Fears for Derry centre after council's decision to block gaming arcade overturned
The centre of Londonderry could be "abandoned by retail" and filled with "gambling arcades, bookies and pound shops", a councillor has claimed.
The warning comes after a judge overturned a unanimous decision by Derry City and Strabane District Council to refuse a permit for a large gambling centre in the city.
Judge Elizabeth McCaffrey told a hearing at the Court of Appeal at Derry Magistrates Court last Friday that she had a number of concerns with the council's reasons for refusing an amusement permit to Oasis Retail Services Ltd, and gave the green light to its new gambling arcade on Shipquay Street, one of the city centre's busiest thoroughfares.
Oasis, which is based in Newtownabbey, had applied for an amusement permit in respect of empty premises at Unit 23 of the Richmond Centre in 2014 and again in 2015.
It came before the health and community committee of the council in February 2016 and was refused again, with the council highlighting concerns over losing retail frontage, that young people would be drawn in, and that the premises would attract vulnerable people.
Oasis took the matter to court and launched an appeal which saw the then mayor of Derry Hilary McClintock, as well as other council members and Oasis representatives give evidence.
Last Friday Judge McCaffrey ruled that the company can open the new gaming centre for over-18s, which will include 70 gaming machines and which would operate seven days a week, creating 12 jobs and bringing a total investment of £250,000.
In her judgment, Judge McCaffrey said the process by which the application was refused was, in her opinion, flawed.
She overturned the unanimous decision by the council and granted approval for a permit for the centre with a maximum of 70 gambling machines.
There are now five similar gambling outlets in the city centre, a sixth in the Brunswick complex in Pennyburn and two more at premises in Bridgend, on the border with Donegal.
"Given the sort of service offered by Oasis, the scale of the proposed operation and the high standard of its premises, I consider that it will provide a different type of offering to that currently available and accordingly I grant the appeal," she said.
However, independent councillor Paul Gallagher, who gave evidence at the hearing, said he was not happy with the judgment.
He claimed the decision opened up the city centre to "all kinds of business".
"This has shown that council has virtually no control over any type of business that requires a licence," he said.
"The council is now in no position to withhold them.
"It could mean that city centres could be abandoned completely by retail, they could be taken over by gambling arcades, bookies and pound shops.
"I am not happy with the judgment, in so much as council has made a decision and then that decision has been overturned by a judge.
"When the council and councillors make a decision, we need to be made aware of all information. When there is an absence of information, it gets exposed, and it has been clearly exposed in court.
"This highlights how the council needs to reflect on how it looks at its delegated responsibilities.
"That committees are making one decision and that staff are making a delegated decision.
"This case has exposed that this is not the correct procedure to use.
"The council needs to go back and ensure that there is a new process put in place."
Derry City and Strabane District Council said that while it was disappointed in last Friday's judgment to overturn a unanimous decision by elected members, it will consider its options once it receives the written judgment.