Ratepayers' £300k bill to clean up development site
Council ratepayers have had to foot a bill of almost £300,000 to clean up after developers who were caught out by the property crash.
Belfast City Council had to pay £287,000 to remove hundreds of tonnes of harmful asbestos from a site close to a school in the south of the city.
The council went to court to get the money back.
However, because the developer already has huge debts, it could be years before it sees any cash, if at all.
The site is the former Ulster Weavers' factory at Maldon Street, off the Donegall Road.
A developer had wanted to build houses there. It still has planning approval for 130 apartments.
But when work started to demolish the factory buildings they were found to be full of asbestos.
It has emerged that the problem came to light when one of the demolition team tipped off a parent whose child was in Donegall Road Primary School, just across the street from the site.
It is attended by 180 children.
Principal Michelle Johnston said: "One of the parents was going home in the afternoon and one of the contractors had stopped her with her child and said: 'I wouldn't want to be your child in 20 years' time because of the asbestos'.
"She brought her concern to me and I took it to the education board."
Belfast City Council and the Health and Safety Executive stepped in and ordered the buildings taken down in line with asbestos guidelines.
But as property prices started to plummet, the developer did not have the money to carry out the work so the council had to pay for it.
Expensive surveys, consultancy and specialist demolition work as well as constant monitoring meant the costs mounted.
"The council was left with the unenviable position that we had a dangerous building, we had asbestos on the site, we had a primary school close by.
"The owners didn't have the funds to fix it, so the council had to do the work," said Trevor Martin of Belfast City Council.
The council now has a court order that means if the site is ever sold, it will get the money back, but Mr Martin concedes he does not know when, or whether, that will happen.
"It's very difficult to say. The property market has completely collapsed so why would anybody build houses here when there are houses all over Northern Ireland that can't be sold?
"When it's going to be sold is really in the wind."
It is the largest site the council has had to pay for, and with the biggest bill. But it is not the only former development site which has had to be cleaned up at ratepayers' expense.
"Because of the property crash we've discovered the number of derelict sites and dangerous buildings has increased enormously," said Mr Martin.
"We would have dealt with about 100 a year prior to the property crash, it now exceeds 400 a year.
"Of those 400, about 90% are dealt with by the owner, but in the last two years we've spent £70 to 80,000 each year doing work at the ratepayers expense."
The council wants a change in the law and has been talking to Environment Minister Alex Attwood about re-drafting legislation that would allow councils to forcibly sell sites to recoup their costs.
"The legislation, whilst it is very good in dealing with these buildings in terms of getting them down and getting the work done, there is a gap and that gap is that the councils have to have some mechanism to get the money back in.
"For ratepayers to pay money on a building that the owners subsequently gets the benefit of, is completely unacceptable."
The contractor who did the original demolition job has pleaded guilty to five charges relating to his work on the site and his failure to deal with the asbestos.
John Lewis, trading as John Lewis Plant Hire and Contracts and from Lany Road in Moira got a suspended sentence when he appeared at Belfast Crown Court on Wednesday.
Louis Burns of the Health and Safety Executive, which took the prosecution, said: "Our message to the demolition industry is that we won't tolerate this kind of reckless, cowboy approach to work.
"If you are prepared to take that risk, we will put you before the courts."