Why planners say it is okay to enclose open spaces

1 Jul 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 6 Jul 2015

Local people protest at the loss of their land

The recent Glasmullin dispute has raised questions about Northern Ireland’s planning laws, Scope dissects the issues. 

Many local residents and environmentalists were left confused and dismayed when Belfast City Council gave planning permission for a school sports ground on what has been up until now open space.

The proposal involved fencing off around half of the site, building a pavilion and a 3G sports pitch which will be used by the school during school hours, and open to the public, for a charge out of school hours.

It seemed hard to reconcile the decision with policy stated by government that it wants to protect open spaces for development.

Scope has been in touch with Belfast City Council whose spokeswoman told us: “The proposal which has been approved will not result in a loss of open space to a competing land use but will instead have a multiple function. “The development fulfils an important role in catering for a recreational need promoting health and wellbeing for the local community.”

So, according to the council, fencing off open space and then charging for its use still means that Glassmullin is an open space. This seemed odd.

The council referred us to planning policy PPS 8 which was drawn up in 2004 to protect open space and ground used for sports and recreation

At the launch the then Minister Angela Smith said: "The use of land for open space is no less important than any other use. It is a valuable resource – particularly for the young – and I recognise that once built upon, it is almost certainly lost to the community forever. I want to see open space kept and protected wherever possible. That is why I am introducing a clear presumption against its loss to other uses.”

A key objective of the policy is to prevent “town cramming” and ensuring “the provision of adequate areas of open space, playing facilities, woodland and landscaping within easy walking reach of homes, for physical activity, rest and leisure use, especially in densely populated and disadvantaged communities, and in new developments.

Glasmullin, sited as it is in a densely populated area, ticks that box very neatly.

The ;policy continues: “The Department will not permit development that would result in the loss of existing open space or land zoned for the provision of open space. The presumption against the loss of existing open space will apply irrespective of its physical condition and appearance. An exception will be permitted where it is clearly shown that redevelopment will bring substantial community benefits that decisively outweigh the loss of the open space.

"Accordingly, the Department will operate a general presumption against the loss of open space to competing land uses

"The Department will permit an exception to the presumption against loss of open space where development would produce such community benefit that this would decisively outweigh its loss. In such cases, applicants will generally be expected to demonstrate that their proposals are supported by the local community”

Given the oppositions of so many residents to the sports ground, it’s hard to imagine that the planners can possibly be satisfied that the proposal had unconditional community support.

So why was it recommended for approval?

The answer lies in how open space is defined and this is contained in the Annex to the policy. Open space is defined as including “informal recreation spaces, communal green spaces around housing” like Glassmullin but also includes: “outdoor sports facilities (with natural or artificial surfaces and either publicly or privately owned)” and specifically references schools sports facilities as falling into the category.

The policy therefore embraces as many recreational; facilities as possible, even views, in order to protect them from development which is, in many respects admirable.

It also states that open spaces can have multiple functions, in that regard Glassmullin will be an example of this kind of space post the building of the sports ground.

That all seems straightforward enough. However the definition of open space has been made so broad that it is quite lawful for planners to agree to fence it and build on it even for privately owned facilities, and then charge residents to use it.  If this is applied elsewhere there are many more informal open spaces in Northern Ireland that are vulnerable to being annexed. This surely cannot possibly be what was originally intended. Unless and until this anomaly is rectified none of our open spaces are safe. 



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