Office plan may herald the end for contentious Belfast bonfire site
A major office building housing hundreds of civil servants could be built on the spot of a controversial bonfire in Belfast city centre.
The site at Hope Street has been contentious for years, playing host to a massive pyre just metres from a hotel and main road.
A City Hall probe is now under way into the council's storing of 3,000 wooden pallets for the loyalist bonfire and another one at Chobham Street in east Belfast.
It is understood the Strategic Investment Board is eyeing up the Housing Executive-owned site under plans to consolidate around 1,500 civil servants in the city centre.
Belfast City Council's director of city centre development advised a committee that the Department of Finance had "proposed to consolidate the government office estate in Belfast centre and was initially looking at three locations - Hope Street, Castle Street and Dunbar Link/Corporation Street".
Construction is scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2019.
The Housing Executive told this newspaper: "We have been consulting with the local community and statutory and voluntary agencies about the use of Hope Street in order to regenerate this area of the city.
"One of the options we are currently exploring is using part of the land for public sector office accommodation, though this is at very early stages."
The Department of Finance said: "No specific sites have been selected at this point. Options are currently being considered through the business case process that focus potential projects on sites that are currently in the ownership of central government.
"Departmental consultation will continue regarding their requirements.
"All project start dates are subject to business case approval and the availability of capital funding."
In the last few years a huge Eleventh Night bonfire has been built at the former car park.
Ahead of last year's pyre, politicians warned it could harm efforts to build tourism.
SDLP MLA Claire Hanna argued: "At a time when we are trying to grow our tourism industry, this is utterly insane.
"The last thing that visitors staying in any hotel want to do is look out on such a mess."
There is also a second, smaller site on Hope Street, which is owned by Belfast City Council and sits directly opposite the bonfire area.
Andras House, owner of the nearby Holiday Inn, is building a new development across the road.
Work on the 179-bedroom Hampton by Hilton is already well under way, and the hotel will be the first of the brand in Northern Ireland.
Lord Rana's Andras House also operates a Holiday Inn Express, Hotel Ibis, Ramada Plaza and serviced Cordia Apartments in the city.