Protect Rostrevor Ancient Woodland from inner-city style development

by Colum Sands

Protect Rostrevor Ancient Woodland from inner-city style development

by Colum Sands
Colum Sands
Case owner
A well-known figure in the folk world, Colum has lived in Rostrevor since 1980. His concern for the environment is reflected in performances dating back to Carnsore Point anti-nuclear festival in 1979
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Colum Sands
Case owner
A well-known figure in the folk world, Colum has lived in Rostrevor since 1980. His concern for the environment is reflected in performances dating back to Carnsore Point anti-nuclear festival in 1979
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Latest: Oct. 12, 2018

Judicial Review verdict

At the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast this morning, Mr Justice McCloskey ruled in favour of Newry, Mourne and Down Council. While we are disappointed with the Court’s decision, we remain ...

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"That part of Rostrevor which overlooks Carlingford Lough is my idea of Narnia"   

(CS Lewis)

That part of the Rostrevor landscape which inspired CS Lewis' Narnia has now become the inspiration for a development referred to by the Planning Authority as one that “would more properly be found within an inner-city location”. This major planning application includes apartment blocks reaching heights of 25 metres and an underground car park, and was approved by our Council with no public consultation, no environmental impact assessment and no transport assessment. We strongly believe this standard of decision-making, which favours private interests over the common good, must be challenged. 

What is the case?

Rostrevor’s Ancient Oakwood is nestled on the lower slopes of the Mourne Mountains and is home to native Irish species such as the red squirrel, pine marten and badger. Treasured by locals and visitors alike, the 350-year old Oakwood served as the inspiration for CS Lewis’ Narnia, the fabled land that has enchanted generations of readers around the world. Due to the rarity of Ancient Woodlands in Ireland, Rostrevor Oakwood has been included in the Natura 2000 Network, thus affording it the highest level of environmental protection under the EU’s Habitat Regulations - designation as a Special Area of Conservation. It also enjoys additional protected status as an Area of Special Scientific Interest and a Nature Reserve

In November 2017, six councillors on Newry, Mourne and Down Distrct Council’s Planning Committee voted to approve a planning application for a 70-bed nursing home, 41 apartments in tower blocks and an underground car park crammed into a one hectare site directly adjacent to the Oakwood

No public consultation has ever taken place to consider the impact of this huge development and once planning permission was granted the developer stated:

"It is time to move on and stop talking."

(The developer)

The application was approved contrary to the Planning Department’s numerous recommendations for refusal. In Northern Ireland, councillors are now the final decision-makers for planning applications, not the planning professionals who work for the Planning Department. 

It was also contrary to the wishes of many local people who agreed with the planning officer’s recommendation for refusal. Hundreds wrote letters of objection to the Council and thousands more signed a petition objecting to the scale of the development and the process by which the controversial decision was made.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency Natural Environment Division raised serious nature conservation concerns about this development and a Habitats Regulation Assessment Stage 1: Test of Likely Significance determined this development would have a significant impact on Rostrevor Oakwood. 

Concerns about the failure to properly screen for environmental impacts on resident  wildlife, including bats, pine marten and red squirrel, have also been raised but ignored. The lack of precautionary screening presents serious concerns given The Woodland Trust’s Impacts of nearby developments on Ancient Woodland advisory report which states, “If disturbance of ancient woodland is to take place then it is vital that the ecology of the wood is well documented and understood before the disturbance takes place”.

In addition, there are grave concerns about the potential impact on public safety in the absence of a full transport assessment being conducted for the development. This is particularly worrying given the development site’s proximity to the busy A2 Shore Road, part of which collapsed during storms in 2014 and required extensive repairs costing £382,000. Given the increased frequency of extreme weather events, evidenced by the recent sub-zero weather conditions and Storm Ophelia, the decision to negate a full transport assessment could have serious public safety implications. 

What is the purpose of this challenge?

There is a strong consensus that the scale, density and form of any development on this site is respectful of the unique character of the area and that it does not compromise or damage our Ancient Oakwood or compromise public safety in terms of the additional traffic generated by a 70 bed nursing home with 91 staff members, all the associated visitors’ cars and service vehicles and the cars of the residents in 41 apartments. 

The local community have written letters, phoned, spoken at council planning meetings and asked the councillors of the planning committee to listen to the concerns of their electorate. These efforts have met with as little success as the professional planning officer’s multiple recommendations to refuse this development.

As a result, the only option available is to pursue a judicial review into the Council’s decision making process. 

It is an option that is being taken reluctantly but there is a belief that if dubious behaviour is not challenged, there is a danger that it can become embedded.

Why is it so important?

