Don't let policy despots bankrupt our creativity
Planners denied permission for a shop in a bricked-up Belfast side-street as it would detract from the area's 'character'. They're having a laugh, aren't they, asks Fionola Meredith
It's well known that bureaucracy destroys initiative. And nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland, where a surfeit of arcane rules and petty strictures strangle the life out of any new enterprise that doesn't fit within the closed mindset of bureaucrats.
Take the case of Sina's, a great little shop in a shipping container. Perched on a former bonfire site at a bleak north Belfast interface, the beautifully presented store has brought people from both the Catholic Glandore and Protestant Skegoneill areas together as they nip in to buy a pint of milk or a newspaper.
Locals love it: one pensioner says it's Belfast's own version of Fortnum -amp; Mason's, only better, because they know your name, and if the weather's bad, they bring your shopping up the road to you.
Open all hours, Sina's is the only bright spot in a troubled, neglected area. Yet it seems the Planning Service are absolutely determined to shut Sina's down.
In spite of repeated attempts to get planning permission for the temporary shop, owner William Haire has been constantly knocked back, with the latest refusal coming last month.
And the reason? They think Sina's is an eyesore. Objecting to "the design and materials" of the unit, the planners insist that Sina's is "unacceptable in this location, detracting from the existing character of the area".
The existing character of the area? Is this some kind of sick joke? Have the planners taken a trip out of their cosy offices and actually looked at Sina's surroundings? All around are signs of dereliction and decay: litter-strewn wasteland, a street of roofless terraced houses, a large tumbledown house boarded-up and scrawled with graffiti.
Of course, it's true that the ruined homes that surround Sina's were once grand examples of Victorian architecture, until the Troubles intervened and laid waste to these dignified streets.
Government officials did nothing to save them then, as youths ripped out chunks of lovely brickwork and flogged them for a few quid.
When Haire bought the site on which Sina's stands, it was littered with clapped-out sofas, tyres and mangled shopping trolleys, ready to be burned on the 11th night bonfire. Afterwards, he cleared the site by hand.
Haire can't help wondering why it is that you don't need a plan for a bonfire every year - but you do need one for a temporary shop.
And that's the other side of the faceless bureaucrats that run this place. They seem remarkably careful about whom they choose to tangle with.
It's much easier to target a lone man than to go after a whole crowd of nameless bonfire-builders, isn't it?
So often that is the case. And it always seems to happen when someone is trying to do something different. Something new, something imaginative.
A few years ago, a group of artists from Lawrence Street Workshops in south Belfast held an exhibition to coincide with the Belfast Festival at Queen's. They festooned a nearby street with colourful bunting, to lead people to the venue.
A week later, they got a severe letter from the Department of the Environment threatening them with a large fine if they didn't get the bunting down within two days.
Yet officials are strangely silent when huge swathes of the country are decked out with red, white and blue every summer.
Or take the case of No Alibis Bookstore on Botanic Avenue. Owner David Torrans has taken the initiative of putting on gigs in the shop, both to support local musicians and to help make ends meet in these tough economic times.
It was an imaginative move and one that's been warmly received by locals and visitors alike. The gigs themselves have become a sensation on YouTube, with thousands of hits from all over the world.
But now Belfast City Council is demanding that he apply for a costly entertainment licence.
It's not the licence itself Torrans objects to; he understands the importance of health and safety procedures when putting on public events.
What Torrans is frustrated by is the lack of flexibility in the policy, so that his small gigs, which seat 40 people, are treated in the same way as a large 500-seater venue.
Torrans estimates that the prohibitive costs of getting the required paperwork together will amount to at least a month's turnover in the shop. But rules are rules, it seems, and Torrans has no choice but to comply.
This is what happens when policies and procedures take over. When following the rules becomes the point, creativity, innovation and imagination are stifled. They haven't got the room to breathe.
The American author Mary Mc Carthy could have been talking about here when she wrote that bureaucracy has become "the modern form of despotism".
Northern Ireland desperately needs people who care about this place; people like William Haire and David Torrans, who do what they do for love, not for money. We're lucky to have them.
So why should the bureaucrats be allowed to spoil the party? It's time to call these joyless rule-makers to account.