Council confirms investigation into 'unauthorised works' at new George Best hotel
Belfast City Council has revealed that it has opened an enforcement investigation in relation to the £15m George Best Hotel building.
It came after the Department for Communities' Historic Environment Division (HED) raised concerns over "unauthorised works" at the high-profile development - leading Ulster Architectural Heritage (UAH) to call for an immediate stop notice to be issued over work at the listed building.
It follows a site visit to the landmark Scottish Mutual Building by architects from the HED, who found that the works which are currently taking place "fail to be informed by a conservation-led approach".
The concerns were raised in a consultation letter from the HED which was published on the online planning portal over the redevelopment of the B1 listed building at Donegall Square.
The hotel, a joint venture between Signature Living Hotel Group and the family of George Best, originally aimed to open this month.
However, this has now been pushed back until 2019.
It said it was working "proactively" to progress the work and would be holding meetings with all concerned parties. The company said an enforcement investigation was underway after a complaint from a neighbouring business and as such an investigation had to take its course.
The statuses of the two applications currently lodged for the 63-bedroom proposal are listed as "consultations issued" and "under consideration" online.
In the letter, the HED says it has "re-considered the effects of the proposal on the listed building" after additional drawings were uploaded to the planning portal.
It described the proposal for a change of use to a hotel as "acceptable," but added that the detailed design "adversely impacts on the essential character and special interest of the listed building".
In a section entitled "unauthorised works," the letter reveals that HED architects visited the site on September 28, observing that "works progressing onsite are not in accordance with existing approvals".
The approvals relate to internal works to the historic fabric, which were agreed with the HED prior to works commencing.
It adds that HED "has concerns that the works which are currently progressing onsite, particularly in relation to M&E (monitoring and evaluation) interventions and dry lining of external walls, fail to be informed by a conservation-led approach".
The letter says that, while the current proposal provides detail regarding new interventions, it "fails to demonstrate how the proposals will conserve and retain the features of special interest in the building," which "raises significant concerns" that the project is "not being taken forward as a conservation led scheme of conversion."
The HED also requests a meeting with the agent and Belfast City Council.
UAH said it was "extremely concerned to hear of unauthorised works".
The building conservation group added: "UAH has repeatedly expressed concerns to responsible authorities about the works to this building by current and previous owners.
"UAH has for some time been concerned about the content of promotional material for this project which illustrates generic, new-build hotel interiors, and not those we understand to be original, appropriate or sympathetic to this important and prominent listed building.
"We call for an immediate Stop Notice to be issued until this urgent matter is resolved."
Belfast City Council said that its planning and building control officers had met with the HED yesterday.
They said that the Planning Authority has discretionary enforcement powers relating to unauthorised development, and can consider serving a 28-day temporary stop notice where a building or lands are specially protected and at risk of irreparable damage.
Alternatively, they revealed that a stop notice and enforcement notice would stop works on the site until all remedial steps set out in the enforcement notice have been complied with.
However, they said that "these powers are used rarely and only following careful consideration of all material factors in the case" and the authority will "always endeavour to work with a landowner/ operator to resolve matters without the requirement to proceed to formal action".
The council stated: "BCC can confirm that a live enforcement investigation is currently open in respect of this building.
"Due to the live nature of this investigation, BCC are not in a position to make any further comment."
A Department For Communities spokesperson said the HED is "engaging with Belfast City Council" over the building, and has not written to the developer about the site.
In a statement Signature Living added: "We are working proactively with the HED and Belfast City Council in relation to the progress of the redevelopment of the The George Best Hotel, including a meeting this afternoon with all parties concerned.
"Information in relation to the queries raised is now with all necessary parties to address. We are continuing to work with them to obtain the necessary consents."
The company has said objections to it obtaining an licence have caused delays in its opening.
"With regards to the live enforcement investigation, I can confirm this relates to a complaint made by a neighbouring business. Once a complaint is lodged, this has to be followed up by an investigation. This is due process, and which we referred to in a previous statement earlier this month.
"Lawrence reiterated once again, he and his Belfast team look forward to welcoming their first guests in early 2019."