Belfast City Council’s decision to no longer have a Christmas Tree countdown and light switch-on for “health and safety” reasons has been questioned by elected representatives.
At the council ’s meeting of its City Growth and Regeneration Committee this week, councillors were asked to note a summary of the Christmas programme this year. While the range of activities were generally lauded by elected representatives, some questioned the dismissal of the count down and switch-on, which was last performed in front of City Hall in 2018.
A council officer told the committee: “The feedback we received to that activity was that it raised significant health and safety concerns. This was provided by colleagues from our Health and Safety Unit, about how we manage that space, about access and egress, how we control the crowd, and in particular when they disperse on the roadway.
“As well as that we received significant feedback from businesses and traders in the city who said they experienced challenges regarding access, parking and traffic, and in some sense it acted as a potential distraction during the busiest time of the year.
“So last year and this year we are distributing the city lights switch-on across the city with music and lighting and animation projections across the city. There will be a stage set up in Donegall Place on the night of the switch-on.”
SDLP Councillor Carl Whyte said: “I keep being asked by people, when is the count-down? Obviously growing up in this city, I have many memories of the Mayor at the Christmas tree, and I remember when Bill Clinton came.”
DUP Councillor Tracy Kelly said: “A lot of people will be disappointed that there is no countdown/switch-on and all that goes with it. If it is to do with health and safety concerns, I would like to know if anybody has been hurt, or if there was a crush.
“What is the concern, because for many years this city has been doing it, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anybody being hurt.”
The officer replied: “To the best of my knowledge there has not been an injury, but colleagues from Health and Safety have done an analysis. Given we have the closure of Donegall Place, and that we have to manage the crowd that enters Donegall Place, and all the access and egress points, it was highlighted that there is a significant risk where a potential crush could happen.
“What we have happening at the same time is the opening of the roadways, particularly for buses. How the thousands of people gain egress on an active roadway represents a significant risk.”
Councillor Kelly said: “I attended the last switch-on, and it was very well managed going in. The barriers were up, there were queues and tickets and armbands, and it all seemed quite safe. I understand if you are saying (council officers) are the experts, but a lot of people are disappointed.”
Councillor Whyte added: “I hope we can look at it again next year. It’s not like it is Times Square on New Year’s Eve - if they can do it, why can’t we? If you organise a protest in front of the City Hall, the police stop traffic. I’m sure there are legitimate reasons here, but it is all a bit bah humbug.”
He said despite this Belfast was “still the best place to come to for Christmas in Ireland.”
DUP Councillor John Hussey said: “I wouldn’t focus too much on the health and safety thing about the switch-on event - that basically translates that it is more hassle to organise than its really worth. That's what it actually means.”
This year’s 'Christmas in Belfast' programme will get underway with an evening of seasonal celebrations on Saturday, November 19 - the event will coincide with the opening of the Belfast Christmas Market at City Hall. The activities will take place in Donegall Place, Royal Avenue and a selection of adjoining streets, from 6pm until 9pm.
The council report states the decision to change from a two-night event to one night this year was taken based on the findings of an independent evaluation for 2021, which showed that the opening evening on Saturday was much better attended than the Sunday.
In 2021, estimated audiences for the Belfast Council Christmas programme over two evenings (November 20 and 21) was 15,000. A survey conducted by the council showed 65 percent of visitors were from the Belfast City Council area, a further 35 percent from elsewhere, with a small percentage of visitors from the Republic of Ireland (3 percent). 84 percent gave the event a rating of 8 out of 10 or above, including 27 percent who rated it as “Extremely good”.
Do you think there should be a lights switch-on in Belfast this year? Tell us your views on there being no event in the comments at the bottom of the story.