Stormont estate plan could see hundreds of trees felled

A Green Party Councillor is “deeply concerned” after a Belfast Council officer admitted the authority was not complying with its own tree policy in recommending a new development at the Stormont Estate.

At the latest meeting of the Belfast City Council Planning Committee, Green representative Áine Groogan questioned the felling of over 400 trees as part of a redevelopment of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Sports Association pavilion complex within the Stormont Estate which aims to create 'a centre of excellence for sport'.

The development will consist of demolition of the existing pavilion building and replacement with a new two storey building, providing state-of-the-art indoor sports halls, changing accommodation, function/meeting space offering improvements to the existing offering.

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The site location is the Maynard Sinclair Pavilion and Dundonald House, and the plan also involves improvements to the internal road network via new access/egress arrangements from the existing Stoney Road junction, additional car and cycle parking and new waste and recycling areas.

The application, by NICSSA, was successful after an unrecorded vote at the Planning Committee received a majority of councillor’s support. All sporting and recreational facilities, outside the bar facilities, will be open to all members of the community and subscription is optional.

The initial plan by the applicant involved the demolition of Dundonald House but this was removed on the advice of council officers. The complex is a major sporting site, which has previously hosted international cricket and football events.

None of the statutory consultees opposed the application, which was recommended by council officers. However, officers at the Planning Committee did admit the council Tree Officer objected to the plan.

The council planning report on the application states: “The proposal would result in substantial loss of trees across the site. The Tree Officer advises that they are unable to support the application and advises that the removal of large groups of existing trees within the site (404 trees are proposed to be removed) would be detrimental and impact the existing amenity, wildlife, habitat, and impact visual character within the site which the trees currently offer and provide.

“The Belfast City Council Landscape, Planning and Development Team raises concerns regarding the potential loss of a significant amount of mature tree cover and the subsequent impact on local biodiversity and wider amenity value, and advises that the landscape proposals would not adequately mitigate substantial tree loss across the whole site.”

Five representations of objection were also sent to the council from the public, raising concerns about lack of parking and the impact on nearby residential streets and amenity impacts including noise, impact of floodlighting, impact on trees and wildlife.

The council report adds: “The proposal is subject to receipt of funding from the Special EU Programmes Body and a funding decision is expected early June. The applicant has advised that SEUPB are likely to give a very tight timeframe for obtaining key criteria of which gaining planning permission is one since the funding programme is very focused on a 'state of readiness'.

“The applicant has advised that obtaining planning permission is likely to be stipulated as a requirement within four to six weeks of the funding decision from SEUPB. Officers consider that the very significant benefits that would accrue from this proposal, including the health and community benefits from the provision of a modern sports centre of excellence, as well as international standard facilities, would outweigh the adverse impact resulting from the loss of trees, some of which have a limited lifespan due to the presence of Ash dieback.”

A tree survey carried out in support of the proposal identified that there are a total of 1,870 trees within the site boundary, 404 of which are proposed to be removed, with the retention of 1,466 trees. To mitigate the loss of the existing trees the applicant proposed to plant 796 mixed species trees.

Green Councillor Áine Groogan said: “I have no doubt they will be great facilities, and the benefit they will bring. And I will give commendation in the first instance on the infill material for the 3G pitch - I was bracing myself for this report, but thankfully (the applicant) has taken heed of the EU guidance. I do appreciate that.

“But it will come as no surprise however, that as a Green Party representative I am significantly concerned by the loss of trees in this proposal.”

She said: “We have seen time and time again that trees are removed simply because it is easier, rather than necessary. We have a precautionary principle, and given there is space on the site to plant 1,200 it suggests to me that losing over 400 mature trees is not actually necessary, it is simply easier, and more convenient.”

She said the council tree officer was “damning in their assessment” of the application, and added: “I find it very hard to stray from their assessment.”

A representative for the applicant said: “We have a long track record, spanning back 30 years, of planting trees within the estate, in fact, I made the decision 25 years ago to plant all of the trees along the main fence which runs parallel to the Newtownards Road.”

He said: “We have taken in over the years conservation volunteers to plant other trees on the site. Our policy and principle is really to preserve trees and actually to plant them.

"On this occasion we had to make decisions about what we can do to improve the overall site, and we have demonstrated we are planting more trees than we are taking down. We can be trusted to look after those.”

Another representative for the applicant said 23 percent of the 404 trees being felled would be early mature trees.

Councillor Groogan said: “We know new planting is all well and good but it has nowhere near the same biodiversity and natural heritage value of a mature tree, whether that be early mature or otherwise. I know from the report only six trees on site are actually counted as needing felled - it is a long way from six to 404.”

She said she saw “no justification” for the withdrawal of 404 trees.

Alliance Councillor Tara Brooks said: “There is no point in taking down mature trees and replacing them with tiny whips and saying there is some kind of equivalent.” The applicant's representative said the replacement trees would be 'semi-mature' trees at four to five metres.

The applicant provided letters of support from a wide range of sports organisations, schools, community organisations, a church and four MLA’s.

The council report states: “The letters of support submitted by the applicant demonstrate the high level of support for the proposal and indicates that the proposal will significantly enhance the opportunities for cross border participation and cooperation at the NICSSA site, which is aligned to the wider departmental strategic objectives of local and central government to further develop sport across the island of Ireland.

“Furthermore, the letters of support indicate that the proposal would result in the creation of further employment opportunities, increase tourism via the hosting of international events, foster cross-border relationships and encourage community engagement via the delivery of a range of cross community events and programmes. The letters of support and these factors are material considerations that support the granting of planning permission.”

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