Historic Belfast buildings demolished at weekend - council under fire over lack of action
Belfast City Council has been accused of standing by and watching the architectural fabric being ripped out of the city.
The demolition of historic brick warehouses over the weekend provoked outrage from the head of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, which called for an urgent rethink.
Chief executive Nicola McVeigh said the loss of the buildings on Union Street "completes the clearance of Belfast's characteristic historic commercial architecture" from yet another city block.
Ms McVeigh lamented the lack of action taken since then to protect the city's architectural heritage.
She also criticised the "apparently disinterested" council for standing back and watching it being repeatedly attacked.
"The absence of any attempt by the council, or councillors, to save these buildings is all the more inexplicable given that the council's City Centre Regeneration and Investment Strategy 2015 advocates the retention and conversion of historic warehousing to live/work spaces," she said.
The council's policy recognises Belfast's historical buildings as an "essential ingredient of (the city's) unique character and charm" and warns that a strategy for "adaptive re-use" is necessary if it is to be preserved.
A number of Victorian buildings which survived the unrest following partition and the ravages of the conflict here have been lost in recent years to make room for new developments and as a result of fires.
Ms McVeigh called for increased scrutiny of how the council exercises planning powers to protect the integrity of the planning process.
"The Government's failure to exercise scrutiny is a contributory factor in the ongoing catastrophic loss of unlisted heritage buildings across Northern Ireland," she said.
The campaigner warned that one of the city's most iconic listed buildings was at risk of being lost after falling into disrepair.
"Only the listed Art Deco Bank on the corner with Royal Avenue remains, damaged, vandalised and at risk," she said.
The old Bank of Ireland building - designed by architect JV Downes of McDonnell & Dixon and constructed in 1928 - was vacated in 2005.
The Grade B+ listed building was sold for an undisclosed sum in 2015 by commercial property firm Lisney, along with a number of other properties in the area.
Last night the Department for Communities (DfC) said conservation areas were designated by the local planning authority, not the department.
"The warehouse demolished on Union Street was not under consideration for listing at the time of demolition," it added.
Belfast City Council said it "did not have the power to "save these buildings".
"The criticism of Belfast City Council regarding the recent demolition of buildings at Union Street is unwarranted," it stressed.
"While the council acknowledges the historic merit of the demolished buildings, they were not listed, nor are they in a conservation area or an area of townscape character."
"The council cannot compel a landowner to make a planning application in circumstances where the works are permitted development and cannot compel a landowner to carry out an environmental impact assessment when the development does not meet the statutory threshold. Nor can it compel DfC to list a building.
"Therefore the council did not have the power to save these buildings, despite what has been suggested by some.
"The council is committed to protecting the built heritage of the city, which is reflected in the Belfast Agenda and the draft Local Development Plan.
"However, it must carry out its functions in accordance with the relevant statutory provision."