Belfast’s proposed pedestrian and cycling Gasworks Bridge has been granted planning permission by Belfast City Council, but a row has broken out over last minute Unionist resistance to the project.
The Lagan Foot and Cycle Bridge is planned to span the river between Gasworks Park and Ormeau Park, creating a new traffic-free route between south east Belfast and the city centre. The construction cost is estimated at between £7m-£9m and the project was up before the council’s Planning Committee for approval last night, one of the final hurdles to starting construction.
The Gasworks – Ormeau pedestrian/ cycle bridge is recommended for planning approval at next weeks BCC Planning Cttee pic.twitter.com/kovmlIagPP
— Gary Potter (@belfastgary) February 9, 2016
The plans were listed on the meeting agenda “Approval is recommended subject to conditions.”
Vocal opposition had been almost non-existent since the scheme took off in June 2013 – championed by Regional Development Minister (at the time) Danny Kennedy of the Ulster Unionist Party. The planning meeting was anticipated to be a straightforward exercise.
Rumblings of discontent were perhaps clear in hindsight, initiated by UKIP’s David McNarry who was scathing in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph the day before the meeting:
During the meeting all six Unionist councillors present (representing four parties) voted against approval. The plan squeezed through approval by seven votes to six on the back of Sinn Féin, SDLP and Alliance support.
Cycle & foot bridge connecting Gasworks & Ormeau Pk agreed at planning Ctte tonite, good news for communities pic.twitter.com/CkHNVk18hc
— Deirdre Hargey (@DeirdreHargey) February 16, 2016
Although the minutes have yet to be released, rumours started to leak after the meeting ended about the motives behind the opposition.
@stevenpatt99 the meeting happened tonight. All unionists (DUP/UUP/TUV/PUP) voted against. Disappointing opposition to transformative bridge
— Emmet McDonoughBrown (@EmmetMcDB) February 16, 2016
@boobers67 it might become an interface (instead of enabling commuting by bike, stitching the city together, providing access to parks)…!
— Emmet McDonoughBrown (@EmmetMcDB) February 16, 2016
Bikefast contacted all councillors at the meeting for comment. Christopher Stalford of the DUP responded to outline his opposition:
“I opposed this proposal because I felt there had been a singular lack of consultation with the residents of the lower Ravenhill area. I feel we must be mindful of the views of local communities.”
Emmet McDonough-Brown of the Alliance Party condemned the actions of councillors who voted against the bridge:
“I voted in favour because I believe that it’s crucial to integrate communities in Belfast and stitch together a city which was divided by conflict. Furthermore, it will transform opportunities for cycling and walking between the centre and the south and east of the city and, hopefully, drive further use of Ormeau Park.
“Contrary to the opinions expressed by other members in the committee last night, I believe breaking down physical barriers between communities is positive. People in the lower Ravenhill will benefit from another route into the centre and easier access to opportunities in the Gasworks.
“Unionist councillors united to try and deny the community these benefits and in doing so showed no ambition for Belfast. Over 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the narrowness of their focus and the lack of a positive vision for our city is bare for all to see. I believe their constituents, and our city, deserve better.”
At the time of writing no other councillor who voted against the bridge plan had responded to Bikefast’s request for comment.
Councillor David Armitage of the Alliance Party who also voted in favour rejected attempts to link the bridge to potential sectarian violence:
“It had gone through consultation through the DRD and planning service, and no objections were lodged. The bridge will provide more connectivity for Belfast, and especially walkers and cyclists, which fits into the strategy of Belfast becoming more friendly to alternative modes of transport.
“The unionists all voted against the bridge. From the debate they thought that the bridge encouraged sectarian violence and was not needed by their community. But they did not produce any evidence to back these arguments up.
“I see the bridge as a good thing because people travel more for work, education and socially and the bridge should encourage an active lifestyle and also bring down barriers between communities.”
The Gasworks Bridge now awaits a decision on funding which may be more likely after May’s election. With planning permission secured the scheme is shovel-ready and awaits the political green light from Stormont.
More information on the Gasworks Bridge
The Gasworks Bridge has been a long term idea to create a new river crossing in Belfast. Firmly proposed as part of the Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan in 2000, the plan gained momentum in June 2013 when DRD Minister Danny Kennedy recognised its benefits. It is due to form a key part of developing cycling transport routes through and beyond the city centre when DRD announce their Belfast Cycling Network Plan this spring.
The strong opposition is baffling. The fact that it was wholly Unionist-backed opposition raises difficult questions about how Belfast is moving forward in addressing post-conflict resolution and bringing communities together.
I would be shocked if some Unionist councillors viewed this as a project for Nationalists, being sited beside the Markets and Lower Ormeau Road. It sounds ridiculous when you say it, but this is Belfast and it’s election time so anything is possible. I suspect councillors who rejected this flagship investment will have some tough questions to answer on voters’ doorsteps in East and South Belfast come May.
The Belfast Telegraph article seemed to focus on the lack of confirmed capital funding, which struck many people as strange. This is a common way for major projects to proceed. Take the York Street Interchange project just across Belfast which has just been through a Public Inquiry, has been years in the planning and has taken significant cash to progress to this stage – all with no confirmed funding.
It leaves you with the impression that it’s back to one rule for roads projects, another rule for cycling and walking. Cheap heat for demagogues. It’s a real pity that four other councillors (save Lydia Patterson whose email doesn’t work) who voted against were not able to front up their motives for opposition.
Draw a comparison between the vocal local opposition to a planned student block being discussed in the same planning meeting and you realise how few issues people in local communities have with this project. The interface threat is a red herring.
But the scheme has its planning permission and now needs political will from Stormont to find the necessary budget (pocket change out of an annual £384 million capital budget in the new Department for Infrastructure) to see the bridge built.
This will be an excellent investment for Belfast and it’s shocking to see such a positive vision dragged into the muck of tribal politics.