireland Moyle is set to gain a large financial windfall by selling off its access facilities to the Giant's Causeway: a World Heritage Site. This "outstanding development opportunity" is already a multi-million pound bidding war.
But hard lessons emerge. Firstly the privatisation of a priceless heritage sends out wrong signals as developers seek maximum returns. Secondly the project was launched without elementary planning: the Council is flying blind.
The Giant's Causeway's famous volcanic columns and magnificent array of cliffs have been a tourist attraction since the 18th century. Glancing towards Scotland and towering above the broad Atlantic ocean it is Ireland's foremost tourist attraction after Dublin with almost 500,000 visitors a year. As Northern Ireland's only World Heritage Site it is owned and skilfully managed by the National Trust.
But while the Trust maintains the Causeway and its miles of coastal footpaths, Moyle District Council owns the 100 yards or so connecting it to the public access road. The Council has a Visitor Centre and car park on this nine acre site and when the Centre caught fire the Council was faced with replacement costs far greater than their insurer's compensation.
Up for grabs
Assembly Member Ian Paisley Jnr. was quickly on site speaking to camera about bigger and better facilities. Now if ever there was a case for straightforward public expenditure this was it - with many grant sources beyond the annual £19.6 million Northern Ireland allocation for tourist developments. But Sir Reg Empey (Minister for Enterprise Trade and Investment) then visited Moyle Council to encourage private sector solutions. So no prizes will be awarded for guessing the results of the Council's ("confidential") Best Value study: access to the Causeway was "up for grabs".
Meanwhile the farce of the National Trust bidding against developers for access to their own World Heritage Site was exacerbated by the DOE Planning Service (planning is centralised in NI) granting arbitrary planning consents to one developer "Seaport Investments". Permission was granted to convert "The Nook" (an old school house and small listed building on the edge of the access site) into a pub and restaurant. The Trust has since been allowed a judicial review of this decision in the High Court. Now "Seaport Investments" have another planning applications lodged for a craft centre near the access site and the whole fragrant headland - visible for miles along this coast - is similarly threatened by random developments.
Next Baroness Blackstone, DCMS minister responsible for the protection of UK World Heritage Sites, wrote to Sam Foster (NI Minister for planning and local government) warning him that the Causeway could be put on the "World Heritage Site in Danger" list, thus causing "severe embarrassment". This letter was then attacked by Ian Paisley Jnr (an open supporter of "Seaport Investments") who reminded her that planning was a devolved power and her letter "questioned the Labour Government's commitment to devolution".
So here was Paisley resenting a British minister's interest (while planning to demolish his own NI Assembly)! On the other hand Lady Blackstone must see that the basic problem is reliance on private finance since now even the National Trust must optimise commercial opportunities to match developers' bids. And all this stems directly from her colleague Gordon Brown's perverse pressure on the Assembly to meet public infrastructure deficits from the private sector - and with limited public audit!
This has ruled out solutions locating the commercial opportunities in a nearby town - Bushmills - thus keeping the access headlands (visible along the whole coast) relatively unmolested. The National Audit Office has warned against accepting bids before planning criteria are settled. But there are simply no local plans anywhere near this AONB and World Heritage Site.
Meanwhile disastrous planning consents continue to disfigure the Causeway coast. Many are at variance with the DOE's own Guidelines; a reactive and ineffective regulatory mechanism. Ministers Empey and Foster now promise, once again, non statutory management plans that are too late for the above and in any case no substitute for actual statutory action-area land-use plans.
Older locals remember when political patronage determined everything but now complain how "money talks"! Of course the Causeway itself will survive; and all the animal and vegetable life in a previous era is still visible in just one red ochre strip between the volcanic lava flows! In the meantime - Direct Rule or Assembly Rule - accountability for this great heritage has yet to arrive.
Des McConaghy, 2001
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