The George Best Hotel site in Belfast City Center has been described as “dangerous” after chunks of masonry fell from the building onto a street below.
Redbrick lumps the size of breezeblocks were found beside the Scottish Mutual Building on the pavement at the corner of Bedford Street and Donegall Square, surrounded by red dust. The masonry fell overnight, apparently from above the Bedford Street sign.
Police cordoned off the area. Belfast City Council Officers have instructed the administrators in control of the property to take a survey of the building to make sure there is no further risk to life.
SDLP Councillor Donal Lyons took pictures of the scene early in the morning just after the police cordoned off the area. He said: “Obviously the main thing is that no one was seriously injured or worse. We’re talking about chunks of masonry falling onto a footpath here – if it had happened during the day the consequences don’t bear thinking about.
“There is a clear need to rethink our approach to heritage buildings in Northern Ireland, and we’ve been calling for a joint approach to protect the little we have left. Ideally this would be between councils, which are best placed to intervene, and the Department for Communities, who have responsibility and ultimately the budget.”
He added: “Of course heritage isn’t the only issue here. Empty buildings become run down and run down buildings can have a huge impact on an area’s fortunes – and in this case it’s become dangerous.
“The shortfall in the council’s powers have been known for a good while now and there have been various commitments to bring a Dilapidation Bill through the Assembly to address the shortcomings. Edwin Boots gave his commitment to act urgently on this exactly a year ago.
“But since the consultation happened in 2016 there’s been no progress on the bill. As a result councils are operating with one hand tied behind their back.”
A Dilapidation Bill for Northern Ireland was expected to be introduced at the start of this Stormont mandate, but faces considerable delay with the currently stymied Assembly. It is hoped the bill will consolidate and enhance existing legislation to better allow councils to safely deal with dangerous buildings and neglected sites in their local areas.
Earlier this month it was confirmed that a group of 50 local businessmen had agreed to work with Signature Living, the company who owned the building when it went into administration, to save the development and its investments. They formed the George Best Hotel property company led by County Antrim businessman Stephen Kearney.
In January 2020 Belfast City Council’s Planning Committee approved Signature Living’s application for the Scottish Mutual Building on Donegall Square to be converted to a 63 bedroom hotel. The committee voted by eight councillors to two in support of the plan, with the Green Party and People before Profit members voting against.
The “boutique” hotel was planned to have a restaurant and bar on the ground floor, a function room, bar, bridal suite and kitchen on the fifth floor, and bedrooms on the first, second, third and fourth floors.
The week the plan was finally green-lighted, the developers announced the target date for completion would be June 2020. By April that year of work was halted, when the owners, Bedford Hotel Ltd, a subsidiary of Signature Living Hotels Ltd, went into administration , with investors owing millions. Over ten million pounds had been spent on the George Best Hotel project up to that point already.