THE COUNCIL has had to call in lawyers to re-fight an old argument with NI Water over an eyesore fence on North Down’s beauty spot coastal path.
Ards and North Down Council has been battling with the water company over the fence for three years, ever since it was built without planning permission.
The tall wire mesh fence, constructed around the site of an underground pumping station in the Seacourt area of Bangor, outraged locals who felt its industrial look was a blot on the picturesque Coastal Path.
Last year the council’s Planning Committee refused to allow NI Water retrospective permission for the fence.
But then the water firm appealed that refusal, with its representatives arguing that it never needed planning permission in the first place.
The council has already spent months arguing that point with NI Water as part of the three-year battle, with the local authority’s Planning Committee eventually concluding that planning permission was required due to special environmental and habitat protections on that part of the Coastal Path.
Now the council has to re-litigate that argument, and has had to call in its legal team to do it.
That’s the state of play as revealed at a meeting of the Planning Committee on Tuesday night, during which council head of planning Gail Kerr stated that NI Water has filed two documents arguing that it doesn’t need planning permission for either its existing use of the site or proposed changes to it.
“We are in receipt of supporting information in regard to this, and we are liaising with legal,” added Ms Kerr.
“It is within their right to submit information regarding that; I think it was in the hope of not going to appeal, and the matter could be resolved prior to an appeal hearing.
“It’s still under consideration, we haven’t conceded anything at this point.”
NI Water is claiming it built the fence using permitted development rights around the pumping station.
Permitted development rights allow owners of land or buildings to carry out work to them without needing to apply for planning permission.
That usually means small-scale or essential changes, though permitted development rights can be severely restricted in places such as national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty.
During months of wrangling over the fence, NI Water officials insisted that the fence is needed to keep people out of the pumping station site, and argued that it could be held legally liable if someone is injured falling off an old wall that marks one boundary of the facility.
The 1.8-metre fence was built without any notice to planning authorities or nearby residents, with NI Water’s officials later stating the firm believed it didn’t have to inform anyone because its safety and liability concerns took priority.
Politicians have argued that health and safety shouldn’t be allowed to trump all other concerns, especially planning rules set up to protect the natural beauty of North Down’s coast.
At this week’s Planning Committee meeting, councillor Alistair Cathcart registered his incredulity that the council has to re-fight the permitted development issue.
“This is for a fence, it’s nothing to do with the operation of this pumping station,” he said. “We have had this argument and we have agreed, as a committee, that this fence wasn’t appropriate for the area.
“It’s disappointing that NI Water, despite hearing clear public concern and the democratic decision of this committee, are still going out of their way to defend this unnecessary fence.”