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What is the solution to Belfast’s dereliction?

Posted on: 7th July 2022

Over the years, Ulster Architectural Heritage has repeatedly voiced concerns about the degradation of Belfast’s built heritage. However, in recent weeks dereliction, vandalism and the condition of empty sites has been dominating the media. But why now?

Emerging from COVID 19, Belfast has been rediscovered by tourists from across the world, many lured in by Belfast’s dark tourism or the story of the Titanic. When tourists came to Belfast in the wake of the Good Friday agreement many were pleasantly surprised to find a city recovering from the Troubles and with a good number of attractive Victorian buildings still intact. Fast-forward to 2022 and what are tourists greeted with? A desolate city centre with a very tarnished “Golden Mile”? In the last month bits have fallen off buildings both old and new – notably the former Scottish Mutual building which was abandoned when its developer went into liquidation, but a number of more recent buildings have also been the subject of safety concerns.

As a designated Conservation Area, the city centre is classified for its architectural and historical interest, ultimately what makes it distinct. Yet buildings in the historic core of our city are regularly demolished to make way for new multi-storey blocks that go against the historic grain, impede important views, detract from our historic buildings and add obtrusive bulk to the cityscape.

Once probably the most completely Victorian city in the British Isles, many of Belfast’s 19th century buildings have been demolished for road schemes, housing estates and commercial developments. Many of the remaining historic buildings within the city centre lie vacant, some even open to the elements, and with all sense of pride or purpose gone they have become a backdrop for anti-social behaviour and vandalism. Too often, it seems, developers acquire properties without thought for their possible restoration, often evicting long-standing family businesses and either blocking the buildings up or demolishing them outright while they seek planning permissions, in the process further eroding Belfast’s sense of place and character. The problem does not just lie with buildings that are completely vacant. Looking up above the ground floor on any street within the city centre, including core streets like Donegall Place, Royal Avenue, High Street and Castle Place, the majority of the upper storeys lie neglected and vacant, a trend which has been accelerated with the rise in online shopping. At the moment there are few incentives for developers to see their empty buildings brought into use. Buildings are acquired for their land value rather than because the new owners want to see them restored, or even perhaps like them. The buildings are often neglected because of an inability to see their potential for re-use.

So what is the solution for Belfast’s dereliction?

There are tools available to both central and local government. Listed buildings can be served with an Urgent Works Notice, extending to a Compulsory Purchase Order where the building is likely to collapse. The local council can also serve a Building Preservation Notice when they think a building merits listing. However many worthwhile buildings are not listed and have no statutory protection.

Further legislation is necessary, bringing together the range of miscellaneous powers held by planners and councils to deal with dangerous buildings, public health issues and public nuisances. The recent call to bring forward a proposed Dilapidation Bill coincides with the Planning Accounts Committee notes, from their consideration of the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s report on “Planning in Northern Ireland”. Describing the planning system in
Northern Ireland as “not working”, the PAC recommend that “a Commission is established to undertake fundamental review to ascertain the long-term, strategic changes that are needed to make the system fit for purpose” an aspiration that Ulster Architectural Heritage strongly agrees with.

The vast majority of planning proposals are granted approval, albeit sometimes after a few years of indecision. Now that the value of the embodied energy in old buildings has been recognised, planners should be much more rigorous in granting approval for new buildings. If developers knew that they were unlikely to get permission for a new building, their attention might turn to repairing and adapting existing building stock.

Planning is now a local authority responsibility, and councils should be much more proactive in protecting the architectural heritage that provides the character of their areas, as it undoubtedly draws tourists and businesses to the area. Most people do appreciate their built heritage and how it defines their sense of place, but can be blinded by unsightly dereliction.

In recent months, many of us walking around Belfast have had the pleasure in trying out an array of delicious food choices from the Hill Street Hatch and Common Market. Businesses like these are “meanwhile use” ventures, opportunities that give small businesses a space to try out their entrepreneurial ventures with low overheads. Many empty buildings would be taken up by similar fledgling enterprises if they were made
available with the appropriate help and support. In similar cities across the water, entrepreneurial meanwhile use ventures have been flourishing for some time, creating unique mixed use spaces and repurposing mills, warehouses, banks and offices into new uses.

Belfast City Council has set a good example in acquiring the former Provincial Bank at 2 Royal Avenue and making it available for cultural events. This sustainably reuses our historic building stock, often at a very modest cost, ensures the longevity of the buildings and utilises the embodied energy within them. Detailing a variety of meanwhile uses throughout the UK and Ireland, the Ministerial Advisory Group’s Position Paper, published in 2014, on “Meanwhile Uses” outlines the benefits of meanwhile use, not just for the general public, but also for occupiers and landlords.

Over the years since that devastating fire in 2018, UAH has been closely following the progress of the Bank Buildings restoration. After the initial nail-biting days when the fate of the building seemed to hang in the balance, and then the many months when the building was shrouded in its yellow chrysalis, we were recently delighted to see the first phase of scaffolding removal, unveiling the beauty that we once took for granted, and which has been hidden for so long. The period after the fire generated much debate about the role of the built heritage and the senses of loss, reminiscence and hope it created. For everyone who is proud of Belfast, the sight of the renewed Bank Buildings coming back to life will create a sense of joy and pride.

Similar regeneration is needed with the growing quantity of derelict buildings across the city. Belfast has a unique architectural heritage which needs to be protected, rather than abandoned for modern buildings that now dominate our city centre. We have an under valued stock of redundant industrial buildings, historic commercial buildings and world leading offices, all flexible and adaptable spaces that can act as a blank canvas on which
new success stories can be carved out, which will add in due course to the collective memory of the city. It is not too late to enact real change in order to secure our distinctive architectural heritage for future, but we must see decisive action now before more buildings are lost.

UAH Planning Team

For and on behalf of Ulster Architectural Heritage
Ulster Architectural Heritage
The Old Museum Building,
7 College Square North,
[email protected]

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