OFFICIALS are to force a break in a greenway that’s meant to join Comber with Newtownards – meaning it will no longer link the two towns.

Chopping the greenway into two sections that don’t connect is a desperate bid to get the stalled project moving again, with this month marking five years of inaction on the £4.3m scheme.

In March 2019, Ards and North Down Council officials filed a planning application seeking permission to build a cycling and pedestrian corridor running along the shore of Strangford Lough.

It’s supposed to stretch from the existing Comber Greenway to Upper Greenwell Street, in total forming one unbroken green link from Belfast through Comber and on to Newtownards.

It’s now exactly five years since plans were filed – yet the council still hasn’t sorted out planning approval, let alone started construction work.

The council says it has been deadlocked with the Department for Infrastructure over the scheme – the same Stormont body that’s supposed to pay for most of it.

The planning process has been so protracted that officials are worried they’ll miss deadlines for funding.

They now think the only solution is to cut a vital section of the route out of the project, and instead build what will amount to two greenways – one that begins and ends in Comber, and a second running around Newtownards.

It’s the result of a dragged-out row with the Department for Infrastructure’s Roads section, which took issue with part of the greenway route that was supposed to run alongside the A21 main road out of Comber, before swinging towards Strangford Lough around Ballyrickard.

That involved turning a mile-long stretch of the dual carriageway’s hard shoulder into a cycle and pedestrian track, an idea that’s being blocked by DfI Roads.

The Stormont body thinks scrapping the hard shoulder would leave motorists who suffer car problems with nowhere to go in emergencies, putting them at risk on a busy main road that allows speeds of up to 70mph.

The council has struggled to find an alternative route between Comber and the lough shore – so officials have now agreed to cut that section out of the greenway, hoping to get the stalled project moving again so they can at least get something built.

At some point in the future, officials hope to revisit the problem section of the route to construct a separate ‘shared cycle [and] footway scheme’ that could eventually provide the greenway with its missing link and finally join Comber with Newtownards.

But in the meantime, officials argue that building two separate greenways is still a good use of their time.

They maintain that the main reason for the greenway was always ‘leisure and health’, so having one around Comber and a separate one around Newtownards would still benefit cyclists and pedestrians.

It’s the second time greenway plans have hit serious trouble for the council, as a project to rework the North Down Coastal Path collapsed in the face of an acrimonious and very public fight with locals opposed to the idea.

Meanwhile a greenway running from Newtownards to Conlig is still to go ahead, having won planning permission in two sections.

That was supposed to connect to the Comber project, providing a long link to Belfast as part of a wider scheme to build a massive network of greenways around Northern Ireland with the capital city at its hub.