Northern Ireland

Alex Attwood overrules DoE officials on commercial signs fine threat

Stormont's environment minister has overruled officials at his department after they sent enforcement letters to businesses, threatening fines over the display of illegal commercial signs.

One of the letters was sent to the Apartment Bar in Belfast, warning the firm it had two weeks to remove a large window banner or face a £2,500 fine.

Alex Attwood has instructed officials to take no further action at present.

He said he would review current signage regulations and make a decision soon.

The minister confirmed that four such enforcement letters have been sent out to date.

'Clamping down'

John O'Reilly, general manager of the Apartment Bar, said he was shocked when he received the Department of Environment's letter.

Mr O'Reilly said the sign in question is a window banner, about 6ft in height and up to 15ft wide, and is positioned just above the front doors of the bar on Donegall Square West.

"The letter from the DOE essentially said our window display, advertising our meal deal, was in breach of law and we needed to remove it within 14 days of the date on the letter or face a £2,500 fine, and a £250 each day thereafter for which it remained," he said.

"I personally have worked here since August 2004 and I've never known for there not to be a banner there.

"We assumed, wrongly obviously, that the banner being on the inside of the premises - attached to the inside window - didn't need planning permission. That doesn't appear to be the case.

"Why it has taken over 12 years for this to be pointed out, I have no idea," Mr O'Reilly added.

The bar manager said the man he had spoken to in the Department of Environment (DoE) had told him it had become too much of a "regular occurrence" in the city centre and they had to take some action on it and were "clamping down".

Unfortunate timing

Mr O'Reilly said they had a full restaurant at lunchtime on Tuesday. overruile

"I would say probably 90% of the people went for the meal deal," he said.

"If I take that banner down, I lose trade and will have to send more people home.

"We have to make difficult decision. We've been sending staff home, which is never an easy decision to tell someone to go home and not make any money, but that's the position that we've been in."

The bar faces Belfast City Hall, which has been the focus of an ongoing campaign of loyalist street protests for more than month, due to controversy of the display of the union flag at the building.

Many business owners have said their trade has been badly affected by the protests and Mr O'Reilly said the DoE fine threat was the last straw.

Mr Attwood agreed that the timing of the letters was "unfortunate" but said DoE officials in the Planning Service had been "motivated well".

Heritage

He said: "I became aware on Tuesday afternoon that a number of enforcement warning letters had been sent out. I have instructed officials that no further action will be taken at this time and asked for full details to be forwarded to me. I will then decide what should or should not happen."

The minister told BBC Radio Ulster: "That part of Belfast is beautiful because of its heritage, and we need to make sure that we protect its heritage. But I do agree that I need to look much more closely at the issue of display of banners in shops and other premises.

"If I think, and I may well think, that there shouldn't be any further action, that's what I will instruct my officials to do."

Mr Attwood said he had spoken personally to the owner of the bar and restaurant chain since he had been made aware of the issue, but could not act unilaterally and needed time to review that matter.

"Everyone should want to show support and solidarity with city centre businesses, given trade has been damaged by the recent protests, the minister said.

"My strong view is that people who may not have been coming into the city for good reasons should return to the city to shop, eat and to enjoy the city," the minister said.

"This weekend provides an opportunity for people to send a very big message to the very few who are disrupting our city by coming back in increasing numbers to shop and for other reasons."

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