The Southern Regional College has met eco-groups in a bid to quell fears over its controversial plans to build a new complex in Craigavon.
The proposed £30m new build at Craigavon City Park close to the lakes has sparked considerable opposition.
A group ‘Save our City Park’ has been set up and thousands have signed a petition opposing the plans.
However the scheme is backed by the Armagh Banbridge and Craigavon Council and the Department for the Economy.
In a statement today, the SRC said it had held a ‘consultation event and Workshop’ with key local and regional environmental groups to outline, explain and invite expert feedback on its ecology plans in relation to the proposed lakeside campus.
Senior representatives from several organisations including The Woodland Trust, Friends of the Earth, Bug Life, Butterfly Conservation and independent Bird Surveyors attended the event.
A spokesperson for the College said it was the first of a planned series of events ‘organised as part of a continuing consultation designed to inform communities and key stakeholders about the plans, and to address specific concerns raised about the project’.
“The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), Ulster Wildlife, RSPB, NI Bat Group, Swift Group NI, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland were consulted as part of this process.
The SRC aims to have the new campus built by 2020 and say it is part of a £95 million joint investment by both SRC and the Department for the Economy ‘aimed at dramatically improving local educational learning provision and facilities’ across council area.
The Craigavon campus is one of three new campus buildings planned. Armagh and Banbridge are also set to benefit from the multi-million-pound educational investment.
“A full environmental impact assessment is currently being completed as part of the planning process to establish the density and habitats of the plants and animals within the Craigavon Lakes area, while a dedicated Habitat Creation Zone will be put in place to enhance the existing biodiversity and to secure it for the future.
“The site is in proximity to the Water Sports Centre in an area zoned for development and represents less than 4% of the total land area around the Craigavon Lakes,” said the SRC statement.
“All existing pedestrian footways and cycle ways will be maintained to ensure their continued access by the public who use the area for recreational purposes. New mountain bike trails have been proposed in consultation with the Council.”
SRC Chief Executive, Brian Doran, said: “We’re pleased to continue our direct engagement with local, regional and national environmental experts and to have hosted a meeting which allowed us to set out in even greater detail the results of a comprehensive environmental assessment and to outline how the Habitation Creation plans will work.
“Their professional insights and experience are critical to ensuring that concerns about the environment are factual and evidenced-based. We are grateful for their ongoing interest and cooperation.”
The investment will create hundreds of local jobs, including additional educational and support services positions long into the future. In addition, SRC pledges to include social clauses within the construction contracts to create around 60 additional apprenticeship opportunities for young people in the region.
Brian Doran added: “Our aim is to secure the £95 million investment across the entire area to deliver educational facilities and provision which befits the needs and expectations of a new generation of young people, their parents and the wider community and to meet a critical requirement to support local business and industry within the wider economy.”
“We acknowledge there are concerns in relation to the proposed new campus development at the South Lake, however we are encouraged by the broad support we have received and we are keen to continue this dialogue as part of the community consultation process.”
The statement added: “Southern Regional College wants to keep the local community, residents, business leaders and environmental groups informed about the plans, including media representatives from across the locality and region. MLAs, Councillors and agencies are also being kept up to date on the consultation process and plans.”
Catherine Bertrand, Head of Conservation for Butterfly Conservation in Northern Ireland, said: “I was made aware of the college development plans for Craigavon by local residents, concerned especially for how these plans will affect the Cryptic Wood White, a UK priority species which has a core breeding site at Craigavon Lakes.
“I have been impressed by the willingness of SRC to engage since our initial involvement at the public consultations, and this latest event, which was well attended by a strong panel of ecological experts, was an excellent opportunity for some very frank and positive discussions about future plans.
“There have already been a series of important environmental impact studies undertaken which are very useful for providing a baseline of the current situation. I look forward to further working with the group to develop evidence-based measures that will further enhance the area and its biodiversity. It is obvious to me that there is a strong commitment from SRC to ensure they fulfil their environmental objectives.”
Butterfly Conservation NI is one of several expert-led environmental stakeholder organisations.
Planning applications across the UK and Ireland are required to take account of environment concerns, as well as economic and social objectives.