Dealing with derelict buildings could transform our streets for the better

Derelict buildings are so much of a concern in Northern Ireland that millions of pounds have been spent on fake shop-fronts to hide the issue, with the added benefit that cameras here for the Giro d’Italia in 2014 didn’t catch sight of our dirty linen swinging in the breeze.

In a way Belfast has previous for for this: just have a look through the windows of the mock frontage added to the row of houses at University Street (University Road end) decades before the current scheme brought the likes of a pretend record shop to the Lower Newtownards Road and a two-dimensional blacksmith shop to Ballyclare.

It is a surprise, then, that a step towards tackling the problem at its root, through an invite from Mark Durkan for views on possible legislation, didn’t make more of a splash in the media.

Consider a town like – say – Ballyclare, where until fairly recently traders had to do business between huge, abandoned retail units believed locally to be to work of owners ’sitting’ on the eyesores until the price is right to sell. Some have been now been removed but some remain, covered by fake shop-fronts.

Similarly, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir sumed up the effect vacant sites have on other traders and has spoken in support of legislative change: “Developers are sitting on these key city centre sites, some of which have been lying vacant for seven or eight years. Some of them pay no rates on them.

“The Sirocco Works, for example, is a key city centre site of around 16 acres which is lying derelict with no rates paid on it, whereas someone with an empty shoe shop has to pay more.

“There needs to be some incentive to encourage regeneration and encourage developers to bring the sites back into use. If there’s no incentive they will just continue to sit on the empty sites rather than do anything with them.

“The rates burden is high here, but if we share it around those in control of large, key, vacant sites, it would be fairer for everyone.”

Máirtín added that steps to should be taken to ensure that buildings cannot simply have their roof tiles removed as a measure to avoid paying rates. He also pointed out that commercial buildings are often owned by banks who should be made to pay their way using a sliding scale based on the size of the property.

The recently-launched consultation itself states that the effects of derelict buildings on those who have to live around them are “many and varied”, including: disease and other health effects, both physical and mental, potential for increased anti-social behaviour, loss of amenity (including visual amenity), effects on property value, danger to the public and impact on tourism as well as inward investment.


There are a disturbing number of derelict buildings in Belfast, of course, which could be seen as a symptom of ‘land-banking’, involving developers buying buildings and allowing them to fall into disrepair so that the developer might cite health and safety as a reason for eventual demolition/partial demolition, the act of demolition being prohibited at the time of purchase.

Given the thankfully surprising number of old buildings surviving in Belfast (and beyond) – despite the efforts of the Luftwaffe, our own Troubles and wrecking ball-happy developers – the question is now what what should be done with them, especially if new legislation forces the hand of owners.

Most of us will be aware of the rush to demolish buildings in areas such as the rear of Belfast Central Library. But is it in Belfast’s interests to lose yet more historic buildings when the technology exists to utilise them?

Do tourists come to Belfast to look at our apartment blocks? Can we develop the Belfast we want while retaining the Belfast we know?

While I’ll leave the finer points of planning strategy to those closer to the subject – my interest is in knowing that Belfast is progressing without throwing the baby out with the bathwater – one suggestion would be that of vesting dilapidated buildings. This has been seen once in Northern Ireland at Sion Stables in Sion Mills to apparently great effect.

If long-term abandoned buildings were to be taken on, on our behalf, in this way and sold on for refurbishment then surely this would set the alarm bells ringing for developers who otherwise would rather see their derelict assets rot to the point where they might legally bulldoze them?


Mark Durkan’s consultation identifies that more robust cost recovery, wider powers and improved clarity is needed around the subject, with the four suggested options being: 1, Do nothing; 2, new guidance produced for councils; 3, a new Assembly bill based on existing legislation or; 4, a new Assembly Bill bringing a new, broader enforcement regime.

One look at the derelict buildings hidden from view with false shop-fronts can tell us that we have applied a sticking-plaster over a significant issue. And a five minute conversation with almost any town/ city centre trader will tell us that help with the rates burden is urgently needed.

As millions of pounds spent on fake shopfronts would suggest that doing nothing is not an option, steps to take the issue in hand could, it seems, change the face of our streets for the better.

* Written in conjunction with the @belfast_revival campaign , which was established earlier this year to support efforts to Save the Sunflower bar and provide a discussion point for those concerned about the loss of Belfast’s identity to new-build developments. Disclosure: C Johnston has contributed to the Belfast Revival blog and website.


  • whatif1984true

    Weaning councils off rates is nigh impossible. One step at a time could be the rates reductions of specific streets for X years to test the waters. If Rates take in that area shows a growth then expand the idea. Doing something is surely better than nothing.

  • Slater

    Daft to blame developers. If there was profitable purpose for building on those sites do you think people would just sit on them?
    We need to face up to the fact that the internet is making shops redundant and that is the way it will be.

  • aquifer

    Taxing empty sites and buildings is a key way to drive development. It is unfair that small businesses here are now paying much higher rates than England.

  • aquifer

    Allowing businesses a rates reduction for buildings for sale at a set multiple of the rating capital value would help promote site assembly and cheaper development.

  • Reader

    So set up a 16/7 Amazon pickup point.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “If there was profitable purpose for building on those sites do you think people would just sit on them?”

    It’s well known that developers like to sit on protected properties so that some day they might deteriorate to the point where they can be deemed ‘unsafe’ and then knocked down.

    It’s happening at present in Garfield st and as for the nearby Royal Exchange, well, it’s no wonder that people are suspicious of that carry-on e.g. developers buy an iconic building with a view to turning it into a car park and it mysteriously burns itself to the ground with the help of 6-7 incendiary charges.

    Look how many old city centre buildings are owned by developers yet look how few are advertised for rent, it’s hardly a leap of the imagination to suppose that many of them are not interested in renting out to shops but are biding their time till they can demolish the building and erect flats.

  • Am Ghobsmacht
  • Barneyt

    It feels like something we can manage better with legislation. I would extend this to the domestic market too. There are too many delapidated properties around, falling into disrepair through complete abandonment. The property should be cleared or restored to the same standard as others in the area.

    I am all in favour of a three strikes policy that may result in the confiscation of the property if it is not managed and maintained. Such properties would be siezed and a defined period coupled wiht sufficient warnings and handed over with funding to local contruction training schools. The number of apprenticeships this could spawn would be significant, guessing perhaps 10 per house. The house could be sold, no doubt for profit. Opportunities could arise for training in the marketing and selling of the home. The original funding could be restored to the authority and the surplus invested in the siezure and apprenticeship scheme. This may seem like a red under the bed scheme for many (and I did run away with myself)…..or some damned pinko liberal initiative…ah maybe so.

    Building of significance within our towns surely deserve some level of protection that ensure the buildings are maintained. They can be repurposed through the planning application process……oh I hear you YAWN! or Tut!!!

    Of course this assumes we have competent governmental departments and authorities that can control this and take measures that are apt.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “Building of significance within our towns surely deserve some level of protection that ensure the buildings are maintained. They can be repurposed through the planning application process……oh I hear you YAWN! or Tut!!!”

    Absolutely Barney.

    Nice buildings help make a place.