Stand with the people

By Staff Reporter

Two different news stories this week concerning development issues illustrate just how far Belfast has yet to travel before the authorities truly reflect the thirst among ordinary people for a step-change in how the city moves forward.

The first case involves the former British Army base on the Malone Road — now a major apartment complex — which was sold by central government with the proceeds, allegedly, to go to community benefit. (Let it be noted that the opportunity to keep the site and use if for a flagship arts project which would have complemented the Lyric Theatre, Ulster Museum and Queen’s University was, unfortunately, dismissed almost immediately by the powers-that-be in favour of a property development.)

A report this week by the Auditor General drives a coach and horses through the high-principled proposal to extract maximum community advantage from the Malone Road sale, pointing out that the site was sold for £3.8m less than its value. Indeed, it was considered such a gift by the buyer that he ‘flipped’ the site the same day, a sure sign, if ever one existed, that the government had got its sums wrong. Nevertheless, confirmation that the proceeds did go towards community or arts projects would have eased somewhat public disappointment at not receiving full value for this community asset.

But there also, the Auditor General identifies major shortfalls. Apparently, proceeds of the sale of the Malone Road site disappeared into the quagmire which is central government coffers never to be seen again.

The second sorry case of urban development run amok involves Swanston’s former Linen Warehouse, better-known as the Athletic Stores, in Queen Street.

After a marathon battle, the South Belfast based heritage and preservation organisations, the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society and the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust, managed to stall proposals by the planners to bulldoze this architectural gem which dates back to 1890 and which epitomises the unique and distinct character of Belfast.

Sadly, this week councillors in Belfast City Hall split on the issue of whether to defend this magnificent building from the wrecking ball — SF, Alliance and some DUP councillors voting for preservation, SDLP, UUP and some DUP members voting for demolition. The result is that another priceless landmark will be replaced by an anonymous block of flats likely, as with so many other city centre eyesores, to lie empty.

There is still time for DoE Minister Alex Attwood, ultimately responsible for planning issues, to intervene. This newspaper urges him to do so.

For in both the case of the Malone Road army base and the Athletic Stores, the authorities are lagging way behind the people when it comes to having a bright vision of tomorrow’s Belfast. The people see an ebullient city, proud of its past, focused on its future. The authorities, all too-often, see dreary blocks of flats. Minister Attwood on the issue of Swanston’s former linen warehouse has a chance to stand with the people.

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