By Michael Kenwood, Local Democracy Reporter
A major new social housing estate has been approved for Ballymurphy in West Belfast.
At the recent meeting of the Belfast City Council Planning Committee, elected members approved a social housing-led residential development comprising 122 homes, at lands north of Mill Race and Belfield Heights and south of St Gerards Manor, Ballymurphy.
The site, which was formerly used for a school, will also have pedestrian and cycle ways, public open space, a children's play area, landscaping (including an eight metre landscaped buffer to the western boundary), boundary treatments, parking, and access via the provision of a right turn lane.
The application, by Eglantine Developments Ltd, Eglinton, proposes 110 social rented homes and 12 'intermediate' homes. There will be a total of 114 semi-detached units, with the remaining eight units located within two apartment blocks.
A proposed 2.4 metre high boundary wall between the application site and existing dwellings in Dermott Hill was requested by existing residents.
Ten letters of objection were received by the council.
Concerns raised included impact on natural habitats, loss of open space, potential overlooking onto adjacent residential properties, road safety and the impact of additional traffic.
The letters also raised issues of school capacity in the area, the impact on views to Black Mountain and the wider countryside, and lack of private housing in the area.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive are supportive of the proposal, and none of the other statutory consultees aired objections.
The council has stated that the development supports The Belfast Agenda, a community plan led by the council with the support of key institutions.
One of the core aims of the Belfast Agenda is to support 66,000 additional people living in the city by 2035, and within this, 1,800 social housing units and an agreed city target of affordable housing.
The council planning report states: "The principle of housing on this unzoned brownfield site, and the accompanying loss of open space, is considered acceptable given the provision of much needed social housing.
"The density and layout are in keeping with the established housing developments in the area with the predominance of two storey semi-detached dwellings reflective of housing abutting the site to the north and to the south.
"A number of unprotected trees and some boundary vegetation will be removed, but this is considered to have low conservation status and is outweighed by a comprehensive planting scheme, which includes augmentation of existing boundary planting, in particular the provision of an eight metre deep buffer along the western boundary which is the settlement development limit.
"This helps minimise overall visual impact from distant views, as does rows of internal planting between lower and upper levels which not only assist in the integration of the development into the landscape but also protect the amenity of prospective residents."
On the loss of land, the report states: "There is a presumption against development that would result in the loss of existing open space or land zoned for the provision of open space.
The presumption against the loss of existing open space will apply irrespective of its physical condition and appearance.
"The onus is placed on the retention of open space unless it is demonstrated that its loss would bring about substantial community benefits which would outweigh any loss."
It adds: "A case has been presented by the planning agent to justify the apparent loss of open space.
It is stated that the site is not located on zoned open space, with any open space provision associated with the previous school on the site.
"It goes on to state that the site is not accessible to the public and secured by a locked gate and boundary fence.
The statement points to the community benefits through the provision of much needed social and mixed tenure housing and a formal area of open space including a secure children's play area."
The Housing Executive has stated that demand for social housing in this part of West Belfast is high, with 2,098 applicants identified as being in housing stress at March 2021.
The projected housing needs assessment for inner and middle West Belfast up until 2026 indicates that 1,570 new social housing starts are required to address waiting list demand.
Sinn Féin Councillor Ryan Murphy said it was a "good application" but queried the eight metre buffer zone.
He said: "Something I experience a lot as a councillor working in a constituency office, is that sort of buffer between properties can be hard to manage, especially if there is no access to it. Has that been factored in?"
Sinn Féin Councillor Matt Garrett said: "You come across it when developments are up a number of years and then a buffer planting is put up in between and it nearly becomes a no man's land, that no one wants to look after."
Councillor Garrett proposed, with support from the chamber, that council officers receive delegated authority on the application and all further major housing applications to look at providing winter grit on all new developments, until such time as the Stormont Department for Infrastructure "adopts" them.
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