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MLA's plea to BBC as £77m Belfast plans are put on ice

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Broadcasting House in Belfast

Broadcasting House in Belfast

Broadcasting House in Belfast

The BBC has been urged to clarify its plans for Belfast amid fears the city could miss out on a £77m investment that would put it on a par with media centres such as Salford.

In an email seen by the Belfast Telegraph, the corporation's director-general Lord Hall confirms that an extension to Broadcasting House on Ormeau Avenue is now under review as pressure mounts from the financial impact of Covid-19.

The original project included a central hub and a new public plaza.

South Belfast SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole, who has raised the matter with Lord Hall, urged the broadcaster to give more detail about what form an alternative project could take.

He said Belfast risks being overlooked for large-scale BBC investment, which has had a transformative effect on other locations, including Salford in Manchester, and Cardiff, where work on a new Broadcasting House was completed in October.

Mr O'Toole said: "I recognise there have been spending constraints on the BBC but I think we deserve more clarity."

He said he was concerned that the project, put on hold in May, would be low on the to-do list of new director-general Tim Davie, who takes over in September.

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BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall during a visit to Broadcasting House in Belfast

BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall during a visit to Broadcasting House in Belfast

BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall during a visit to Broadcasting House in Belfast

"This is the kind of investment we desperately need in Belfast," he said.

"The BBC needs to be clear why Belfast and Northern Ireland is not getting the same level of investment as other regions."

Around 3,200 BBC staff were relocated to MediaCity UK in Salford in 2011 at a cost of £200m, with production of flagship programmes such as BBC Breakfast also moving there.

The BBC has been under financial pressure due to the pandemic, and has announced hundreds of job cuts across the UK, including 40 here out of total staff of 650.

It has also moved ahead on an earlier plan to cut free TV licences for the majority of over-75s.

In an email to Mr O'Toole, Lord Hall said: "It is correct that the BBC Board has deferred substantive development work on our Broadcasting House site in Belfast and has asked for these plans to be reviewed.

"This decision reflects the significant financial challenges facing the BBC and the more recent impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"I can assure you that we are still working towards the enhancement of BBC technology and facilities in Northern Ireland and to putting in place the infrastructure that our services require, thereby ensuring their efficiency, flexibility and long-term sustainability.

"The formal review and updating of our plans for Broadcasting House Belfast are expected to conclude in early autumn 2020.The BBC Board will then consider next steps, including the quantum, phasing and prioritisation of additional investment."

In his letter to the director-general, Mr O'Toole said the investment would have given rise to a hub for skills and spurred other investment "as similar BBC capital projects have in Glasgow, Cardiff and Salford".

He added: "Given the seriousness of the economic situation and the likely challenges facing private sector investment, it is clearly in the interests of Belfast, and the broader economy in Northern Ireland, that this project proceeds.

"Indeed, at the time of launch, you yourself said that this "was another sign of our commitment to Northern Ireland".

A BBC spokesman echoed the views Lord Hall expressed to Mr O'Toole in his email.

He added: "Audience needs will remain at the core of our plans for the future and everything that we do will be informed by ongoing discussions with BBC staff and a broad cross-section of stakeholder organisations."

The BBC now says the Covid-19 crisis alone has cost it £125m.

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet last month called on the Government to step forward to help the broadcaster "rather than inflict further cuts on an already financially challenged BBC".

Belfast Telegraph