THE East Down environmental conservation group, Lecale Conservation, is repeating its call to Down District Council not to grant a lease for a proposed Viking Centre on the shores of Strangford Lough in Delamont Country Park.
However, Down News understands most local councillors are fundamentally backing the tourism heritage project as an important element in the local tourism scene to support economic development in the Down area.
For the past 10 years this proposal has caused considerable controversy and Lecale Conservation spokesperson John Peacocke said, ” We are not opposed in principle to the idea of a Viking Centre so long as it is not built on the shores of Strangford Lough, one of the most designated sites in Northern Ireland.
“There are wider issues such as the viability of the project and the cost to rate-payers should the project fail. Also, there has been some secrecy surrounding a business plan put forward by the Magnus Viking Association (MVA), the commercial backers of the proposed development. It is on environmental grounds that Lecale Conservation most strongly objects. We would not be objecting if the MVA were to accept one of the alternative sites they have been offered within Delamont Park. These sites would not impact on the integrity of Strangford Lough.”
Magnus Barelegs Vikings, however, argue that given that some of the information is of a commercially sensitive nature, it should not go into the public domain.
“Lecale Conservation is currently appealing a decision by Down District Council not to release the business plan for the proposed development,” added John Peacocke. “Important information concerning the number of visitors and the costs should be fully available to the public at large who will be presumably required to support the project though their rates if it gets into difficulty”.
“We call on councillors to review this situation, and go back to the original council position of only supporting this application if it is in the area of Delamont Park originally recommended by management with access to mains sewerage, power and water and away from sensitive shore-line areas.
“There are therefore several clear reasons for calling on the Council not to grant a 25 year lease to Strangford Lough’s shores. Firstly, there is fear that noise and disturbance created by use of the site will drive away wildlife from the foreshore, which is protected in UK and EU Law by Strangford`s many environmental designations.
“Secondly, the proposed reed bed sewerage system may prove inadequate in certain circumstances, causing pollution to Strangford Lough. So far, the project has not obtained Discharge Consent from the Northern Ireland Environmnet Agency.
Also, there is a lack of transparency in respect of information about MVA`s business plans , the sources of the considerable funding involved, and future prospects of change of use of what is potentially an extremely valuable seaside development site. When the plans were first put forward, at a public meeting in the Saint Patrick`s Centre, many Councillors, businessmen and local people declared then that the loughside site would be an unacceptable option.
“There will also be a loss of amenity to Delamont Park users, in respect of obstruction to established rights- of-way.
“And there is a presumption that extra charges may be levied upon visitors.”
The potentially large tourist business proposed by the Magnus Vikings Association has to run the gauntlet of the full chamber of Down District Council this coming Monday evening (22nd August). It is understood that if full planning permission is granted by Down District Council, Lecale Conservation may activate options to challenge this decision under EU law.
The site proposed by the MVA development is a RAMSAR site, and has other environmental designations such as Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Special Area of Conservation and it is also adjacent to the Marine Nature Reserve. Breaches of EU law may carry heavy penalties for the agencies involved and possibly even for the decision-makers themselves.
Across Ireland there have been a number of historical re-enactment Viking groups emerging and these groups are often part of a European-wide movement following the huge interest in Viking history and culture.
The MVA believe that this Viking village will add to the local tourist economy, and will provide a useful educationa platform for school children who can experience first hand the living history of the Vikings who invaded Ireland a thousand years ago.
The Viking village proposal has already been supported by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and has been screened by the Planning Service.
Down News will be reporting from the Council meeting on August 22nd.