Northern Ireland

Digital advertising screen in historic Belfast 'like putting fishnets and a miniskirt on an old lady,' says councillor

A new digital screen is to be erected at Arthur Street in Belfast's Cornmarket area.
A new digital screen is to be erected at Arthur Street in Belfast's Cornmarket area. A new digital screen is to be erected at Arthur Street in Belfast's Cornmarket area.

A PLAN to erect a large digital advertising screen in the historic Cornmarket area of Belfast City Centre has been described as “putting fishnets and a miniskirt on an old lady”.

At the November monthly meeting of Belfast City Council's Planning Committee, members were asked to approve a three-and-a-half year planning permission application for an “active facade to facilitate the display of internally illuminated moving images” at 1-3 Arthur Street Belfast BT1, home to Starbucks Coffee. The applicant is Alterity Investments Limited of Annadale Avenue, Belfast.

Last month Sinn Féin and the DUP went against advice at the Planning Committee, and got the application approved with 12 votes, against five votes from other parties opposed to the application.

Council officers had recommended the application for refusal and described the display as “unsympathetic” given its proximity to four listed buildings. The plan was also opposed by the Department for Communities' Historic Environment Division.

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The approval was given by a majority vote, with permission for five years and the condition that there would be a review on the impact of the digital screen after three years.

However, the application returned to the Planning Committee this month as council officers said they had legal concerns with the three-year review. The council report states: “There is no clear means to require removal of the signage after year three should the signage be found to be unacceptable.

“Possibly, the only recourse would be for the council to apply to formally revoke the temporary consent at that point, however, that is a complex and involved process, which also potentially involves compensation to the applicant.

“Normally, reviews to test the impact of a proposal take place at the end of the temporary permission period. Accordingly, the officer’s advice to the committee is that the temporary permission should be for three and a half years rather than five years.”

At the committee meeting, Alliance councillor Tara Brooks said: “I was hoping to propose we reverse the previous decision. I was on leave last month and was quite shocked that this was passed. I am suggesting that to limit the damage of this sign that we only give one year’s permission.

“The best analogy I can think of is that this square is one of the most intact areas showing Belfast at its Victorian best. It is like a dignified old lady. And putting a screen here is like putting fishnets and a miniskirt on the old lady.

“In a different situation, the fishnets and miniskirt may be entirely appropriate, but I think here it completely detracts from the dignity of the old lady that is these lovely old buildings.”

The City Solicitor Nora Largey said she believed Councillor Brooks' amendment was “not competent” and the committee subsequently approved the digital screen. In a vote, 14 elected members from Sinn Féin and the DUP supported the screen, three voted against, and two abstained.