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782 say no to Visteon

By Francesca Ryan

The lodging of almost 800 objections to plans for housing on the former Visteon site has been welcomed by campaigners.

Fold Housing proposes to build 244 homes, a community centre and business units at the site of the former Visteon factory sandwiched between Finaghy Road North and Blacks Road. A total of 196 of the homes will be for social housing, while the other 48 will be classed as ‘private affordable’ housing.

The Visteon factory closed in 2009 with the loss of more than 200 jobs and has remained vacant ever since.

A campaign group set up by residents of the streets around the site said this week that the high number of objections, 782, to the plans was a significant development and the plans “must now be rejected”.

The Campaign for the Economic Regeneration of the Former Visteon site say the planning arguments against Fold’s proposals for this last remaining sizeable commercial site of its kind in West Belfast are overwhelming.

“This is an important and significant development,” said a spokeswoman for the group. “The community has now spoken, clearly demonstrating in huge numbers that they want this site retained to bring much-needed investment and long-term jobs to West Belfast.  It is of the utmost importance that its voice is heard and acted upon.

“As the electorate, we will be voting next month for local councillors who will in 2015, and for the first time, have the responsibility for planning.  It is crucial that the community has input into how its locality is shaped and that this input is given the weight and consideration it deserves.  We were always aware of the groundswell of opinion in the area to put jobs first, and with Planning Service having received around 800 objection letters, this is now confirmed for everyone interested in the site.”

The group also revealed that both the SDLP and Sinn Féin have backed a feasibility study to consider how best to use the vacant site.

“Local political representatives continue to provide support and backing,” said the group  spokesperson.  “The SDLP, through Councillor Tim Attwood, recently secured from Belfast City Council’s Development Committee the commissioning of a feasibility study to consider the optimal use of the site.  Significantly, the SDLP has also formally objected to the planning application lodged by Fold.

“In addition, in a meeting with members of the campaign Sinn Féin’s Paul Maskey MP recognised the potential of the site as a major location for employment creation and indicated that he would like to see that realised to help address the chronic unemployment in the area.  He also agreed to write to the DETI Minister, the DOE Minister and the OFMDFM Junior Minister to ask that they request the Strategic Investment Board to scope the area for best economic uses.

“We hope that this work can be undertaken and completed quickly, that it will be given proper weight and consideration in the planning process, ultimately providing realistic, achievable and inspiring options that will attract sustainable investment to the site. There is now growing momentum to regenerate economic development on the site that would produce a lasting legacy for our community.”

A spokesman for Fold Housing said their plans are designed to meet housing need in the area.

“Much has been made of the trade-off between the potential of the site for a significant inward investment versus the need for housing,” he said.  “Fold has consulted with several commercial property specialists and there is a clear view that the Visteon site in its current form is at best capable of restricted future use, generating low levels of employment.  They see the site’s potential being hampered by poor connectivity to transport links, the close proximity of local housing and it is not within a recognised commercial or industrial location.

“On the other hand, demand for family housing in West Belfast is among the highest levels in the north with nearly 3,000 families living in housing stress.  In the last six months Fold has separately run two competitions to identify alternative sites for housing in West Belfast.  Proposals for less than 70 homes have come forward.  There are very few sites in this area to address what is an extreme and immediate housing shortage issue.”

A spokeswoman for the Planning Service confirmed the objections and said all representations and objections will be fully considered before any decision is made.

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