A Belfast Councillor has spoken of her “disappointment” at Stormont’s insistence that Fountain Street and Castle Street should be cleared of pavement cafes and reopened to traffic.
Elected members of Belfast City Council clashed with officials from the Department for Infrastructure during the recent meeting of the City Hall Licensing Committee. The department is asking the council to revoke temporary pavement cafe licences for two Fountain Street businesses, Voodoo public house and venue, and City Picnic restaurant.
Voodoo has a pavement cafe on Fountain Street, while City Picnic has one on Castle Street. Stormont is asking the council to end this arrangement, and free both streets to traffic, while negotiating new locations for the pavement cafes.
Sinn Féin, the Green Party and People Before Profit voiced support for the pavement cafes remaining where they are, while the DUP said it was "concerned" at the safety risks, and asked for more opinions from neighbouring businesses. The committee deferred the decisions until December’s meeting.
Since the Bank Buildings inferno of August 2018, until the reopening of Primark last month, a section of Castle Street had been cut off to traffic, and Fountain Street has effectively become a cul-de-sac. However now with the removal of the hoarding, Stormont is arguing Castle Street has to full reopen to traffic and Fountain Street has to be cleared for servicing vehicles, or face health and safety issues.
A council report states: “One of the key reasons for returning to pre-fire arrangements is the servicing arrangements and parking for disabled users, both of which were impacted in the vicinity of Fountain Street and Castle Street by the Primark fire and associated closures, which were unavoidable. When the roads were closed, it led to some difficult servicing arrangements, which required the reversing of vehicles.
“This increase in risk had to be balanced with the public safety risks associated with the Primark building and on balance were considered to be the "least worst" option at that time. Returning the road network to pre-Primark fire arrangements will allow servicing vehicles to revert to the safer option of driving forward between Castle Street and Fountain Street as historically was the case.
“Department for Infrastructure Roads advises that it would not be considered appropriate to maintain the existing servicing arrangements (reversing vehicles), in the interests of road safety, which is of paramount importance to the department.”
The move comes despite the council revealing last month its early stage plans to push the department to permanently pedestrianise Castle Street between Castle Place and Queen Street. The council in June 2020 introduced a temporary process for considering pavement cafe applications to assist the hospitality sector during the pandemic. It will expire on 30th September 2023.
Green Party Councillor Áine Groogan said: “I’m extremely disappointed in the decision of the Department for Infrastructure to reopen Fountain Street to two-way traffic. This is a retrograde step from the department, that flies in the face of all that we as a council are trying to do to support businesses, to revitalise our city centre and move towards greater pedestrianisation and usability of our public spaces.
“Of course if there are concerns about pedestrian safety that must be taken seriously but I don’t accept the premise of the department on this- this area has been pedestrianised for all intents and purposes for years and only now have they raised a concern about loading vehicles in the area.
“That makes no sense to me and in fact, I believe that introducing two-way traffic into a narrow paved street might actually pose a greater risk to people. People have become accustomed to Fountain Street being a lively and vibrant pedestrianised zone and I don’t know what agenda is being served by changing that now.
“The department initially demanded that City Picnic and Voodoo remove their pavement cafes within the space of a few days. These businesses have invested considerable money into improving Fountain Street and being able to trade outside has been a lifeline to them through some of the most difficult times for small businesses.”
She added: “I think how the department has treated them is completely unreasonable, and I’m glad that Belfast City Council’s Licensing Committee has deferred this issue to allow the businesses more time to get an agreed solution. I also think it is imperative for the department to actually furnish us with some evidence or rationale for their position, and maybe, just maybe consider that there may be an alternative to reopening a street to full traffic for the sake of a handful of loading vehicles each day.”
An official from the department told the committee: “There is a significant probability of a serious accident occurring and as the authority we cannot accept that risk.” He added: “If ultimately pedestrianisation does happen, there will still be the need to safely service the businesses on Castle Street and Fountain Street, to avoid what is happening at the minute.
“What is happening is that service vehicles are having to reverse on Fountain Street through a pedestrianised area, and they are having to reverse also up Castle Street towards the junction at Queen Street.” He said it was “a dangerous arrangement” and added the situation amounted to “technically a public road being blocked by a pavement cafe.”
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