The Planning Manager provided the Committee with an overview of the application, which had been deferred at the meeting of the Committee on 20th June, 2023, pending a site visit and consultation responses from DAERA NIEA and Shared Environmental Services (SES).
He reported that DAERA NIEA had responded and had offered no objection but had recommended conditions. He stated that SES had advised that the proposal would not affect the integrity of any European sites and recommended a condition that would require a Final Construction Environmental Management Plan relating to drainage.
He informed the Committee that officers had responded to additional queries that had been received from Onslow Ravenhill Residents, which included the request for assurances on the route of construction travel and he advised that this information would be incorporated as part of the Final Construction Environmental Management Plan that would be secured by a planning condition.
The Planning Manager stated that an outline Construction Environmental Management Plan (CEMP) had been provided by the applicant with the application which estimated construction to last for three to four months with typical site opening hours from 7.00 am to 6.00 pm, Monday to Friday and from 8.00 am to 1.00 pm on Saturdays with no construction undertaken on Sundays or public holidays.
The Chairperson welcomed Mr. M. Duncan, on behalf of Onslow Ravenhill Residents, to the meeting. Mr. Duncan explained that he was aware that Ulster Rugby needed to compete in both the United Rugby Championship and Champions Cup and the importance of the Kingspan Stadium to the domestic game in Ulster.
He stated Onslow Ravenhill Residents Group had 130 members and was not opposed to stadium improvements but was concerned with the absence of a biodiversity checklist with the application and stated that no final CEMP had been submitted and that it should be approved by both the Council and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency before building work would commence.
He stated that in April, 2023, EU Member States had voted in favour of a proposal to place wide ranging restrictions on the use of microplastics, which was subject to a three month scrutiny by the European Parliament before adoption and that the Planning Committee should take cognisance of the implications before making a decision.
He outlined the benefit of using organic infill as an alternative to microplastics and that the Planning Committee had a responsibility to ensure that all risks to the environment had been considered and asked to Committee not to approve the application until such times as the final CEMP had been submitted and approved.
The Chairperson welcomed Mr. J. Petrie and Mr. M. Holmes, on behalf of Ulster Rugby, to the meeting. Mr Petrie explained that Ulster Rugby had taken the decision to install an artificial pitch at the Kingspan Stadium to provide a world-class playing surface for the province’s professional and domestic game.
He stated that, as the governing body for rugby in Northern Ireland, Ulster Rugby had a responsibility to manage and develop a playing surface at its home ground which would allow for the development and progression of the Senior teams, along with its affiliated schools and clubs, and that this was only possible with the provision of a state-of-the-art playing surface with suitable capacity and durability that would allow grassroots players, both youth and adult, male and female, to step on to the same field as the professional teams.
He reported that the deteriorating condition of the current grass surface, from over 200 hours of fixtures per season, had resulted in numerous domestic games having to be moved to alternative venues.
He explained that a new surface would provide greater protection against volatile weather conditions and would provide performance benefits for the professional team as it pursued honours in the United Rugby Championship and European competitions.
Mr. Holmes informed the Committee that Ulster Rugby was not proposing an increase in operations or growth in the volume of activity, but to maintain its current programme by ensuring that the ground underfoot was both safe and of a consistently elite standard. He added that extensive exploratory work had been undertaken to consider all options available, that included hybrid and grass installations and that experts had been employed to provide guidance and direction in the project design to address and alleviate any risks or concerns.
He explained that the nature of the project made it time critical to the rugby off-season, and that, due to Rugby World Cup, the first competitive home game for the 2023/24 season would take place a few weeks later than usual in October, which offered a unique window of opportunity to complete the construction work.
He stated that Ulster Rugby was aware of the objections and concerns with regard to the application, particularly in relation to flood risk and environmental impact, and he explained that all issues raised had been addressed fully. He added that high specification and a meticulous maintenance programme had been included in the project design which would ensure that all concerns around the migration of rubber crumb and any required algae treatment would be eradicated.
He addressed concerns with regard to the construction phase of the project and informed the Committee that structures would be put in place to ensure that there would be minimal disruption to residents and that virtually all construction traffic would access the ground via the main Mount Merrion entrance.
Mr. Petrie concluded by stating that the 3G pitch at the stadium would be a world class playing surface and that, given the positive impact that rugby had within the community, both for participants and supporters, Ulster Rugby was confident that the project would bring long term benefits for all those associated with the sport.
The Chairperson thanked Mr. Duncan and Mr. Petrie for their submissions and asked the Committee if they had any questions for the representatives.
Several Members raised concern with regard to the environmental impact of the application, in particular the use of microplastics and drainage. Mr. Petrie explained that a more controlled outflow system had been proposed to address any concerns regarding microplastics entering the water system.
Moved by Alderman McCullough,
Seconded by Alderman Lawlor,
“That the Committee grants planning permission, subject to conditions, and delegates authority to the Director of Planning and Building Control to finalise the wording of the conditions and deal with any other matters which may arise”.
On a vote, seventeen Members voted for the proposal and two against and it was declared carried.