Controversial plans to build a housing development in the shadow of historic Gosford Castle will be recommended for approval next week – despite numerous objections and petitions containing hundreds of signatures, Armagh I can reveal.
We exclusively first reported on proposals to build housing on the site of a former car park next to the 19th Century castle last May.
And there was a huge public backlash to the proposals including a petition within hours, which went so far as to call upon Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council to refuse permission and buy the site instead with a view to transforming the amenity for Gosford Forest Park visitors.
The application was to build 11 new homes – all of one-and-a-half storeys in height – and being a mix of accommodation types. The development would comprise of three detached houses, two semi-detached and six townhouses.
The proposals came forward in the name of Sam Marks, from Newtownabbey.
As we reported at the time, the plans would also see the provision of private amenity space for residents of the new homes, as well as parking provision.
The applicant is also intending to carry out a landscape scheme which would include a maintenance plan for the walled garden, which has a pond at its centre.
The earmarked site is described in the submission as being on “lands adjacent and to the west of Gosford Castle, Markethill”. It is described as “hardstanding ground” which was “formerly a public car park”.
Speaking to Armagh I on behalf of the applicant at the time of submission, planning consultancy firm Clyde Shanks, stated that the developer was “delighted to bring forward a sympathetic scheme that respects the castle, walled garden and wider forest setting”.
Mr Marks is also the owner of the Bastion Gate unit within Gosford Castle, adjacent to the private car park which hosts the application site and the historic walled garden.
A spokesperson revealed that this development was in lieu of planning permission which already exists for 23 two-storey garages.
According to the spokesperson, the 11 proposed dwellings will be bound and integrated with a significant planting scheme complementing the wider forest setting.
“Key features also include re-introducing a historic path link from the castle to the walled garden, maintenance plan for the walled garden structure and removing the tarmac car park that currently contributes little to the historic setting,” they added.
The proposals have been under consideration since last spring by officials at ABC Council.
And now planners are poised to recommend that the housing development should be given the go-ahead.
That will be the opinion which will go to Wednesday’s sitting of the council’s planning committee, but it will be up to councillors to decide if they agree and if the scheme should or should not proceed as stands.
The recommendation to approve comes despite letters from neighbours and other interested parties and petitions too.
One of those petitions had been signed by close to 800 people.
Joanna Singleton, who set up the petition, said at the time it had been started in a direct response to the story appearing on Armagh I, as she pointed to the “great distress and concern” evoked in the community by the plans.
The petition read: “We, the undersigned public users of Gosford Forest Park, appeal to ABC Council to show its commitment to the protection and conservation of the forest landscape by rejecting the proposed new-build housing development plans within the old castle car park.
“Gosford is a much-loved forest park and public amenity, comprising 240 hectares of diverse woodland and open parkland set within the heart of County Armagh.
“It holds the distinction of being designated the first conservation forest in Northern Ireland and is available for the public to enjoy its scenic trails, unique wildlife and wide variety of tree and flora species.
“The proposed plans are for a reported multi-million pound housing development of 11 new homes, situated in the old car park beside Gosford Castle.
“Whilst the castle has been recently redeveloped, this conserved a unique historic building from a deteriorating state and does not licence further residential development within the area.
“The proposals include maintenance efforts for the neighbouring walled garden, but this is in no way compensation for the adverse impact a significant housing development would have on the overall nature of the area.
“The proposed plans would damage the forest landscape and change the whole nature, beauty and ethos of Gosford Forest Park.
“For this reason, we call upon ABC council to reject the proposals and, instead, itself purchase the castle car park and walled garden with a view to transforming them for the wider benefit of the users of Gosford Park.
“This alternative would be in keeping with the overall purpose of the park and would enhance and develop the forest environment for the greater good.”
Residents’ individual objections were in a similar vein.
One wrote: “This cannot be allowed to happen. Gosford has remained a forest park for the public as long as I have been alive and my father’s generation. It brings solitude and relaxation to many who want to escape the hustle and bustle of this ever so stressful environment of daily life.
“I do not know of any forest park holding refuge to a site for individual dwelling. This would destroy the entire nature and environmental damage would be immense. Especially to the habitat of wildlife with the increase of vehicles and the pollution it would entail.”
And another insisted: “Gosford Forest Park is a natural environment which should be protected. A new development here would ruin the forest landscape, the beauty of an historical building (Gosford Castle) and the whole nature and beauty of Gosford Forest Park. I live near Gosford Forest Park and strongly object against this proposal.”
An architectural heritage survey and conservation plan concluded that the proposals could be given the go-ahead but suggested there were elements on site which required action to safeguard.
It reports: “The survey identified that the walled garden was in reasonably good condition although extensive ivy coverage was noted as potentially masking more serious issues.
“The survey also noted that two different bonds were used for the construction of the inner red brick walling which could suggest a period of rebuilding at some point during the 19th Century. The stone outer walling was in good condition.
“A bee house within the walled garden was also examined and found to be in good condition. The use of a cemetious mortar in some repointing and remedial works in the past was noted and this had caused some damage to the red brick inner wall.
“A series of recommendations, based on a traffic light system were suggested to ensure the conservation and stabilisation of the structure. A plan for the future conservation of the walled garden was also proposed.”
There had been some concerns raised over bats by the Natural Environment Division.
But a response from James O’Neill Associates Environmental Services dismissed this.
Dr O’Neill has informed council planners: “As a bat scientist with more than 30 years of experience worldwide, it is my professional opinion that the proposal will not impact but is likely to have a positive impact upon local bat populations. This has been stated previously and will not be reiterated. I have previously explained this at length and refer to the evidence previously submitted.
“The NED position is both unsupported and unsupportable by any peer reviewed scientific literature. No impact will arise in respect of bat roosts and local bat foraging habitat will be enhanced by the proposal.”
After detailed consultations with numerous parties on the matter planners have satisfied themselves that the scheme is appropriate.
It will be D-Day next Wednesday when councillors get to ask questions and consider all the information provided.
After that, it will be up to they and they alone to decide whether the planners’ recommendation be accepted.
What do you think? Have you any advice for the councillors tasked with making this crucial decision? Please tell us your views…