Hotel chief threatens to pull £40m Belfast investment after 'nightmare' dealings with council
The Liverpool hotelier behind the George Best Hotel has threatened to withdraw more than £40m worth of investment from Belfast - which could include a major project at Crumlin Road Courthouse.
Lawrence Kenwright, chairman of Signature Living, said the relationship between his firm and Belfast City Council had "turned into a living nightmare" since he announced plans to develop three hotels here in 2017.
In a letter to Belfast City Council chief executive Suzanne Wylie and Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey, he wrote: "I was led to believe that it was your dream to not only increase visitor numbers but also lead a business-friendly city that welcomes investment and new development.
"Sadly, the dream you talked about during our first interaction at MIPIM (property market exhibition) has now turned into a living nightmare."
He also slammed the council for what he alleges is a "system of anti-development", adding: "The behaviour of officers is stifling growth, discouraging inward investment and damaging Belfast and the wider Northern Ireland economy."
He also suggested there may be a link between Northern Ireland's economic growth of 1.1% in 2017 and the "attitude of the council towards developers".
He added: "Belfast is also falling way behind other major UK cities such as Cardiff and Edinburgh. In the current economic climate and with the uncertainty of Brexit, you have to ask yourselves how many more missed opportunities can Belfast afford?"
The letter follows the delayed opening of the £15m George Best Hotel - a joint venture between Signature Living and the family of the Manchester United legend - in the former Scottish Mutual Building on Donegal Square.
It was set to launch at the beginning of this month, but officials halted the move after architects from the Department for Communities' Historic Environment Division raised concerns over "unauthorised works" at the landmark building. After a site visit, they claimed that the works taking place "fail to be informed by a conservation-led approach".
At the time, Signature Living Group said it was working "proactively" with the council on the progress of the hotel, which is now set to open in early 2019 "pending no further objections".
Mr Kenwright said recently that he was already on site at a second Belfast project in Waring Street, which had been earmarked for a summer 2019 opening.
In mid-September he said his Lanyon Hotel concept at the former Crumlin Road Courthouse had been approved by planning officials and he was awaiting certification before beginning work.
But it now appears that the latter two developments could be at risk should the property developer "continue to experience the problems we have faced to date", according to his letter to the council.
He wrote: "As you know we had originally planned to invest £80m into Belfast. Your actions mean we are now going to revise that figure and stay at around £40m...
"If we continue to experience the problems we have faced to date, I will have no hesitation in taking our business elsewhere and further expose the inadequacies of your council when it comes to working with businesses who want to make Belfast better."
Belfast City Council said it would not be commenting on the letter. It is believed that it is seeking legal advice about some allegations made by Mr Kenwright in it.