The Boal Car Parking Dispute with Belfast City Airport Sums up what is so wrong with the NI Economy

Only in Northern Ireland could a situation be allowed to arise where a private car park operator using a purpose built multi story car park, to run a car parking business is found to be in breach of planning law and is to be shut down because it is the ‘wrong type’ of car parking.

Most ‘normal’ people in Northern Ireland think this decision is unfair, lacking in common sense, illogical, and goes against consumer interests.

Northern Ireland is part of the UK and is meant to be a liberal democracy, very much like our sister nations in England, Wales, Scotland and Republic of Ireland. Sadly we now have more in common with basket case nations such as Greece and Venezuela as a direct result of the continued rejection of free market economics by our elected political representatives who are in turn supported by our civil servants.

One of the hallmarks of the free market is the ability for spare economic capacity to be utilised in reaction to of increased demand for goods and services, this is a key part of how an nation achieves economic growth, something Northern Ireland has struggled to achieve for years. This week the OECD confirmed the Irish Republic achieved in 2014, 4.8% economic growth, Britain 2.6% and prior to this the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment confirmed that Northern Ireland achieved 1.6% during the same period. One does not need to be an Economist to recognise that something is going badly wrong in NI that we cannot achieve the same growth of the rest of the UK and are unable to come anywhere close to the performance of a neighbouring nation to which we are physically attached and is our closest trading partner.

Only last week Gerry Adams was on TV arguing that Northern Ireland is a special case and deserves greater welfare benefits compared with the rest of the UK and Irish Republic. This view is nonsense, the key reason Northern Ireland fails to achieve real economic growth year after year, is due to the contempt, distrust and perceived threat of the private sector by the public sector which has resulted in the private strangled being strangled by red tape, excessive taxes such as business rates  as well as the continued support of protected industries by politicians who are in turn heavily influenced by lobbyists.

Take the Boal Parking case, a business set up four years ago, in the case by an entrepreneur who notices that Belfast City Airport is abusing its monopoly positon and charging extortionate fees for use of its car parking services to customers of the Airlines. Boal manages to strike a deal with Ikea to utilise the underutilised top floor of its car park to provide an cheaper alternative for Northern Ireland consumers operating from a purpose built multi storey car parking facility. The business is successful and there is sufficient demand for it to trade, economic activity is  created resulting in the creation of local employment, taxes, business rates and ultimately an increased number of airport passengers, life is good for the consumer and the Northern Ireland economy.

Belfast City Airport however feels aggrieved and throws everything it has at its disposal to have the business shut down so it can protect its monopoly position. The one thing the airport does not do is cut its pricing to become more competitive and undercut Boal. It eventually finds a planning loophole that confirms that the ‘original’ car park planning permission was for ‘ancillary parking’ to a retail store and not ‘the trade’ of operating a car park in its own right. The planners and politicians come down in favour of the airport and give notice that Boal parking must be shut down. Meanwhile across Northern Ireland, Shopping Centres and councils are erecting car park barriers and installing payment machines in car parks that are also ‘ancillary’ to retail and ‘office’ trades  i.e. establishing ‘car parking’ trades that generate significant revenue for their property investment businesses, in most cases without any revisions to existing planning permissions and not a word is said by anybody. The only beneficiary I can see in the Boal car parking dispute is Dublin Airport who are much cheaper not only for car parking but flights, a great result for the DAA I feel.

For me this yet again highlights the problems that the private sector faces in moving their businesses forward as the public sector through a combination of self-preservation and incompetence, applies  layer upon layer of red tape and costs on private sector businesses creating economic conditions that the rest of the UK or ROI does not have to put up with and stalls our economic growth.

The people of Northern Ireland have frankly had enough of this nonsense. We deserve a government that functions in the interests of the Northern Ireland people.


  • 23×7

    Yawn…yet another article bashing the public sector.

    This is actually two private businesses fighting one another is it not?

  • Catcher in the Rye

    This is a fairly open and shut matter – it is illegal under planning rules to repurpose a commercial building in this way.

    Ridiculous as cases like this may seem, the planning system is there to prevent abuse. You cannot justify bypassing the planning system because doing so creates jobs or pays rates.

    Had the story been about Boal being denied planning permission then it would be a lot more serious. As it stands, the sad fact is that Boal wasn’t playing by the rules and has been pulled up for it.

  • Newton Emerson

    Not exactly. The Planning Service recommended Boal for approval for change of use in Feb 2012, only for Belfast City Council to block the recommendation after Cllr Adam Newton (no relation) – who later admitted being lobbied by Belfast City Airport – raised the separate issue of ‘identifying need’.
    Then in November 2012, after meeting the airport, the Planning Service reversed its recommendation.

