Michelle Weir (Local Democracy Reporter)
Decision deferred on retirement village plans to restore Cairndhu House to former glory
A decision on a planning application for a retirement village and nursing home at a former convalescent hospital outside Larne has been deferred for a site visit.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s Planning Committee unanimously decided to postpone making a decision on the future of Cairndhu House at a meeting on Thursday morning.
A planning application submitted to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council for 27 apartments, five cottages and a 69-bed facility has been recommended for approval.
The application says that the “village” will be created though the restoration / conversion / partial demolition and extension of the existing grade B listed Victorian country house which dates back to 1875. This will provide 17 apartments and a “community resource centre”.
The restoration/conversion/partial demolition and extension of an accompanying listed stable block is expected to provide 10 retirement apartments.
The construction of a 69-bed nursing home to include palliative care has been proposed as well as five “retirement” cottages and nine “independent living units”.
The derelict Victorian dwelling adjacent to Carnfunnock Country Park has fallen into disrepair since it ceased operating as a convalescent hospital in 1986.
It has been used in recent years as a film location. In 2015, the grounds were used to film scenes for the sci-fi movie ‘Morgan’, produced by legendary film-maker Ridley Scott.
Gary McGuinness, the council’s principal planning officer, told the committee that Cairndhu House is “near collapse”.
He said that the plan is to convert this building to provide 17 apartments and to “restore it to its former glory by retaining its Gothic style” with original materials reused where possible.
A report to councillors says that Cairndhu House and accompanying stable block are on the Northern Ireland Heritage At Risk register.
Previously, planning permission was granted for change of use from hospital to a 96-bed hotel and conversion of the stable block to 12 holiday apartments.
Department for Infrastructure (DfI) Roads Service has indicated that it has no objection to the current development plan.
A report to councillors says that HED (Historic Environment Division) Historic Buildings Unit indicated concerns about the volume of new-build development within the setting of the listed building and proposed works in relation to how they will “preserve the character and integrity of the listed building”.
“HED acknowledged the disrepair of the listed building and its ‘At Risk’ status and welcomed its restoration and the importance of maintaining the viability and upkeep of such historic buildings.
“However HED had concerns that certain elements such as the internal division within the main building, the extension to the stable block and the new-build nursing home etc would compromise the character and setting of the existing listed building,” it also noted.
Mr McGuinness reported the department also indicated the nursing home is of “such a scale that it will compete with the original residence”.
However, he warned the state of the building is such that further delay could mean there is “no building to preserve” and that the “once magnificent building” would be lost “unless drastic action is taken”.
“Vandalism continues and the building is near collapse,” commented Mr McGuinness.
Ballymena DUP Alderman Audrey Wales MBE said as she does not know the area, she would be “very unhappy to make a decision to approve or not” before asking for a site visit.
“I am not familiar with the building. I want to see it for myself so I can make an informed decision.”
Braid DUP Councillor Tom Gordon added: “I am not familiar with the area at all. I would support her proposal by seconding.”
The committee proceeded to hear from senior scientific officer Kyle Hunter, from Northern Ireland Environment Agency, who expressed concern the application is contrary to habitat regulations in that the proposed development could potentially harm a protected species.
He pointed out that bat species are protected by law in Northern Ireland and urged a cautionary approach noting the presence of a range of bat species.
Wildlife officer John Lees confirmed the presence of a “significant bat roost” and indicated that any works on site would require a wildlife licence.
Commenting on the officers’ presence at the meeting, Larne Lough DUP Ald Paul Reid said: “It is good to see people with issues coming to Mid and East Antrim where we can see people face to face and ask questions. I do really appreciate you coming.”
Mr Hunter went on to say a bat survey is required to establish density of the bat roost.
“We do not have a full understanding. We need to know now the extent of the European Protected Species on site so that there is no risk or harm to that species.”
Nicola Golden, Historic Environment, told the meeting she believed “remaining concerns can be resolved” and that given the scale of the building, a “balance has to be struck”.
“We are fully aware of the current state of the building,” she stated.
Mr McGuinness replied: “The actual works to the listed building, there is no issue with.”
The official commented: “The decision you make will be judged on in 200 years time.” She proceeded to ask for more trees to be planted along the driveway to Cairndhu House.
Committee chair Ald Stewart McDonald, a Bannside TUV representative, then took a vote for a site visit which was unanimous.