Waterfront Hall extension approved
Ambitious plans to extend one of Northern Ireland's premier entertainment venues have been given the green light.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said the £29.5 million expansion of the Belfast's Waterfront Hall would provide a real boost for the city.
It is hoped the development, which will double the size of the conference centre, will be completed by early 2016.
Mr Durkan said: "These state-of-the-art facilities will make Belfast one of the premium destinations for national and international conferences and will boost the development of business tourism in Belfast and act as a catalyst for wider economic growth across the city.
"There will also be a real economic boost locally, with numerous construction jobs in the short term and full time permanent posts in the long term."
The large scale application was lodged with planners in November last year and two letters of objection were received. It was backed by Belfast city councillors in June.
Mr Durkan said his approval reflected a commitment to speeding up the cumbersome planning process.
Lord Mayor of Belfast Nichola Mallon welcomed the decision.
She said: "This is another important step for us and our partners in delivering world-class facilities and job creation opportunities for Belfast.
"By doubling the existing convention and exhibition space at Belfast Waterfront, we can build upon what is already a huge growth area for our economy and showcase Belfast as a destination of choice for conference organisers and delegates."
The project, which is seen as the cornerstone of a major riverfront development, proposes to add extra conference and exhibition facilities on to the side of the Waterfront Hall which was opened in 1997.
Last year it was revealed the work would cost £10 million more than originally predicted.
Belfast City Council has committed £11 million towards the new building as part of its £150 million Investment Programme.
The European Regional Development Fund has donated £14.5 million while the Northern Ireland Tourist Board has contributed a further £4 million.
Preparatory work on the site has already been completed and construction is expected to start shortly.
DUP councillor Lee Reynolds, chairman of of the strategic policy and resources committee at Belfast City Hall, said: "Today's decision is very welcome, as it will now allow full construction works to begin imminently, putting us well on track to open for business in spring 2016."