Northern Ireland news

Belfast's Chinese Consulate 'ring of steel' raised with Foreign Office

A large metal fence erected at the Chinese Consulate on Malone Road in Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell
Brendan Hughes

THE row over a metal wall erected by the Chinese Consulate in south Belfast has been raised with the British foreign office.

Officials in the government department have been contacted by Belfast City Council about the issue, The Irish News understands.

The 'ring of steel' around the consular building on Malone Road has been branded an "eyesore" after it was constructed in recent weeks without planning permission.

There are concerns the consulate may seek to ignore planning rules by claiming diplomatic immunity.

Belfast City Council said it understands the wall, which replaced a hedgerow, is "temporary".

A planning enforcement investigation has been launched, and council and roads officials are seeking further information.

The consulate had submitted plans in May last year to build an almost 10-feet-high boundary wall, but the application was later withdrawn.

It showed plans for a block wall with a reinforced concrete base and topped with concrete coping, metal railings and razor wire.

It is understood the Foreign Office has helped support dialogue between the council and consulate in the hope of reaching a satisfactory resolution.

The council declined to confirm whether it had been in touch with the Foreign Office.

A spokesman said: "The works at the Chinese Consulate are the subject of a current planning enforcement investigation which is active and ongoing.

"At this stage we cannot provide any further information as it could impact on the investigation which is seeking to resolve the issues that have been raised to the council."

The Foreign Office declined to comment.

But in a statement yesterday, the Chinese Consulate said: "The works being carried out were both notified to the UK government and the authorities in NI, including the detailed specifications of the works."

The affluent Malone Road area is a planning conservation zone in which development must meet stricter rules to be in-keeping with its existing architectural character.

The Chinese Consulate is based at MacNeice House, a listed building which dates from 1889.

It was once the residence of poet Louis MacNeice's father, who lived there as a bishop of the Church of Ireland.

In the 1940s it was Aquinas Hall, which housed Catholic female students from Queen's University.

When the building was vacated by the Arts Council in 2015, it was listed for sale at £3.5m.

Stormont's Department for Communities said structures within the curtilage of a listed building often require 'listed building consent' and may also need planning permission.

A spokeswoman said its Historic Environment Division advised the council that the fencing is "contrary to policy as it detracts from the quality and character of the setting of the listed building".

Alliance councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown has said many residents are "furious" about the metal structure, branding it an "eyesore in a conservation area".

SDLP councillor Gary McKeown said: "The planning system is in place for a reason, and any individual or organisation doing construction work should adhere to it."

Last year, a resident sought court action against the council for allegedly failing to issue an enforcement notice over noise from an extractor fan at the consulate.

The High Court heard no formal steps were taken because representatives at the consulate had claimed diplomatic immunity.

The case is expected to progress to a full judicial review hearing this year.

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