Belfast councillors pressing for answers around decision not to have Xmas switch-on

SDLP Councillor Carl Whyte
Michael Kenwood

Belfast councillors from across the political divide have been pressing council officers to produce a report explaining a decision to no longer have a Christmas Tree countdown and light switch-on in the city centre.

At the recent full meeting of Belfast City Council, a number of elected representatives highlighted the public outcry against the decision made by officers on “health and safety” grounds.  The countdown and switch-on was last performed in front of City Hall in 2018.

This year the council spread the city lights switch-on across the city, with music and lighting and animation at various venues. There was a stage set up on Donegall Place on the night of the switch-on, and 2 Royal Avenue has become a new venue for Christmas events.

SDLP Councillor Carl Whyte told the chamber: “There was a discussion regarding an internal report on health on safety reasons why this couldn’t happen. It had happened pre-Covid.

“There was an assurance in the last meeting that there will be a report brought back early next year about why that was, and if this could be revisited the following year. I want it emphasised at this meeting that we get that report back, that this is properly looked at, and it isn’t all just on the nod.”

He added: “I was surprised by the number of people that raised it with me. It is something people in this city genuinely look forward to, from all parts of the city and all backgrounds.”

Sinn Féin Councillor Ronan McLaughlin said: “I would like to see in this report the health and safety advice that was actually given to the council. Secondly the director said there was a lot of engagement with business on this – however, when this went public, a lot of businesses said they hadn’t been contacted by us. So I would like to see in the report the consultation carried out.”

DUP Councillor Tracey Kelly said: “I have had a lot of constituents contacting me, asking why there was no official tree switch-on, and that we seemed to be able to manage it in other parts of Northern Ireland.”

Alliance Councillor Michael Long said: “I asked one of my staff who went along to the alternative event, and I won’t use the word they used to describe it – they didn’t feel it was really as good as what we used to have in terms of lighting the tree. But they were very positive about 2 Royal Avenue.”

At the council’s most recent meeting of its City Growth and Regeneration Committee a council officer gave a brief explanation for the decision. He said: “The feedback we received to that activity was that it raised significant health and safety concerns – that was provided by colleagues from our Health and Safety Unit, about how we manage that space, about access and egress, how we control the crowd, and in particular when they disperse on the roadway.

“As well as that we received significant feedback from businesses and traders in the city who said they experienced challenges regarding access, parking and traffic, and in some sense it acted as a potential distraction during the busiest time of the year.”