Ards area excluded from Geopark after council pulled out


ARDS has been cut out of an international tourism and conservation zone around Strangford Lough – because the council preferred to go its own way.

Last week the United Nations body UNESCO designated three massive County Down areas of outstanding natural beauty to be an official geopark, including a substantial part of Strangford Lough.

But in what one local veteran politician this week labelled ‘an embarrassingly wrong and short-sighted call’, Ards and North Down Council refused to get involved in the globally-recognised scheme, despite being invited to be part of it.

That means only the sections of Strangford Lough that are in the territory of a neighbouring council are in the new geopark, which roughly equates to the south-western quarter of the landmark.

The entire Ards Peninsula as well as the western lough shore from Killinchy to Newtownards has been cut out.

The newly-created Mourne Gullion Strangford geopark is the brainchild of Newry, Mourne and Down Council, which formally applied to UNESCO for the project five years ago.

Back then Newry, Mourne and Down asked Ards and North Down to join them in the bid, pointing out that geoparks bring an estimated financial benefit of £2.9m as well as massive boosts to tourism and the environment.

But local councillors poured cold water on the idea, with the DUP particularly sceptical of joining in.

Councillors baulked at the idea of paying part of the geopark’s £52,000 annual running costs, and were concerned that the bulk of any financial boost would go to Newry, Mourne and Down.

During a series of debates in the opening months of 2018, councillors suggested that Whitespots Country Park to the north of Newtownards should be part of the geopark, only to later learn that UNESCO rules likely wouldn’t allow it.

Eventually, local politicians decided to reject the entire geopark project, with councillor Robert Adair going as far as declaring that Ards and North Down would ‘stand on its own two feet’.

UNESCO geoparks are part of a global network that brings together public authorities, the private sector and local communities to conserve and educate people about areas of natural beauty.

Geoparks also include development initiatives that both protect the landscape and boost the economy, and are held to be particularly good drivers of tourism.

The Mourne Gullion Strangford facility is only the second geopark in Northern Ireland; the first, centred around Marble Arch Caves in County Fermanagh, became a major tourist attraction.

Newry, Mourne and Down officials say they want to use the new geopark to tell ‘a tale of two oceans across 400 million years of geological history’, tracing the ‘rich biodiversity and vibrant cultural life’ in the area.