Abandoned banks, the blight on our streets in Northern Ireland
Solutions sought to the problem of empty branches
With the slow death of the high street bank, it's a question that's coming up more and more.
What do you do with an empty bank building?
Almost every town across the country has one – a former branch building laying vacant and crying out for a new use.
Some, like the former Northern Bank on Waring Street in Belfast, have been falling into dereliction for years. Others, like the Ulster Bank in Dromore in Co Tyrone, have only just pulled down the shutters and need new uses.
Just last week estate agents BTW Shiels listed no fewer than four former bank branches in an ad in the Belfast Telegraph.
Belfast Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir (below) is calling on banks to come up with radical solutions to deal with empty branches. He said that, as often the most prominent building in a retail centre, the loss of a bank branch is like a gaping tooth.
Scores of banks across Northern Ireland lie empty due to the recesssion and changes to the way we bank. Now the Sinn Fein councillor is calling on their owners to come up with some innovative solutions that will breathe new life back into town centres.
He recently met with Ulster Bank, Danske Bank and First Trust along with local traders' groups to try and come up with some ideas, such as turning them over to social enterprises that could revitalise communities.
The Lord Mayor admitted there wasn't much that can be done to reverse the situation when a bank decides to close branches – but the banks can do more to minimise the impact on neighbourhood shopping hubs.
"In particular, banks should take steps to ensure vacated properties do not lie empty for months or years, setting back efforts by Belfast City Council and the new traders' organisations set up across Belfast to revive the local retail clusters," he said.
Mr O Muilleoir said Northern Ireland's bank branches were among the most prominent buildings in town centres.
"Because of a decision taken in a boardroom, retail clusters feel the impact because they lie there looking like a pulled tooth, sometimes for two or three years," he said. "Our message to banks is this: you pride yourselves on being good neighbours and good corporate decision-makers. You should be working with traders' groups to find alternative uses for these branches. If the market isn't ready to intervene, you need to work proactively with Belfast City Council and traders.
"We have enough genius and enough wit between us to come up with a solution."
Businessman Bill Wolsey has already converted one bank into a hugely successful five-star hotel – The Merchant – and plans to launch another branch as The National cafe in Belfast in September. Banks are hard to convert to other uses but can be worth it, he said.
"Banks are obviously difficult to convert because they have big safes and big thick walls, but the banks have usually put a lot of money into the decor," he said.
"There needs to be some upside and that usually means beautiful decor and high ceilings. The 'concrete box' branches are no good because they are more expensive and there is no upside."
But Bryson Charitable Trust boss John McMullan suggests vacant branches could house social enterprises.
"It might be an antidote to the problems that people have with payday lenders," he said. It could support a culture of enterprise within our community. These things aren't a liability. They are a tremendous asset if you can find a use."
A few of the empty banks:
High Street, Holywood
Upper Main Street, Larne
Cregagh Road, Belfast
Antrim Road, Belfast
Main Street, Dromore, Co Tyrone
Main Street, Kesh
Antrim Road, Glengormley
Church Street, Dromore, Co Down
Newtownards Road, Belfast
Bryan Street, Ballymena
Main Street, Castlederg
Royal Avenue, Belfast
Albertbridge Road, Belfast
Larne Road, Ballymena
The Promenade, Portstewart
Castle Street, Comber
Waring Street, Belfast
John Street, Castlederg