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Belfast is crumbling Stormont has created a conservationist's nightmare

Belfast's Casement Park stadium (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Belfast's Casement Park stadium (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)


June 10, 2024   6 mins

Belfast was once described as “a conservationist’s nightmare”. Not much has changed. Vacant, dying buildings slouch on every other street. You notice the big ones first, places like the Crumlin Road Courthouse, a huge Victorian building cored out by decay. Then you notice the smaller buildings, the 19th-century shops and offices with mottled brickwork and buddleia exploding from their gutters. Eventually, something disturbing happens. You stop noticing these buildings at all. They are simply part of what Belfast’s city centre is these days.

The conservationist who found Belfast so nightmarish was called Charles Brett. A lawyer by trade, he was invited to join the National Trust’s Northern Ireland committee in 1956. When Brett asked the committee chairman what books he should read on Belfast’s architectural history, he was told that no such books existed. So he decided to write one himself. After eight years of research, Brett’s Buildings of Belfast was published in 1967. The work was completed “only just in the nick of time”.

Brett was referring to more than the Troubles; in fact, he complained that “the demolition men rival the bombers in coarse heartlessness”. His real ire was reserved for developers who razed historic buildings that might have been repurposed for modern use. He nursed a particular dislike for the various concrete shoeboxes imposed on Belfast in the Sixties: “Happily, many office blocks of this period are already suffering from the defects of their shoddiness, and, it may reasonably be hoped, will fall down soon.”

A portrait of Brett hangs in the offices of Ulster Architectural Heritage (UAH). I’m here to meet Sebastian Graham, the society’s Heritage at Risk Officer, one of the tiny number of people working to save Northern Ireland’s historic buildings from oblivion. UAH is based in the Old Museum Building, a handsome Greek Revival edifice built in 1831, filled with winding staircases and galleried salons. The place was used as an arts centre in the Nineties and still has an intact dressing room, the walls covered with mirrors and posters for Joe Orton plays. Today, the Old Museum Building is tired but magnificent. It’s appropriate that UAH is quartered in something of a project. After all, as Graham tells me, “vacancy is the big killer”.

UAH and other organisations have been fighting to preserve Northern Ireland’s built heritage for decades. There have been many successes. Hearth Historic Buildings Trust has restored numerous derelict properties, and is currently engaged in renovating Riddel’s Warehouse in Belfast, a project that has been ongoing since 2014. But despite the occasional “save”, Graham says that the overall situation is dire: “In Northern Ireland there’s more than 800 listed buildings at risk. That’s about 9% of our listed building stock. The figure in Scotland and Wales varies from 2% to 4%. So we’re essentially double the rest of the UK as to the [poor] condition of our built heritage.”

The last decade has been devastating for Northern Ireland’s architectural inheritance. In 2014, the government budget for the maintenance of historic buildings was £4.17 million. That pot was reduced to £500,000 in 2015 and has continued to shrink — Graham estimates that last year’s budget was in the region of £200,000. Today, the owner of a listed building can apply to the Roof and Window Repair scheme. This offers a maximum grant of £6,000, although thatched properties can be awarded double that. These piddling sums won’t cover the cost of meaningful repairs, especially when many projects require the expertise of specialist craftsmen. As Graham observes: “It’s not even a sticking plaster… Given the cost of everything with inflation, you’d barely get one or two windows done for that.”

Money isn’t the only problem. Foot-dragging developers present a serious threat to Belfast’s built heritage. The issue is exemplified by the Tribeca project, an urban renewal scheme designed to regenerate one of the city centre’s most dilapidated areas, a site of nearly 12 acres that contains a number of handsome Victorian buildings. Tribeca’s promotional video, two minutes of cod-poetic corporate guff voiced by Jamie Dornan, is slick and dead. The same appears true of Tribeca itself. Belfast City Council signed off on the scheme in January 2020, but nothing has happened since. The developers behind Tribeca, Castlebrooke Investments, have said that they are still trying to deliver a “commercially viable development”, and recently applied for a renewal of their planning application.

“Foot-dragging developers present a serious threat to Belfast’s built heritage.”

Meanwhile, the area has decayed further. Large stretches are dominated by empty shops, crumbling buildings and blank oblongs of scrub. Such dereliction leads to a decline in footfall, which in turn makes it considerably more difficult for the businesses that have managed to cling on. Graham singles out Keats and Chapman, a legendary second-hand bookshop on North Street, as an example of a business that has survived against the odds: “It’s the most beautiful array of books. But [people think] North Street, oh, it’s vacant, it’s all empty. You wouldn’t go near the place. Those wee independent businesses have really suffered from that, they’ve been the victim of this land banking.”

What’s bad for business is worse for historic buildings. The Assembly Rooms, built in 1769 and expanded in 1776, is arguably Belfast’s oldest public building. Sitting at the corner of Waring Street and North Street, this stuccoed Georgian pile presides over the “Four Corners”, the place from which all milestones from Belfast were once measured. Henry Joy McCracken and other leaders of the United Irishmen were court-martialled here in 1798. In later years it was used as a bank, before falling into disuse in 2000. Tribeca’s plans to turn the Assembly Rooms into a boutique hotel have failed to materialise. Now it lies derelict, its stained and peeling frontage nothing more than a home for weeds. Campaigners have called on Belfast City Council to intervene.