If the contentious decision for approval is implemented, it will certainly impact the Oakwood in terms of overshadowing above and damage to the root systems below through excavations, piling and the pouring of vast quantities of concrete into foundations and underground car parks.

Coastal views from the much loved and well walked ancient pathway into the forest will be replaced by the sight of towering apartment blocks and a view of fire escapes on the proposed four story nursing home. These were not the giants CS Lewis had in mind when he wrote:

“I have seen landscapes, notably in the Mourne Mountains and southwards which under a particular light made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge.”

(CS Lewis)

This is a cause worth fighting for to prevent the imposition of concrete graffiti in a highly sensitive area on a site where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea. 

Apart from this case, this fight is part of a much bigger one and the efforts made through this challenge can help others to galvanise support in their own areas. Transparency of public bodies must be encouraged, as academic and former planner Dean Blackwood writes in “Planning and Uncomfortable Knowledge”, where an “authority fails to openly engage with the public when confronted with potential evidence of its own errors, but instead retreats to a position of power to mask its failures, such action will inevitably erode the credibility of, and public confidence in the planning system.”

The target and how you can help

This will be a challenging case that the Council have declared they will "robustly defend" in response to a pre-action protocol letter. 

However, the reasons outlined above highlighted the merit of this challenge and this is based upon the much appreciated voluntary advice from many people including members, past or present, of the legal and planning profession. 

The Judicial Review Court is a highly specialised arena where legal expertise is essential and this help comes at a cost. 

I will apply for cost protection under the Aarhus convention to limit the costs of the legal challenge but a considerable sum of money will still have to be raised to cover the legal costs, so an initial target of £7,500 has been set to begin preparatory work on court proceedings. 

Without your help, it will not be possible to bring this important legal challenge which aims to protect our natural and cultural heritage for the enjoyment of all and for the generations yet to come.

Please donate what you can, every contribution is appreciated and every victory for the environment is a victory for all who live in it!

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Update 4

Colum Sands

Oct. 12, 2018

Judicial Review verdict

At the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast this morning, Mr Justice McCloskey ruled in favour of Newry, Mourne and Down Council. While we are disappointed with the Court’s decision, we remain deeply grateful to all who have supported us along the road over the past two years in our campaign to protect a unique and precious landscape in Rostrevor. 

The decision has not changed the reality of the matter under challenge. The council, which we as ratepayers fund, has approved inner-city style development at the edge of Rostrevor, within a few metres of one of the last remaining ancient woodlands in all of Ireland, with no transport assessment, no public consultation, no environmental impact assessment and against the advice of the council’s own planning officers. 

With many other environmental groups around the country and around the world, we remain committed in our campaign to develop an awareness for the importance of respecting the environment. We urge everyone to take action in challenging those speculators who, in the name of development, object to the laws that have been put in place to protect the environment which sustains us all. 

Further updates to follow  

Update 3

Colum Sands

April 20, 2018

High Court Grant 'Leave' for Legal Challenge!

In yet another twist in our ongoing bid to protect our environment and promote responsible and transparent planning, Newry, Mourne and Down Council have decided to concede the grant of leave in our legal challenge. As a result, Northern Ireland's High Court of Justice have granted us leave meaning there is no longer a need for a leave hearing on May 1st and we will proceed directly to the High Court hearing, with a provisional date set for June 18th-19th. 

We will now begin preparing for this hearing and for the soon to be announced public meeting. 

Finally, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel! Thank you all for your continued support!!

Update 2

Colum Sands

March 30, 2018

Initial fundraising target reached!

Dear friends,

We've reached our first target...thanks to you! 

We send warmest thanks to all of you who have supported us in our campaign so far to raise funds for a Judicial Review to challenge the imposition of a towering inner city style development on the edge of Rostrevor, within a few metres of the ancient oakwood which sweeps down to the shores of Carlingford Lough. We have more hurdles to cross and more funds to raise but for now we have enough to cover the costs of assembling an 1100 page bundle of documents and evidence which will place under scrutiny the decision making process of Newry, Mpurne and Down District Council's planning committee. A leave hearing is scheduled for May 1st and if leave is granted, a full hearing will take place on June 18th and 19th. We have had an incredible response of generosity from people around Rostrevor and from much further afield to remind us of the appreciation and affection that exists for our beautiful environment. Together with many other environmental groups we are sending out a signal that could have implications for other controversial planning decisions across the country. This is just the life stirs beneath the ground!


Update 1

Colum Sands

March 16, 2018

We have served notice of 'leave'

Today marks the next step in our journey to protect our natural environment and to promote transparency in local council dealings, as we submitted this 1,100 page folder to the courts applying for 'leave' to challenge Newry, Mourne and Down Council's decision to approve the Shore Road development in Rostrevor. Thank you to everyone for your continued support and donations!

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