Northern Ireland news

GAA's new design for Casement Park in west Belfast not yet signed off by safety staff

A series of public events will be held this week to discuss the proposals ahead of the GAA submitting a new planning application 
Brendan Hughes

THE GAA's proposed new stadium design for Casement Park has not yet been signed off by key safety advisers.

Fresh plans were unveiled on Monday almost two years after approval for the original design was quashed in a High Court legal challenge.

The new stadium has a proposed capacity of 34,500 – a reduction of 3,500 on the previous proposals.

Residents in west Belfast who successfully challenged the initial plans had maintained that the site can only cater for up to 25,000 spectators.

However, a Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents Association spokesman said on Monday night that they would take time to consider the new design.

Efforts to redevelop Casement have been plagued with problems and delays – with concerns in particular raised about safety.

Stadium safety expert Paul Scott last year told a Stormont committee he faced "undue pressure" to approve the initial proposals and accused Stormont departmental officials of bullying.

He claimed the original 38,000-seat design could not be evacuated safely and warned of a potential tragedy similar to the Hillsborough disaster.

The GAA strongly rejected the claims.

Mr Scott had been chair of the Safety Technical Group (STG), which includes representatives of the emergency services and advises on design proposals.

The STG had not approved the initial design before plans were submitted.

Planning approval was eventually overturned after a judge ruled that the impact of bigger crowds had not been properly examined.

Stephen McGeehan, the stadium project sponsor, confirmed on Monday that the STG has yet to give its approval on the latest proposed design.

However, he expressed confidence that this will be achieved ahead of submitting a fresh planning application and that the new design will meet safety guidelines.

"The STG haven't approved the plans because this is a consultation exercise. The conversation and dialogue with the STG will continue," he said.

"We have a high level of confidence that the STG will approve the emergency plans for Casement."

The GAA hopes to start building the new stadium next year and be finished by the end of 2019.

Funding for the £77m project is mostly coming from public finances, with around £6m already spent even though construction work has not yet started.

The new design's 34,500 capacity includes around 8,500 of standing terracing.

Its reduced scale has allowed for a 'circulation zone' of about two acres (9,000m sq) around the perimeter of the stadium to improve exiting arrangements.

A series of measures to encourage people to use bus and coach travel rather than cars are also outlined.

Mr McGeehan said the proposals "do not rely on any road closures".

The mixed-use facility includes conference facilities, handball courts, community and exhibition spaces, and a replacement social club.

Tom Daly, chairman of the Casement Park project board, said the new design shows Ulster GAA's willingness to "engage, listen and evolve our plans".

"In the new scheme we have reduced the scale, mass, size and capacity of the stadium whilst at the same time creating a first class atmosphere for GAA supporters through the bowl design and up-close spectator experience," he said.

"We are also committed to delivering a travel culture change within the GAA with a sustainable transport strategy inclusive of coach travel, park and ride and integrated travel choices with ticket sales.

"This strategy is good for ease of access to and from the stadium, is cognisant of the needs and views of the local community and is good for the wider environment."

The new design was revealed at Conway Mill in west Belfast as part of the second stage of a community consultation on plans to redevelop the sports ground.

A series of public events will be held this week to discuss the proposals ahead of the GAA submitting a new planning application.

A drop-in office will also be created near Casement Park to allow for further consultation.

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