  • Mister_Joe

    If the parking needs to be ancillary to the retail business, would it become legal if all users bought a lollipop provided by IKEA? No charge for my free legal suggestion.

  • Mister_Joe

    You must have missed the part about the Government Planners initially approving but then rescinding permission for the enterprise.

  • 23×7

    What I missed was any clear explanation of why planning was rescinded other than a conspiracy theory.
    You must have missed where the author has used a minor planning dispute to slag of the entire public sector.

  • Mister_Joe

    That’s fair enough. When I worked in N.I. I had frequent dealings with people working for the public service and I invariably found them to be a hardworking bunch.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    If I’m interpreting you right, there was no planning decision until some time after November 2012 which would have been in line with the Planning Service’s opposition to the change of use by that time.

    Then the right course of action was for Boal to highlight this dodgy behaviour and call for an inquiry, rather than go ahead and start his parking business without planning permission hoping he’d get away with it.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    According to Newton they did not “initially approve”. They initially recommended approval.

  • Newton Emerson

    No, Boal started trading in 2011 on the (not unreasonable) assumption that it could run a car park in a car park.
    After the saga I set out above had concluded in Nov 2012, Boal lodged a planning appeal.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    The fact is that Boal wasn’t aware of the detail of the planning legislation on this matter. That does not mean that the infraction should be overlooked.

    The specific problem appears to be that the DRD’s definition of “need” in the context is rather flimsy and appears to deal only with the capacity of the airport carpark, not the question of whether as a monopoly it is providing value for money.

    There’s a clear argument that the ambiguity on planning policy is flawed and is facilitating a monopoly here, and I think that’s where attention should be focused rather than populist talk about bonkers bureaucrats.

  • Newton Emerson

    The fundamental problem with the planning system is that it’s reached a level of complexity where a decision can be justified for or against in most circumstances. So when the planners change from for to against after a politician intervenes on behalf of a rival business, it obviously looks terrible.

  • Roy Reilly-Robertson

    When I drive to Edinburgh Airport, (and the same applies to Glasgow and Preswick), adjacent are several other car park options which can be used instead of the ‘official’ airport car park. I have never used the official and more expensive car park. I really do not understand George Best Airport here but most especially I do not understand the un-named and unknown planners. Name and shame and fewer ‘strange’ decisions might be made. What I wonder though is how this stands in the European Law stopping limits to trade. There could be a recourse to Europe here.

  • chrisjones2

    Now there is a surprise. This is why giving the Councils planning powers is so dangerous. Nothing to benefit consumers will ever happen

    As for ‘no relation’ you may find that he is actually a relation of Robin Newton . The Dynasty continues!!!

    This really needs to be made clear to all users of the airport. The only way is to stop voting for these people and get them out of office


  • chrisjones2

    …and it was overturned by Councillors after lobbying

  • This is a disgrace. No justification for this. End of. Except in our rent-seeking world of delusion that is planning and business in NI.

  • 23×7

    How can you overturn a recommendation?

  • barnshee

    I sniff vested interest being protected

  • Catcher in the Rye

    the lesson ? – don’t repurpose a building for a different function (however slight that difference may be) without obtaining planning permission first.

  • Redstar2014

    Have the Robinsons any business links to Belfast City Airport?? Just asking

  • Newton Emerson

    Well that really isn’t the lesson here, as Boal would have been granted retrospective planning permission if the DUP hadn’t lobbied on behalf of a commercial rival, using a technicality so arcane the planners hadn’t bothered with it. So the lesson here is: don’t go into business in Northern Ireland if you’ll run up against a powerful competitor.

  • chrisjones2

    You ignore it and do what the nice lobbyists tell you.

  • Trevorabh

    The key sentence in here isn’t really anything to directly do with this dispute, it is this long one:

    “he key reason Northern Ireland fails to achieve real economic growth year after year, is due to the contempt, distrust and perceived threat of the private sector by the public sector which has resulted in the private strangled being strangled by red tape, excessive taxes such as business rates as well as the continued support of protected industries by politicians who are in turn heavily influenced by lobbyists.”

    We’ve heard about the access granted to Stormont by a certain lobbyist by a certain party in a certain case that involves a certain amount of money and a certain solicitor who also was the former chair of a certain business organisation.

    Cabal wouldn’t even come close to these groups of businesses, all established, who have made their riches in easier (business) times.

    I ask anyone on here to have a look at business rates in Belfast city centre in comparison to similar sized mainland cities or even bigger ones and see if they can justify the bills. I understand that LPS have fun trying to garner rates not just from households but also shops and restaurants and truth be told, I can see why rates are not actually dealt with as a priority. It must be galling to hand over earned cash in order to support our ridiculous Stormont system.

