Councillors scrap plans to sell the Giant's Causeway

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The Independent Online

The World Heritage Site of the Giant's Causeway was saved from commercial developers yesterday when councillors dropped plans to sell it.

The spectacular hexagonal basalt columns on Northern Ireland's Antrim coast attract more than 500,000 visitors annually, but its amenities have required serious attention since a fire two years ago destroyed the visitor centre.

Moyle District Council, the local authority, believed a new centre was beyond its means because it has a total annual budget of only £3.5m and was considering bids for the nine-acre site from two developers.

Plans by Seaport Investments envisaged a 3,000 square metre underground centre, including an interpretative area, a post office, and a 200-seat cafe/restaurant, and the National Trust said it would build a "world class" multimillion-pound visitor centre, to include craft centres, gift shops and restaurants, which would protect the unspoilt landscape.

The issue has been seen as a test case. The Giant's Causeway is the only United Nations World Heritage Site in Ireland, and some conservationists believe the prestigious UN designation is not matched by real protection in British planning law.

But Moyle councillors, meeting in Ballycastle, decided not to sell the site.

They are thought to have been encouraged in their decision by a visit from the Northern Ireland Tourism Minister, Sir Reg Empey. A last-minute motion from the Unionist councillor William Graham asking the council to reverse its decision to sell the land was accepted.

The responses to the decision were contrasting. Seymour Sweeney, who owns Seaport, said he was bemused by the council's actions. "From my point of view and the local people's point of view – those involved in the tourist industry and tourist providers – we are in an unsatisfactory situation," he said, adding that there were wooden huts on a world heritage site and the situation could not continue.

The National Trust, however, said it was delighted the council would keep the site in public ownership. Ruth Laird, a spokeswoman, said that such "very precious landscapes" had to be protected for future generations. "We want to move on and we are absolutely committed to working co-operatively and constructively with Moyle council."

The council will need millions of pounds to develop the site sensitively, and councillors will be hoping that much of this can be met by grants. Council sources said that meeting the cost alone would put an unbearable financial strain on ratepayers, who were already paying among the highest rates in the Province. "Potentially if we decide to go it alone it will cost thousands in fees and development plans and that's before we go to the various government departments for funding," one source said.

"We could potentially burden ratepayers with an additional 10p on their rates."

Although the Causeway is a natural geological freak, caused by volcanic eruptions and cooling lava, the ancient Irish saw it as something mythical. It was said to be the work of the legendary Ulster giant Finn McCool, who was said to have fallen in love with a woman giant on Staffa, an island in the Hebrides, and built the Causeway as a broad highway to bring her across to the Irish shore.

The Causeway proper is a mass of basalt columns packed tightly together. The tops of the columns form stepping stones that lead from the cliff foot and disappear under the sea. Altogether there are 40,000 stone columns, mostly hexagonal but some with four, five, seven and eight sides. The tallest are about 40ft (12 metres) high, and the solidified lava in the cliffs is 90ft (28 metres) thick in places.