Hotels entrepreneur insists: 'I'm not into battling Council'

Lawrence Kenwright (left) shakes hands with SIPTU organiser Niall McNally over an agreement on workers' rights. Photo: Cliff Donaldson
Gary McDonald, Business Editor

HOTELS entrepreneur Lawrence Kenwright says he might walk away from Belfast because he insists he's "not into battles with councils".

The boss of the Liverpool-based Signature Living Hotels Group - which last year posted a profit of nearly £6 million on £14 million of sales - has pledged around £80 million to four redevelopment schemes in Belfast.

But earlier this month, in a strongly-worded letter to Belfast City Council, he threatened to withdraw half of that capital because his plans had turned into "a living nightmare".

And yesterday Kenwright (53) reinforced his belief that the "different standards" towards planning in Britain and Northern Ireland was continuing to frustrate him.

"I'm here to open hotels, not to do battle with the likes of Belfast City Council," he told the Irish News.

"We're experts on resurrecting old sites like the Crumlin Road Gaol, investing our millions, and bringing them back to life.

"But given the way things are being played out right now with the Council, can we redevelop that scheme? Not a chance."

Kenwright, who with his wife Katie has just incorporated a new company called Harrington Street Hotel Limited, was speaking at a press conference at the way-behind-schedule George Best Hotel in the former Scottish Mutual building.

It was originally due to open in the summer and provide jobs for 150 people, but that date was twice pushed back, and it is still unlikely to open before March.

"We're trying hard, and we're down to just a couple of planning issues with the Council, but it'll happen," added Kenwright, who is also behind a 43-room hotel on Waring Street (which remains in dispute with the Council over height issues) and who has also identified Belfast's Floral Hall as the location for a possible fourth hotel in the city.

He signed off on a deal with the SIPTU union where he agreed that his future workers in Northern Ireland will have their collective bargaining rights recognised, will not be employed on zero hour contracts and will be paid a minimum £9 an hour living wage.

He said: “Signature Living is committed to being an excellent employer and protecting the rights of people in the workplace. We've banned zero hour contracts to give people peace of mind and security at work and are aiming to be a real living wage employer.

“We're not a typical hospitality company because we aren't just motivated by making money. We are a company that has a clear social conscience – we see staff as the backbone of our success.

“Our workforce always has been - and will remain - one of our key priorities and, as we expand into new territories such as Belfast, we thought it was only right that we aligned with SIPTU to ensure we are offering the best terms and conditions. It's the right thing to do.”

SIPTU regional organiser Niall McNally, said: “In a sector where nearly three in four workers in Northern Ireland are paid below the living wage, it's a breath of fresh air to see a company such as Signature Living move to ensure good working conditions for its employees.

“It recognises the key role the voice of workers, as expressed through their union, plays in ensuring a secure, fair and equitable workplace which allows both the business and workforce to prosper, and is the first hotel group to invite in a union.

“Its commitment to ban zero-hour contracts, guarantee working hours and pay as a minimum the living wage, will result in secure employment for all its workers.”

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