20/12/2007

Demolition Slammed By Conservationists

The hurried demolition of fire-damaged architecturally important properties - in the seaside town of Ballycastle - has been slammed by conservationists – who fear it was an inappropriate action that was rushed through to suit a proposed hotel expansion plan.

They say the original fires that gutted three Victorian houses in Ballycastle are at the least 'suspicious' and controversially note that it led to a total of six properties being demolished within hours of the blaze.

Police are investigating Friday's "suspicious" fire at the historic houses, which were protected by conservation laws.

Now, furious conservationists have written to Environment Minister Arlene Foster demanding enforcement action.

Last night, questions focused on why the properties – some of which were structurally undamaged according to conservationists – were demolished the following day.

However, the developer said the houses were unsafe and had to be pulled down.

Prior to the fire, there had been an application to demolish three of the houses on the site.

Residents who are opposed to the site being developed said that the flattening of the terrace must not become a justification for new building.

But the developer, McAlister Holdings, said that although events may look "suspicious", a surveyor had recommended the houses be pulled down.

Rita Harkin, research officer for the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS), demanded that the houses be rebuilt as they were and said failure to insist on this would "make a mockery" of conservation regulations.

"There were 50-60 objections lodged by local people to this development and the residents are absolutely appalled at what has taken place," she said.

UAHS chairman Jane McClure yesterday wrote to the Environment Minister. Her letter stated: "It appears from photographs taken after the fire that the buildings were still not beyond repair, but speedy demolition meant that this option could not be fully explored.

David Kelly, head of building control at Moyle District Council, attended the scene of the blaze. "As building control officers, part of our remit is dangerous buildings.

"If this had not been dealt with at the weekend I would have got a structural engineer to inspect the dangerous buildings and act on his recommendations for making it safe."

Mr Kelly declined to comment whether he would have ordered all six properties to be destroyed, but added: "If something's not damaged, there's no reason to take it down."

Mervyn McAlister, director of McAlister Holdings, attended the blaze scene and said a building expert had advised that the houses were unsafe. Asked why three houses not structurally damaged by the fire were demolished so quickly, he said: "Three properties were completely burnt out and one was scorch-damaged.

"Moyle District Council's building control officer instructed us to make the buildings safe as possible by demolition which we did as early as possible.

"I can appreciate that people may think it looks suspicious, but a surveyor had recommended they be demolished and our insurance company had withdrawn insurance cover."

Mr McAlister said he had "no idea at all" why the buildings were targeted by arsonists but said youths had started two minor fires at the site over the summer.

"There is no planning application lodged for the site but we own the nearby Marine Hotel and when we were buying up properties we had hoped to extend the hotel, which is still probably the ultimate aim."

A spokesman for the Planning Service yesterday said an application to demolish the buildings was received on December 3 and "was being considered" — despite the fact the properties have now been flattened.

"Planning Service is investigating the demolition of properties at Quay Road, Ballycastle, which lie within the Conservation Area," he said.

(BMcC)

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