Pressure mounts on Chinese Consulate over Malone Road 'ring of steel'

The large metal fence at the Chinese Consulate on Malone Road in Belfast, and inset, the wall and hedgerow that existed before the unauthorised works.
Paul Ainsworth

PRESSURE is mounting on Belfast City Council to act on concerns over a metal boundary wall that has been erected at the Chinese Consulate in Belfast without planning permission.

The structure at the Malone Road building, situated at the heart of a planning conservation zone, was erected last week and replaces a hedgerow that separated the grounds of the consulate from the pavement.

The consulate is based in the historic MacNeice House, which dates from 1889 and is the former home of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

The Victorian villa was also once the home of the father of Belfast-born poet Louis MacNeice, and in the 1940s became Aquinas Hall, which housed Catholic female students from Queen's University. Among its former residents is former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie, who lived there in her first year of studying.

The Irish News revealed on Saturday that the recently erected fence had caused outrage among residents who have dubbed it an "eyesore".

Belfast City Council said the fence was "temporary" and council officials were consulting with consulate staff to "obtain further information on the nature and reasoning for the works".

The Department for Infrastructure has also said it is engaging with the consulate over the work, as it must be consulted over construction which impacts roads or pavements.

It is understood that a previous planning application to build a similar metal wall with razor wire at the site was withdrawn by the consulate last year.

It is understood there are concerns the consulate could seek to ignore planning rules by claiming diplomatic immunity.

There was a legal wrangle last year at the consulate last year after a man living beside building complained the council allegedly failed to take enforcement action over noise from an extractor fan.

No formal steps were taken because representatives at the offices had claimed diplomatic immunity, a court heard. The case is expected to

progress to a full judicial review hearing this year.

SDLP councillor Séamas de Faoite added his voice to those of concerned politicians.

In a tweet he said: "The Chinese Consulate in Belfast should be mindful they don’t end up with a reputation of being difficult towards Belfast City Council."

Green Party councillor for Lisnasharragh, Brian Smyth, said more clarity on the issue was needed.

"I’ve been engaging with Belfast City Council on this matter," he said.

"The concerns raised by a number of local people must be listened to. Process has to be followed and I’ve stressed that in my discussions with council officers."

Students receive PPE from staff at the Chinese Consulate in Belfast on Sunday. Picture by Mal McCann.

Meanwhile, staff at the consulate handed out PPE equipment to members of the Chinese community at the consulate headquarters at the weekend. Demand for PPE has intensified as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and a number of medical students were among those seen queueing at the building on Sunday to receive packages containing PPE and other items.

No-one from the consulate was available for comment when contacted yesterday by the Irish News.

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