A proposal that could have reduced the cordon around the burnt out Bank Buildings in Belfast city centre within a matter of weeks has been turned down by Belfast City Council.
Despite the owners of the building, Primark, insisting that they have taken advice on the matter from “third party experts” such as structural engineers, the council has rejected its plan for reducing the cordon around the historic Castle Junction property, which was destroyed by fire in August this year.
The local authority said its own expert advice was that Primark’s plan “wouldn’t sufficiently guarantee public safety”.
Revealing that its proposal “has not been approved”, a spokesperson for Primark said: “Bank Buildings is a listed building of historic significance to Belfast and we are committed to a conservation led approach. In order to start work on the building, Primark is required to undertake a specific planning process which is very complex and involves a wide range of stakeholders. We are fully engaged in this process and while it is ongoing, we are also working at full capacity on finding a way to reduce the cordon and open up the Castle Place junction.
“On 2nd October we submitted a proposal that could have reduced the cordon within weeks, unfortunately this proposal has not been approved but we are committed to finding a solution and are working closely with the council to agree this.
“We recognise how important this is to Belfast city and once we have permission to start work, the reduced cordon will be put in place as quickly as possible.”
The spokesperson added: “Primark acknowledges the impact that the devastating fire at Bank Buildings has had on Belfast. We are committed to the business and wider community and have recently made a £500,000 donation to Belfast City Council’s City Recovery Investment Programme. This fund is being allocated by the council to those local businesses impacted by the fire. We also recognise that Primark has always been a driver of footfall into the city centre and we are determined to be up and trading as soon as we can.”
Responding, a spokesperson for Belfast City Council said Primark’s proposal to reduce the cordon “did not sufficiently guarantee public safety.”
“Reducing the cordon and opening up pedestrian access in the city centre is the priority for Belfast City Council, and council is working closely with Primark to consider all options to that end. However, due to the instability of the building, any reduction of the cordon can only happen once it is safe to do so,” the spokesperson said.
“The existing cordon is having a significant impact on footfall, and businesses in the area are suffering as a result. Council is urgently seeking solutions to restore pedestrian access as soon as possible. In doing so, we have commissioned the advice of three separate independent structural engineers, who assessed Primark’s proposal within days of Primark’s submission. All three separately recommended that the proposal to reduce the cordon did not sufficiently guarantee public safety due primarily to the instability of the upper part of the building, the potential for collapse and their assessment of the range within which debris would fall.”
Earlier this month, Primark lodged an application with the council for listed building consent for conservation works to Bank Buildings, “involving the taking down, recording and assessment for restoration purposes of the building above the fourth floor cornice line to the Bank Street, Castle Street and Castle Place elevations of the building for off-site storage”.
It said the proposed works were “required to facilitate further investigations on the structural integrity of Bank Buildings” following the recent fire which completely destroyed the store.
A public consultation on the issue is ongoing and a special meeting of Belfast City Council’s Planning Committee will be called by Friday, October 26 to consider the application.
“Based on the information contained in Primark’s application, council believes it is reasonable to assume that if planning consent is given and the works outlined in the application are undertaken, Castle Place is likely to be the first location where the cordon could potentially be reduced. We do not expect Castle Street to reopen until the façade retention system is fully in place. An engineering solution for this is currently being designed and progressed,” the council spokesperson added.
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