Licensing laws 'costing Belfast millions'

The former RUC station in Queen Street is set to become the 78-bedroom Hotel Marquis. Picture by Mal McCann
Gareth McKeown

THE business partners behind a proposed £7 million Belfast boutique hotel claim the city is missing out on millions of pounds of investment due to archaic licensing laws.

André Graham and Seamus Sweeney, the former owners of the Kremlin nightclub, believe a relaxation in the current laws in Northern Ireland would act as a catalyst for growth.

At present the sale of alcohol in licensed premises in the north is restricted to 1am - earlier than other areas of the UK - while at Easter there is reduced opening hours from Easter Thursday through to Sunday.

Mr Graham believes the restrictive licensing laws, which cannot be changed due to a lack of a Stormont Executive, act as an anchor on growth.

"The greatest thing holding back Northern Ireland, especially Belfast city, is the trading and licensing hours," he said.

"If you look at alcohol licensing laws that's really a very small part of the economy, but what it generates is huge.

"It affects the shopping, hotels, restaurants, it just affects the whole service industry. The alcohol portion is only a small part, but what it affects is far, far larger. If you change that one thing in the environment, things will change, and I've seen that."

"Our interest is a hotel, so we want more people to come here. The greatest thing I see that's hindering that and can be fixed relatively quickly and easily and is not a political hot potato is the licensing and trading hours," Mr Graham continued.

The business duo, who run Big Top Productions, which also includes serviced apartments in Glasgow, are behind proposals for the new 78-bedroom Hotel Marquis on Queen Street at the site of the former RUC station.

The plans for the hotel, named after the neighbouring Marquis Street, are currently out for consultation, with a public information event held last month.

Upon the conclusion of this process a planning application for the listed building is due to be submitted in mid-March, with the hope that Belfast's latest hotel could be open for Christmas 2020.

If granted approval the boutique hotel is set to house a four-star French restaurant and feature a Parisien-inspired courtyard to be known as the Orangery.

Once complete the total investment from Big Top is expected to run close to £7m, while the hotel could create as many as 40 jobs.

When asked if there were reservations about opening a boutique hotel in the city centre, given the plethora of additions to the local market in the last year, Mr Graham is insistent the demand is there.

"All the analysis that I have seen means we're still going to be under-bedded here. And if the licensing laws change we will be really under-bedded, because there will be a huge influx," he said.

Looking further ahead the Belfast-based company has earmarked UK-wide growth within the accommodation sector, while the pair have not ruled out a return to the pub and club industry in the north, almost five years on from the sale of the Kremlin.

However, such a return would hinge upon a change to the licensing status-quo.

"We see great opportunity there, but we're not going to move there until the licensing changes. Licensing changes and we will be back, as will a lot of people," Mr Graham added.

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