Closing down our open spaces
The decision by Belfast City Council to grant planning permission for a sports ground on open land in West Belfast creates an uneasy precedent and is out of step with planning policy elsewhere, Scope reports.
Glassmullin is a large open space of 5,253 acres at Slievegallion Drive. It is currently held by Belfast City Council on a 10,000-year lease from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The lease restricts use of the site to informal open space, with any sub-letting or assignment requiring NIHE consent.
In 2009 De La Salle College, which used to be on the Glen Road, moved to new buildings next to the site. The new school has no playing fields and is currently having to use facilities at nearby St Genevieve’s High School.
De La Salle College, quite naturally, wants to have its own sports ground and so, with the support of the Department of Education, has applied for planning permission to convert around half the open space into a sports ground, with floodlights, car parking, a pavilion and a 3G pitch.
The plan is that the sports ground would be for the school’s exclusive use during school hours and available for the public to hire outside that time.
Many will find this perfectly reasonable and a good example of a school opening up its facilities to local residents.
But that is not the view of people who live in the local area. Glassmullin is an open, green space in a densely populated area that anyone can access to walk or play in and otherwise enjoy.
Andersonstown is an area of high unemployment, with approximately 38.05% economically inactive, and 41.98% of the ward do not have access to transport to use public space outside the area.
Aithne Kerrigan of Friends of Glassmullin Open Green said: “Our campaign is about standing up for local residents against what is essentially a cynical land grab. De La Salle have ignored the legitimate concerns of local residents and ploughed ahead with a plan that will fence local people out of their only green space.
“This was an important test of the Council’s new planning powers. Glassmullin green is classified as open space, free for all to use, at any time. By approving this, the land will change from a public space to an exclusive space, which residents will be forced to book and pay to use.”
There are a lot of Housing Executive-built estates in Northern Ireland with open spaces and the fear is that Belfast City Council has now created a precedent whereby other areas can be fenced off and enclosed for private use.
What seems remarkable about the decision is the apparent lack of understanding amongst local politicians of the importance of open spaces to living communities. It is hard to believe, for example, that a decision like this would be made in England or Wales where there is consensus amongst all parties of the importance of preserving them, as a way of providing space for the enjoyment of local residents and as part of an ancient tradition that pre-dates modern property law.
The English Open Spaces Society is one of the oldest conservation bodies in the world, and has been campaigning successfully to preserve and protect open spaces.
In its 2015 Election Manifesto it states:
Every citizen should have access to good-quality public open space (usually green space) within five minutes’ walk of his or her home. This can be provided by the following—
- Clearly-defined criteria and a process for designating local green space, not just related to neighbourhood and local plans as at present; and support for communities seeking such spaces close to home.
- A requirement to provide suitable alternative land before public open space is taken for another purpose.
That seems reasonable and in England would not be difficult for politicians of all ilks to support. It is only right that De La Salle College should want sports facilities for its students, but fencing off land currently enjoyed by the local community and then charging them if they do want to use it does not seem the right solution, not least for good community relations.
Ellen Froggatt of the Open Spaces Society told Scope that she had come across schools attempting to develop open spaces before but that campaigners there, so long as they were persistent, were able to see off such plans under the Open Spaces Act of 1906 which states:
“A local authority who have acquired any estate or interest in or control over any open space or burial ground under this Act shall, subject to any conditions under which the estate, interest, or control was so acquired — (a) hold and administer the open space or burial ground in trust to allow, and with a view to, the enjoyment thereof by the public as an open space within the meaning of this Act and under proper control and regulation and for no other purpose: and (b) maintain and keep the open space or burial ground in a good and decent state.
The language is clear: open spaces should be used “for no other purpose”. In Northern Ireland, however, it would appear that they can: and in a part of the world where land grabs, enclosures and the exclusion of people from land they used to use is still a raw issue that seems remarkable.
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