Plans for Ravenhill refurbishment are unveiled
Environment Minister Alex Attwood has agreed planning permission for a refurbishment of Ravenhill rugby ground in Belfast.
Last summer it was confirmed that the stadium was due to see its capacity rise with the help of government funding of £14.7m.
The latest plans are for three new stands at the venue and a stadium capacity of up to 18,200 spectators.
Mr Attwood said it was a "tremendous boost" for rugby in the region.
"Planning approval will now lead to the creation of a stadium that is fit for the 21st century," he said.
"In arriving at my decision, I have given careful consideration to the need for a new stadium and views of the local community amongst others.
Ravenhill ground plans
- Work to begin at the end of 2012
- Three new stands to be built
- Memorial end stand to provide seating for 2,500 and terracing for 1,350
- It will house a ticket office, shop, education centre and bar/catering facilities
- Aquinas end stand to seat 3,200
- It will house changing and treatment rooms, indoor training surface and media facilities
- New grandstand to accommodate 3,200
- It will house bar and restaurant facilities and the existing promenade will be upgraded
- Work expected to be completed during 2015
"I am satisfied that the new Ravenhill can be achieved without causing undue harm to the surrounding area or its citizens.
"Ulster Rugby will have a major role in this regard.
"The role of planning is to create a better place, to live, work and invest in Northern Ireland and this ambitious exciting project will create employment opportunities for local people, particularly during the construction process.
"It is a further example of how sport in Northern Ireland, which is very much on the up, can further develop."
It is estimated that the developments will be completed by the middle of 2015.
Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin said the announcement was a "milestone" for Ravenhill.
"This progress will enable rugby to move to the next stage of their ambition to have a stadium that will fully meet their needs well into the future," she said.
"Having secured up to £110m earlier in the year for the development of regional stadiums for rugby, gaelic games and football, I am delighted that a point has been reached which will enable us to begin to see progress on the ground.Major final
"The stadium development programme is a key priority for me and my department and I look forward to seeing progress being made in the development of Casement Park for gaelic games and Windsor Park in respect of football."
Ulster Rugby chief executive Shane Logan said the refurbished stadium would help the development of the sport "from the grassroots through to international levels".
He said construction work at Ravenhill would take a phased approach and the ground would continue to host matches, albeit it with a slightly reduced capacity, throughout the build.
The stands at the Memorial and Aquinas ends of the ground will be built in the first two phases.
Once those are completed, work will begin on the demolition of the existing grandstand and the construction of its replacement.
Ravenhill currently has a capacity of just over 12,000.
Mr Logan said the increased capacity would mean it was capable of hosting a Pro12 final or Heineken Cup quarter-final match.
"Over the coming months we will be working closely with our project board, consisting of representatives from Sport Northern Ireland and the Ulster Branch, which will oversee the project," he added.
"We will be appointing an independent consulting team who will prepare the detailed design and the pre-construction process with an aim to start building towards the end of 2012."