    On that note, churches and charities have either an exemption or a reduction in rates. Time that this was done away with too.

  • Trevorabh

    Seems similar to the “buy a token rather than a beer” system that some places operate. Let’s just say both are at the edge of legality and could fall down if someone was in the mood to challenge the idea in court. But it would certainly be worth Boal investigating if they want to remain trading, perhaps under a different company name?

  • Superfluous

    Or when Belfast International Airport managed to stop flight expansions in the City because of ‘environmental’ concerns. Yes I am sure the International airport has the environment at the top of its priorities. It’s crony capitalism.

  • AndyB

    How common is it for shopping centre and retail store owners to introduce payment machines in their car parks other than to restrict length of parking, precisely because office workers and others were using the car parks other than their authorised purpose? I’m just struggling to think of an ancillary car park where all day parking is directly encouraged, but far more with limited stay and a small fee refundable at the checkout.

    With regard to council car parks, the difference is that they don’t own the businesses behind which they lie, and so they are simply public car parks operating as public businesses.

    I’ve a lot of sympathy for Boal (no relation that I know of), though, together with the unofficial operators around the International Airport. Those who jump through the legal hoops in the proper fashion have the ability to benefit consumers with cheaper rates and better facilities, and I find it hard to agree with refusing planning permission to them.

  • 23×7

    It may be the key sentence but like the rest of your post it is no more than a conspiracy theory.

    More young businesses reach £1m in sales in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK indicating the the public sector is supporting emerging businesses. This anti business agenda is just a figment of your imagination.

    But hey don’t let the facts get in the way of another anti public sector rant.

  • paulgraham7567

    Our public sector is a joke. Over paid, under worked. I remember 1st day on job being told by supervisor “there is only 1 rule here, you’re not allowed to look out the window before lunchtime, otherwise you’ll have nothing to do all afternoon”.

  • Dids

    This was how furniture retailers got around the out dated Sunday trading laws in the 70’s. You could buy a carrot on a Sunday, but you could not buy a 3 piece suite. Hence carrots were being sold for £800 and a 3 piece suite being given away with the carrot.

  • Dids

    This is definitely an issue of planning application. So legally is correct. However, one can apply for a change of use on the building and this can be overcome. Surely the planners can give a period of grace for this to be achieved. However you are right, Northern Ireland does things differently. It displays a banana republic mentality in all parts of Society, Police, Politicians and legal.

  • Dids

    Yes but the point here is that it is public sector employees making decisons to favour one of those private businesses to the detriment of the other and fundamentally, us the general public as we have to pay inflated prices for parking due to a monopoly.

  • leanbh inchinn Ceilt

    Great piece, well said and correct…… TFEU Article 102 (a)

  • Dids

    Interestingly on the point of business rates, I pay 30% more rates for my wee shop in the centre of Belfast, than my mother pays for her shop in London which is twice the size and pays nearly double the rent than me. Now they are introducing a new surcharge for marketing the city centre, a service which is being handled by a new quango, which was previously being handled by Belfast City Centre Management, part of the Council. They are trying to state that it wasn’t done before by the council.

  • Maureen Haigh

    Shame on Belfast City Council

  • Mister_Joe

    I have heard that urban myth many times before. Why do you feel the need to repeat it?

  • Zig70

    Lesson2, don’t give councillors planning responsibility.

  • Brian O’Neill

    I do not think there is any correlation between the two metrics. I would argue businesses succeed despite our local government.

    I have been in business 20 years and at best our public bodies are indifferent to businesses.

  • 23×7

    Another anecdote pretending to be a fact. Take a trip to your nearest hospital and then tell me their staff are over paid and underworked.

    If it’s such a cushy number why don’t you apply for a job?

  • Gopher

    In the real world the judge should have hunted the City airport but our whole legal system is on a gravy train kept alive by the symbiotic relationship with those other group of leaches politicains and the civil service whose sole role is inventing problems to justify their existence. The first and foremost thing that needs to be done in Northern Ireland is the law needs simplified and we can start by getting rid of overpaid judges. In this case a Car Park basically does not change its function it remains a car park, It did not become a car boot sale, a habitation it remained a car park.

  • paulgraham7567

    Average public sector wage in NI now 45% higher than private sector.

    Average working week 1.8 hours less.

  • 23×7

    Sounds great why don’t you apply?nWhy are you blaming public sector workers for low wages in the private sector sector? Don’t you think that’s a bit sad? Join a union. Apply for a job in the public sector. I work in the private sector, plenty of slackers here too.

  • paulgraham7567

    Our public sector is widely acknowledged to be bloated. Pay scales, automatic wage increases with time served, pensions all vastly superior to private sector.

