Belfast city councillors have voiced common concern over the failure of Belfast City Council to halt work on a security perimeter being built around the Chinese Consulate on the Malone Road. And SDLP representative Gary McKeown says it's now vital the British Government intervene in the ongoing row after claims that the work will enjoy diplomatic immunity.
A large metal boundary structure has been erected around the famed Louis MacNeice House — without planning permission — for “diplomatic privacy and special security”, says the Chinese Consulate spokesperson.
However, furious residents in nearby Adelaide Park have voiced their concerns that the wall breaches the area's planning protections as a Conservation Area.
Belfast City Council say the building work is subject to a current planning enforcement investigation but it has refused to order a halt to construction.
Said Botanic representative Gary McKeown said: "The people of South Belfast are looking on in dismay as construction work continues at this landmark location, without planning permission, in an area of distinct historical character.
"However, this issue isn't just one of planning at this particular site - it is one of international significance which goes to the heart of diplomatic relations. The government must intervene to ensure that work at MacNeice House stops and the planning process is followed.
Amnesty International visited the Chinese Consulate in Belfast last year on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. You can see the hedge before the consulate uprooted it. pic.twitter.com/7bJX4J5Uke— Patrick Corrigan (@PatrickCorrigan) April 25, 2020
"A line needs to be drawn or it sends a message that nothing will be done to stop other unauthorised work at properties under consular control, even listed ones, including bulldozing them to the ground. There is a clear and unambiguous obligation on diplomatic missions to seek appropriate planning permission from local authorities, and the Foreign Secretary's consent to land being used for consular purposes is subject to this.
"This means that ultimately the community may have to rely on the government to ensure that the planning process is followed, so they must step in instead of leaving it to the people of Belfast to pick up the pieces."
The SDLP man said the Council should issue a Stop Notice on the site.
"While I believe the council should still proceed as normal in this case and issue a Stop Notice on the ongoing works, for the people of the area and the city more widely to have a real hope of a positive outcome, the Government must play its part, especially with the issue of diplomatic immunity casting a shadow over the case.
"Other consulates in Belfast, including the nearby Polish Consulate, have sought and secured planning permission for work at their premises in the past, so there is a clear precedent for diplomatic missions adhering to the local planning process. There is no more time to waste. Action must be taken now, as significant work has already been done and all the signs are that it will continue unless there is an intervention."
Meanwhile Botanic Sinn Féin Councillor John Gormley has also criticised the building works.
"Council officers tell me they believe that an action against the Consulate would be difficult to pursue through the Courts, as the Consulate may claim Diplomatic Immunity from any legal prosecution," he said. " However, the Attorney-General has advised that the Council has a duty to exercise its powers and responsibilities in relation to planning even if believes that the Consulate may ultimately claim Diplomatic Immunity from any enforcement."
Nevertheless, the Council has refused to issue a stop order. "They tell me they prefer instead to conduct a behind-the-scenes 'enforcement investigation'. However, residents see no end in sight to that investigation and in the meantime the Consulate has continued with the unapproved building work non-stop over the last 12 weeks."
The Sinn Féin man added: “I received a call from residents on Tuesday morning to say that a lorry was about to pour its load of concrete into a newly-dug trench at the boundary of the Consulate. When I arrived, residents expressed deep anger to me that the completion of this trench is damaging the adjacent trees and harming their long term stability. They are at a loss to understand how building works involving lorry-loads of concrete can take place without planning permission."
Cllr Gormley says the Consulate should be treated the same way as every other planning applicant.
“I support calls by residents for all building works at the Consulate to cease until a planning application is submitted, fully discussed and approved. That’s the process which all residents of Belfast are subject to and it should be no different in this case. The planning process is meant to be transparent and to give all concerned an opportunity to express their views. Clearly, this is not happening at present and the situation is only getting worse with every passing day as the unauthorised building works continue.”
Out homepage photo shows workmen digging a trench beside the car park in the grounds of Louis MacNeice in order to erect a barrier between the Consulate and local homes.