The Swanston’s warehouse is a quintessentially Belfast industrial building and the work of celebrated Belfast architectural firm Young and Mackenzie, built for Swanston and Bones – linen cuff and collar makers. The warehouse is an unlisted historic asset which strongly contributes to the architectural character and historic context of the Belfast City Centre Conservation Area in which it is located. Listed Buildings in Northern Ireland afford more protection due to their acknowledged architectural and historic importance, but unlisted buildings within Conservation Areas contribute just as strongly to their historic contexts and for this reason also form a strong part of the UAHS remit.
The significant ruling on 7th February 2014 (full details below) to halt the demolition of the warehouse for the second time, strongly reaffirms the importance of applying planning policy thoroughly in Northern Ireland’s Conservation Areas, recognising their contribution to the built environment and defending their unique character. Without good planning policies and their proper application and enforcement the heritage streetscape that gives Northern Ireland its unique character will be diminished by design that has neither a cultural or historic relationship with its locality. Conservation Areas are special places with enormous potential to create long-term economic prosperity. In order to realise that potential, those charged with looking after them need to defend buildings of character, such as this 19th century warehouse.
The judgement explains the Department’s responsibility with regards to protection of built heritage in a Conservation Area. Mr Justice Treacy clarified that the duty of the Department is to ensure land use in the public interest. One of the 'public interests' defined in planning policy is the preservation of the built heritage. He reasoned that "when weighing up an application for development consent, in a conservation area, the Department must have the presumption in favour of retaining". In this case the group of senior planners gave 'determining' weight to the fact that retention and repair was not economically viable. However as Justice Treacy pointed out the Department was not obliged to change the status quo, i.e. the 'do nothing' approach was an option open to them. If this application was refused, "there would be no necessary detriment to the area".
He concluded that "where the Department is obliged to have regard to a presumption (in favour of retention), and there are two options available to it, one which respects the presumption, and one that does not, the existence of the presumption respecting option is a very material consideration and one which must be given its full presumptive weight."
We trust that this will set an example for the new councils and that they will have the vision to ensure these finite assets are not further diminished, but are retained and put to productive uses
The full Judicial Review judgement summary can be found here and the full judgement will be made available in due course.
Background to the case: DoE Planning Service approved demolition of the Victorian warehouse and its replacement with a 9–storey retail and residential development in June 2009. The Society challenged the decision through judicial review (third party right of appeal is not currently available in NI) and it was subsequently quashed. However a revised application was submitted in July 2009, for a 7–storey replacement building with basement parking along the same lines as the previous scheme, to which we objected. It was approved in May 2011. The Society felt it had no choice but to challenge this decision as well, to ensure that policy is properly followed in order to defend statutorily protected buildings (both listed and in conservation areas) in the future. Leave was granted to judicially review the decision in September 2012 on the grounds that the Department had ignored the advice of its own conservation officer, area architect and case officer that the development would cause harm to the conservation area and that undue weight was given to economic considerations. The full hearing took place in the High Court on 5th June 2012.