New access sought for £6 million Gobbins project

LARNE Borough Council has moved to find an alternative access to its planned £6 million Gobbins Cliff Path project.

One year after winning a £3.5 million EU grant for the ambitious restoration plan, the local authority is saying nothing, in public at least, about the need for the eleventh-hour development. However, cryptic minutes published last week refer to taking action to “safeguard” the scheme.

The official record of a confidential debate at the end of a development committee meeting in mid-January begins by reporting that chief executive Geraldine McGahey “stressed the importance of all issues considered under Legal and Confidential matters remaining confidential and not for discussion outside the council chamber”.

Having given councillors an update on the current position, Mrs McGahey introduced “a further proposal” for consideration which she hoped would “move the project forward” and requested permission to have consultants URS Scott Wilson “work up the details”.

The minutes adopted at the council’s monthly meeting last week indicate that Ald Roy Beggs proposed that, “in order to safeguard the project, the chief executive should be authorised to develop an alternative access scheme for the Gobbins”. The minutes note that he supported Mrs McGahey’s comments on confidentiality and wished to record members’ appreciation of the efforts of both the chief executive and director of development Linda McCullough “for taking the matter forward on Council’s behalf with the prospect of a final solution”.

Ald Winston Fulton said he thought the new proposal would enhance the scheme. The record shows that he proceeded to second a proposal put forward by Cllr Gregg McKeen, which was adopted, and reads: “That if required, officers be authorised to issue a press statement to state that Council was in full support of its officers and the progress being made to move the Gobbins project forward”.

The Larne Times is aware of other media interest in the Gobbins project, which has yet to get underway. We understand that protracted negotiations over access to the site have delayed construction.

When the Interreg IV funding was announced 13 months ago, Larne Borough Council was expected to begin immediately on the procurement process to appoint the contractors to take the Gobbins project forward. It was said at the time that the schedule of works and time line “will require sensitive and precision planning to take account of the breeding season of the bird population which inhabit the cliffs at both sites and the seasonal challenges of working in a cliff face environment”.

The five-year Interreg programme which put up the lion’s share of the funding expires in March, 2013, but the Larne Times understands the cash will still be available for some time after that.

In January, 2011 funding for both the Gobbins and a visitor centre at the Sliabh Liag cliffs in Donegal was secured as a cross-border initiative through the Special EU Programme. The Gobbins grant was supported by the Department of Enterprise. Larne Council allocated £2 million and a further £200,000 was to come from the Ulster Garden Villages organisation.

The Gobbins cliff path was built in 1902 and in its heyday attracted more visitors than the Giant’s Causeway. The original path was designed by engineer Berkley Dean Wise for the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway Company as a commercial venture to attract passengers to use the rail link between Belfast and Whitehead.

The three-quarter-mile path was linked by a series of spectacular metal bridges which were incredible feats of engineering in themselves, but the attraction fell into disrepair after the Second World War. Many of the original metalwork structures and railings were damaged or collapsed because of rust and the action of the sea. The path was closed to the public in 1954.

The restoration plans include the creation of a visitor/community building in Islandmagee to accommodate the 70,000 paying customers expected at The Gobbins in the first year. Fully-guided ‘experience tours’ will interpret the history and heritage of the site, its flora and fauna and its geological features.