If such an intervention comes, it will be at odds with a prevailing culture of inertia. Graham is sympathetic to the challenges faced by Belfast City Council, who already have responsibility for a large number of important and vulnerable buildings. But something must be done to save unique places like the Assembly Rooms and the Crumlin Road Courthouse. The answer is certainly not more legislation. A proposed dilapidation bill doesn’t excite Graham: “We’ve already got the legislation but we’re not using it, so why bring in more legislation if no one’s going to enforce it?” He points out that compulsory purchase orders to preserve built heritage have been on the books for years. Yet these powers have only been used once — back in 2007.

The bill will be introduced by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA). This complicates matters. “DAERA have no say in historical built fabric, that’s Department for Communities. So we’ll have councils, we have the DfC, we’ll have DAERA… it’s a split responsibility and no one’s going to tackle the issue, no one’s going to grasp it. And you wait another 10 years and nothing has changed.” Graham likens the situation to an awkward dance, with boys on one side of the room and girls on the other, both groups refusing to take action.

But turning up to a dance is never enough; at some point you have to cross the floor. This is something that both Stormont and local government have consistently failed to do. Although Graham says that these issues are finally being discussed by politicians, it’s clear that the time for talk has passed. The collapse of the Executive between 2017-2020 and 2022-2024, combined with the disruption of Covid, has meant that built heritage has been all but ignored by Stormont for years. Many irreplaceable buildings in Belfast — and Northern Ireland — will not survive another sustained period of neglect. A case in point is Hilden Linen Mill, a large and beautiful building ripe for redevelopment, which was gutted by a suspected arson attack last week.

Buildings such as the Crumlin Road Courthouse and the Assembly Rooms are physical expressions of the city’s history. To lose them through indifference is a confession of sorts; a depressing admission that cultural amnesia might not be so bad after all. If that seems a little abstract, then there are more pragmatic reasons to preserve Belfast’s historic fabric. At a time when local government, architects, and developers are consumed by questions of sustainability, it makes sense to repurpose existing structures rather than replace them with new buildings, some of which will be replaced in turn within a few short decades. This regeneration would benefit practitioners of traditional building skills, and provide a stimulus for more young people to learn these important crafts. Tourism is a consideration, too — few visitors to Northern Ireland come for the new-build apartment buildings and plate-glass office blocks.

As Graham says, “There needs to be greater impetus and greater incentives to make use of the historic built fabric because it’s here, it’s ready for use. It might be in bad shape but it’s the morally right thing to do and it’s the environmentally better thing to do. And that can then transform those areas that have been neglected over time.”

It is depressing that such pleas have to be made at all. Very little appears to have changed since Brett’s time. If anything, the state of Northern Ireland’s built heritage seems worse than ever before. There is little government money and no government action. A small number of passionate people do what they can against Stormont’s indifference; few believe next month’s election will change anything. As a parting shot, I ask what Brett would make of the current situation. Graham’s mouth tightens into a wry smile. “I don’t think he’d be too impressed.”


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Buck Rodgers
Buck Rodgers
7 days ago

I wish I knew, definitively, whether there really is no public money left or if it’s being siphoned off by corrupt officials.

Peter B
Peter B
6 days ago
Reply to  Buck Rodgers

Well, we do know that £100s of millions have gone into the Bloody Sunday enquiry. And billions from the UK taxpayer over the decades. As ever, it’s about priorities.

Thomas Pinder
Thomas Pinder
7 days ago

Excellent article. I live in Edmonton, Canada and there is a similiar apathy among the government but also more worryingly the population as a whole.

David B
David B
6 days ago

Good article; and it is not just Belfast – most towns in NI have derelict historic buildings left to rot away. Sadly there does not seem to be much prospect of the situation changing in the forseeable future.

Jeff Dudgeon
Jeff Dudgeon
6 days ago

The big problem is purpose exemplified by Belfast city council buying up much of the main street, Royal Avenue, for ‘meantime’ activities.
Retail, office blocks, hotels and student residences came and went as options.
Apartments are all that’s left although the Assembly Rooms would make an excellent municipal art gallery. Sadly council wants another ‘Belfast story’.

Last edited 6 days ago by Jeff Dudgeon
Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
6 days ago

All civilizations leave ruins when history passes them by.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
1 day ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Not ours, man. We’ll pull them down first. What do we owe to posterity? Lately we’ve shown that we neither want nor deserve them.

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
3 days ago

As somebody who worked in Belfast in the 90s when the areas mentioned were thriving much more than now (though dereliction was a problem even then), I think the planner’s biggest mistake was allowing the Victoria Square retail centre to be built where it is.
The original idea was to redevelop the area where this nonsensical ‘Tribeca’ project is now proposed into additional retail space. The bigger stores & local specialist shops could have co-existed side by side.

Truth is, there’s only ever so much money to go round & Victoria Sq has sucked all the retail out of the original retail areas. It’s been replaced by empty buildings & associated social problems.

Building more student flats & offices won’t fix that.