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GAA submits new Casement Park planning application

Plans for the redevelopment of Casement Park in west Belfast

THE GAA yesterday submitted new plans to build a major stadium at Casement Park in west Belfast.

It comes more than two years after planning approval for its original design was quashed in a High Court legal challenge.

The revised stadium has a proposed spectator capacity of 34,186 – a reduction of almost 4,000 on the original plans.

Around £77m is being spent on the redevelopment project including £62m of public funds.

Ulster GAA hopes to begin construction this year and finish in 2019 following years of setbacks and delays.

But residents behind the previous legal action remain opposed, saying it is "not a significant reduction" in capacity.

They have also questioned whether safety fears over the proposals have been properly addressed.

Last week the GAA said a safety group advising on Casement has given a "positive assessment" of its plans in a new report.

It said the Safety Technical Group (STG) document gives a "sound basis for development towards the GAA target capacity".

But the STG – which includes police, fire and ambulance officials – is also commissioning a 'movement consultant' to analyse how pedestrians and vehicles interact in an emergency scenario.

It comes after the PSNI in November warned of an "unacceptable risk" in emergency evacuation proposals for the stadium.

The movement consultant has not yet been appointed but is expected to report findings in "mid 2017", according to the Department for Communities (DfC).

Ulster GAA has previously said it is "confident of resolving all aspects pertaining to safety".

Tom Daly, chairman of the Casement Park project board, said there has been "overwhelming support" for the stadium project.

"Everyone involved in the project is now looking forward to the next phase and developing on our plans to transform Casement Park into a venue that will inspire young people for generations to come," he said.

But Tony Dignan, of the Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents Association, described the new planning application as "premature".

"If the STG is commissioning a movement consultant to figure out how any emergency evacuations would work, then the GAA have jumped the gun," he said.

"To me the GAA is taking a huge risk in relation to £60m of public funds."

Planning approval for a 38,000-capacity ground was overturned in the High Court in 2014 following a legal challenge by residents.

The judge ruled that the impact of bigger crowds had not been properly examined.

In 2015 a safety expert told a Stormont committee the original stadium design could not be evacuated safely in certain emergencies – a claim dismissed by the GAA.

The revised planning application is expected to be made public in three-to-five days after being validated by Belfast City Council.

Planners have a target of processing major planning applications within 30 weeks, but the average time taken in the Belfast area is around 65 weeks.

It means it could be next year before any decision is made on the plans if dealt with by Belfast council planners.

However, Sinn Féin infrastructure minister Chris Hazzard has instructed officials to 'call in' the application so that a decision is made by his department.

The planning application was submitted following a 32-week consultation. Ulster GAA said around 3,000 people responded, with 95 per cent supporting the project.

Ulster GAA president Michael Hasson said the new stadium would create jobs and become a "vibrant cultural hub" for the area.

"We have seen across other major stadium's the transformational benefits generated from a sporting, economic and cultural perspective," he said.

Collie Donnelly, Antrim County Board chairman, said: "This is another major step in the journey to bring Ulster's provincial stadium to the heartbeat of Antrim GAA."

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STORMONT pledged major upgrades to three Belfast sports grounds after scrapping plans for a shared multi-sports stadium at the former Maze prison site in 2009.

Casement Park is the last to be completed following the redevelopment of Windsor Park and Ravenhill.

But the £77m project, which includes £62m of public funding, has suffered years of setbacks and controversy.

Planning approval was quashed in the High Court in 2014 following a legal challenge by residents.

In 2015 a safety expert told a Stormont committee he faced pressure to approve the proposals and accused departmental officials of bullying.

He said the proposed stadium could not be evacuated safely in certain emergencies and warned of the potential for a tragedy like the Hillsborough disaster – a claim strongly rejected by the GAA.

Revised proposals were unveiled last October with a reduced height and capacity of 34,500 – a reduction of 3,500 on the original plans.

But residents behind the previous legal challenge remain opposed, saying it is "not a significant reduction".

The GAA hopes to begin construction later this year and finish in 2019.

A redeveloped Casement is among the proposed stadia for an all-Ireland bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

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