    Given that we have a budget problem, shouldn’t we look to reduce this? My entire family are employed by Gov in 1 sense or another. Know 1st hand waste and mismanaged. I’m self employed. If I ran my business the way Gov runs its, I would be bankrupt.

  • 23×7

    Indifferent? As they should be.

  • 23×7

    Bit of perspective required here please. We’ve hardly prevented a cure for cancer.

  • David Buchanan

    So councils and supermarkets are charging illegally for parking?
    More of a story here.
    Rampant free market economics creates inequality too.

  • The Undiscovered Country

    One simple question to those saying that this isn’t an issue. How is it that most airports in Great Britain, with basically similar planning laws, have several private car parks competing with them, but in Northern ireland such attempts have fallen foul of planning decisions? That suggests a much more conservative, protecting the status quo approach is being taken.

  • 23×7

    Widely acknowledged by whom? Usually by individuals with a right wing agenda to push. What about the glorious private sector where output per hour worked in UK 21% below average for G7? Looks like there’s a lot of waste there as well.

  • DarrenNI

    No, but Adam Newton’s a member of the (supposedly) independent Belfast City Airport Forum, plus his da is/was on the board of Glentoran together with… Brian Ambrose of Belfast City Airport.

    I’d like to think the Consumer Council representatives on the Airport Forum would be asking a few questions, but they won’t, since they’re completely toothless.

  • Richard Rodgers

    One day’s parking pre-booked at City Airport in Long Stay for tomorrow – £23 absolutely ludicrous and abuse of monpoply position that’s set to continue…one day at Boal £8 – fair value…and now it has to close…ridiculous

  • Mister_Joe

    Same in Canada. We have private Park and Fly carparks fairly close to major airports. Economy about $50 (less than 30 pounds) per week and you actually stay for 28 days right now.

  • @justtheticket

    Our planning is totally fcuked up and full of corruption. Take for example a fine Victorian house on Church Hill [Ballyskeagh Road] which needed a £20k upgrade to make it a fine period home. It sat on a blind hill, on a hump back road, and with its entrance on an S bend. It was bought by a developer, tumbled and now with the garden is 4 semi-detached houses with their front doors opening onto the busy road literally 6-8 feet away. Never, ever, in a month of sundays would a blind planning team have approved that site. Obviusly a bit of hand spitting at the golf club, pats and the back, and brown envelopes doing the Sports Jacket shuffle.

  • Dan

    Spot on!

  • pulling the wool over our eyes

    Councils have permitted development rights (Planning (General Development) Order (NI) 1993), unlike private businesses, as they exist to act in the public interest. So if you are going to say they are breaking the law by charging parking then you may indicate what piece of legislation you are referring to that they are breaking. Common sense should tell you that private businesses and public sector do not have the same planning restrictions placed on them…. one raises revenue to spend on public services, the other to make private profit that the public does not see…

    I would also be keen to learn where you found your statistics of increased business rates, no. of additional jobs created (that are not displacing jobs in the existing airport), increased economic activity, life being good for the consumer and the economy, and increased no. of airport passengers. Last time I chose to fly out of Belfast City airport, it wasn’t determined by how much parking there was nor what price it was.

    I am tired of people throwing words like these around without substantiating them (and probably not understanding them).

  • pulling the wool over our eyes

    Speak to those whom we elect, they and their mates are the ones that benefit from such transactions….

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Nothing was “overturned”. A recommendation was made by the planners, and this was withdrawn by the planners (not by the councillors) after lobbying. The Planning Appeals Commission, which is a separate review body, upheld the decision.

    “overturned” is what would have happened if the planners had gone ahead with the change and the City Airport had successfully either appealed to the Planning Appeals Commission, or sought a judicial review, to stop them.

    The problem here is bad law, and councillors exploiting it in favour of their commercial supporters.

  • Twigwonderkid

    Patrick – that’s a poor comparator % growth as its dependant on what your last figure was, so I don’t think you can use this to condem the NI economy. You forget that there was massive foreign investment in GB and in RoI in the 80’s onward. NI used to have large companies like British Enkalon, ICI, Gallaghers, Courtaulds etc but who would invest in NI with a bomb a day in the 70’s. RoI once DeValera was gone and his stubbornness to hold RoI to a purely farming economy it started to grow, with investment from USA amongst others. Folks like Grundig from Germany did come to NI to open a huge West Belfast factory, but we know what happened there. Tourism boom grew massively in RoI but no one would come to Belfast. So the only growth could be the private sector otherwise we were all unemployed. I think you do a big disservice to NI on how Europe nations including GB grew without being bombed. That’s what did in our economy.

  • pulling the wool over our eyes

    Good point. Also wasn’t NI a net contributor to the U.K. economy pre 1970s?