£12 million Scottish Mutual hotel project in Belfast facing cash shortfall amid government grant freeze
Exclusive: Other listed buildings could be in jeopardy amid grant freeze
A £12million project to turn the listed Scottish Mutual building in Belfast into a luxury hotel is facing a funding shortfall of around £500,000 for key restoration work amid a government grant freeze, it can be revealed.
Plans are under way to turn the six-storey building behind Belfast City Hall into a 40-bedroom hotel.
The building was bought by the Ballymena-based Hill family, who own the Galgorm Resort & Spa - which itself is set to expand as part of a multi-million pound renovation in 2015.
But it could now be one of the first of several key redevelopments to suffer from a Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) grant freeze during the current budget impasse at Stormont.
Although the Department for the Environment claimed no grant had been officially offered, it's understood the firm was well progressed in discussions to secure in excess of £500,000 towards crucial restoration work for the listed building.
And Northern Ireland's draft budget - which has yet to be agreed by the Executive - has indicated there will be no funding for any 'listed building grants' in future.
That could mean an end to government grants which are often required to undertake 'sympathetic restoration' work for such listed buildings, in order to maintain the traditional look and feel of older, protected properties.
A spokesman for the Department of the Environment said if the draft budget were agreed, "very little funding" would be made available for grants in the future.
"At present no offers are being made while the full implications of the 2015-16 budget are agreed.
"The draft Executive budget 2015/16 however indicates that the department's budget will be significantly reduced resulting in very little funding available for grants." Colin Johnston, project manager at Tullymore House Ltd - which is behind the redevelopment - said it was engaged in "negotiations for grant funding arrangements with a number of government departments and public bodies to enable us to bring the landmark Belfast building back to its former glory".
He said the new hotel was on still course to be open by the late summer, or autumn 2016.
"We are confident that the outcome from these negotiations will be positive.
"We are also making a new planning application in January with a few minor changes to the project," he said.
The group has also been in early discussions with Belfast City Council in regards to possible funding.
A council spokesman said: "We can confirm that the council has received a request for financial assistance for this project".
Nicola McVeigh, chief executive of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, said the end of 'listed building grants' meant that "many projects like the Scottish Mutual are made a lot less viable, and in some cases impossible".
"Listed building grants can be instrumental as a lever to encourage match funding. If projects such as the Scottish Mutual do not benefit from listed building grants it may signal missed opportunities for Northern Ireland."
The group has now launched an online petition calling to a reverse an end to 'listed building grants' funding, outlined in the draft budget.
The Scottish Mutual building was bought by the owners of the Galgorm Resort - the Hill family - in 2013, with plans of turning it into a 40-bedroom hotel. The listed building was sold for £2m after it was put on sale by the Republic's 'bad bank', Nama. The Hill family also opened a new restaurant - Fratelli - in Belfast last month.