Belfast could have more skyscrapers dotted on its horizon, as Environment Minister Edwin Poots has revealed that a new policy on tall buildings will be published by his department.
Mr Poots said the policy would give guidance to developers and planners alike and prevent “ad hoc” decisions on tall buildings by the Planning Service.
He said Belfast was “behind the times” when it came to skyscrapers — and said he admired the tall buildings of Singapore.
And there is nothing wrong with using that country’s skyline as inspiration when planning Belfast’s future, Mr Poots added.
“If we are to continue to grow our economy we need to grow our population, and tall buildings can accommodate people residentially and maximise our land use,” the minister said.
“We are somewhat behind the times in terms of tall buildings. Much of the tall building development in other cities took place in the 1960s and 1970s, but obviously with the Troubles that didn't happen here.
“Now we are in a different period and people are looking to maximise land use. Tall buildings are acceptable but not in all locations.
“As a consequence we are drawing up a policy paper on tall buildings to give guidance to the planning office so it makes decisions that are less ad hoc.
“I’m not saying whether Great Victoria Street is an appropriate location, but in other European cities you see a great deal of skyscrapers in quays and former docklands — and we have the Boat and the Obel.
“Frankly, it gives you more of a city feel, but they need to be well-designed. If you look at New York skyscrapers which went up in the 1950s and 1960s, they are like rectangular boxes which aren’t very aesthetically pleasing.
“But you find much more appealing skyscrapers in Singapore, for example.”
Mr Poots doesn’t see any incongruity with comparing an architectural template from Belfast to Singapore and said buildings which could accommodate people and maximise land use would help grow the economy. “We are comfortable with the principle of tall buildings where they are appropriate,” he said.
Mr Poots spoke almost one year after would-be landmark The Aurora, a 37-storey skyscraper on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street, was refused planning permission by the Planning Service.
The decision was greeted with outcry by the developers and then Environment Minister Sammy Wilson, who said his own civil servants in the Planning Service had acted “abysmally” in ignoring the economic benefit a landmark building could bring.
Mr Poots, however, said he had held meetings with the Aurora developer, McAlister Homes, and an amended application for a building of 20 to 25 storeys could be sent in to the planners.
The Obel, Belfast’s tallest building and the tallest in Ireland, is 28 storeys high.
The original application for the Aurora has been with the Planning Service’s management board, which could overrule the planners’ decision.
The board was to consider the potential of the Aurora to regenerate the area. But it took the Department for Social Development five months to inform the DoE that DSD Minister Margaret Ritchie would welcome investment in Great Victoria Street and was “satisfied with the regeneration aspects of the Aurora proposal”.
A spokesman for the DSD defended the amount of time taken.
“It takes time to assess a development as significant as the Aurora proposal against prevailing planning and regeneration policy,” he said.
“In this instance, the assessment also raised issues about the department's position in relation to major developments in the city more generally and this added in turn to the time taken for consideration.
“The department's response to the Planning Service reflects the minister's view that it was important to be as positive as possible towards major investments, particularly in the present economic climate.”
The spokesman added: “There are no standard targets for response times for correspondence between departments.”
Tall storeys from our capital
The Obel: At 28 storeys, Belfast and Ireland’s tallest storeyed building is set to open for business summer 2010
Windsor House: At 23 storeys, the office building on Bedford Street was Ireland’s tallest building until the Obel.
Churchill Tower: The 19-storey tower was demolished in 2004 to make way for Victoria Square shopping centre
Divis Tower: 19 storeys
Belfast City Hospital Tower: 15 storeys
The Boat: The 15-floor building includes apartments and a restaurant and overlooks Custom House Square
Hilton Hotel, Belfast: 12 storeys
BT Riverside Tower: 11 storeys
Vetro: Planning application submitted for 26-storey glass-fronted development at Castle Street/King Street in city centre, to include serviced apartments and hotel. If allowed, developers hope it could be complete within two years.