A stand-off between Belfast City Council and Stormont over two pavement cafes in the city centre will continue after the council again refused to revoke their pavement licences.
The Stormont Department for Infrastructure is demanding the council revokes temporary pavement cafe licences for two Fountain Street businesses - Voodoo public house and venue, and City Picnic restaurant - for safety reasons.
However, at this week’s meeting of Belfast City Council ’s Licensing Committee elected members again denied the Stormont official present a decision on the issue by deferring the matter into the new year for the businesses to benefit from the Christmas period, when hospitality makes the bulk of its profits.
Last month DfI Roads notified the council that, in its view, the temporary pavement cafes needed to be removed or relocated to facilitate the safe movement of traffic in Fountain Street, following its reopening to vehicular traffic after the restoration of Bank Buildings, which was severely damaged in a fire four years ago.
Stormont stated: “The Department’s view on the cafe licences for both Voodoo and City Picnic is that they present a danger to vulnerable road users especially pedestrians. This is because they are both placed across a section of Fountain Street that would, ordinarily, be open to two-way traffic.
“This section of road leads into another section, behind the bollards on Fountain Street, that is pedestrianised save for 6pm to 11am. The cafes obstruct this part of the road.
“This has led to a number of loading vehicles being forced to reverse to exit both Fountain Street and Castle Street, whereas previously they could have driven through this section. Vehicles which cannot perform a ‘u-turn’ on Castle Street can only leave the street by reversing through the traffic light-controlled junction at Queens Street.”
It added: “The Department is concerned that the reversing that the structures require vehicles to undertake could cause a danger to vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, as well as other mechanically propelled road traffic. Additionally, the cafes’ structures block access to a car park that is incorporated into the Norwich Union Building, do not facilitate cyclists and may not address specific issues encountered by disabled drivers.”
Both businesses have offered to move their pavement cafes to accommodate the Stormont department, with City Picnic moving further along Castle Street, and Voodoo offering to move its pavement cafe to the side of Fountain Street in January to allow traffic to pass.
A representative from City Picnic told the Committee: “We are extremely fearful, we feel we are being set up for a fall. We believe in no time at all there is going to be a bus thrown down here. We have done everything we can, we have been fair in the mouth of Christmas. We have been battered and battered.
“The truth is and everybody in the room knows that the idea of a bus coming down there fairly soon is probably what the plan is.”
SDLP Councillor Gary McKeown told the DfI Roads official at the Licensing Committee that Stormont was “completely tone deaf to the wishes of residents, businesses and elected representatives.”
He said: “The Department for Infrastructure is frankly thumbing its nose at the democratic will of this council by pursuing a vehicle-first approach to the city centre, despite the fact that time and again it has been made clear that we want to see transformation.
“This lack of accountability is even more stark now that Stormont has once again collapsed, leaving Belfast City Council as the biggest democratically elected body in this region, yet DfI seems to think it can completely ignore the mandate that members have been given. Where is the accountability to the people of Belfast?
“This city has so much potential, but is constantly held back by bureaucratic lethargy and obstruction. Even within DfI, those officials who do want to drive forward a positive agenda are often hampered by the slowest parts of the system within their own department.
“This council has made clear that it wants Belfast City Centre reimagined for the future and made person-centred with vehicle-free streets and plazas, rather than returning the bad old ways of the fume-filled past, but sadly DfI seems to want to drag us back there. People’s safety must be paramount, but for me the idea that this can be achieved by reopening a street to traffic instead of keeping it for pedestrians is completely unacceptable.”
The Stormont official said: “From our point of view, we are ultimately about making the roads safer. Our concern here is purely around safety and also the progression of cyclists and pedestrians and the servicing of other premises safely.
“There is no hidden picture that I am aware of, but it is a changing world, changing rapidly in terms of where we are going with public transport and active travel. It will affect Belfast the same way it affects everywhere else.”
The committee agreed to defer decisions on revoking the licences, based partly on the Voodoo application to move being only at draft stage. The committee also agreed to invite the Stormont department and Translink to City Hall for a more ‘thorough’ conversation on the city centre area.