Tesco has launched demolition work at a listed building in Belfast city centre without securing planning approval or the required consent.
Contractors for the retail company demolished an internal wall in the distinctive art deco Sinclair House at the corner of Royal Avenue and North Street without the approval of the Planning Service.
Tesco submitted its planning application in November to reconfigure part of the building for use as a Tesco Express store.
But this week urban activists Backstage Belfast questioned whether Tesco had pre-empted the planning process by demolishing the internal wall.
"Just one month after submitting a planning application, and with no planning permission or listed building consent, Tesco demolished an internal wall within the listed Sinclair House," the bloggers said. Tesco told the Belfast Telegraph that it takes its responsibility to protect architectural heritage seriously and insisted the wall was only demolished after the Northern Ireland Environment Agency had visited the building and confirmed there was nothing internally of historical interest.
But last night the Department of the Environment said no approval had been implied or given for demolition work at the meeting.
"NIEA visited the building on December 5 to discuss the proposal submitted for listed building consent (LBC). NIEA acknowledged that all visible interior finishes and some partitions were non-historic," a spokesperson said.
"No discussion or agreement took place on the demolition of specific internal walls."
The bloggers were also critical of the proposed design of the North Street facade, which they said would transform that part of the city centre street into "dead frontage", 90% of it consisting of steel security door, grey fibre cement wall, grey ventilation louvres and a grey refrigerator unit condenser. They cited the DoE's guides which said long ground floor stretches of blank wall, frosted window or car park openings should be avoided to ensure that urban centres remained active, safe and attractive.
Meanwhile, the historical buildings unit of NIEA – part of the DoE – also recommended the plans for the building be revised.
The Backstage Belfast blog added: "Sinclair House is a unique art deco building with significant frontages on to both Royal Avenue and North Street.
"The proposal by Tesco and AMCA Architects turns its back on the Cathedral Quarter."
A Tesco spokesman said: "At Tesco we take our responsibility to protect architectural heritage very seriously.
"We want our store to be as respectful to the character of the building and the area as possible and we are working closely with the council to get the right design."
Sinclair House is a unique art deco building fronting on to both Royal Avenue and North Street. The building was built in two stages between 1926 and 1936 by James Scott for Sinclair's Department Store and now sits between the Cathedral Conservation Area (1990) and the Belfast City Centre Conservation Area (1998). North Street can be traced back more than 200 years as a key route leading from the historic Four Corners.