Contested plans for a new building at the Chinese consulate in Belfast have been withdrawn.
he consulate had applied for planning permission for a visa processing centre at its base in Malone Road.
The Chinese authorities said the proposed centre would improve security on the site by limiting the number of people visiting its main building.
However, there was strong opposition to the planning application from local residents and politicians.
A total of 27 objections were made to Belfast City Council’s planning department after details of the proposal were first made public at the end of 2020.
The consulate has been based for several years on a site at the junction of Malone Road and Adelaide Park in south Belfast.
The site is home to MacNeice House, a listed building dating back to 1889, which was previously the headquarters of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
According to a document submitted with the original plans for the visa centre, the proposed building was to be used as a “space for the consulate staff to work and meet with members of the public requiring assistance with passports and/or visas”.
“The proposal is part of a wider plan of enhancing security protections at the Chinese consulate premises,” the document stated.
“The proposal removes the majority of general public engagement to a separate outbuilding to enhance the security of the main consulate and also to maintain the highest possible security measures to the new building for the staff and the consulate.
“Great effort has been made to balance the heightened security requirement of the Chinese consulate against the need to ensure the essential character of the listed building and conservation area remain unimpaired.
“With this in mind, the visa office is proposed to make use of sympathetic building materials and techniques, in keeping with those found on MacNeice house,” added the planning application document.
However, the council received a large number of objections from local people who said the plans would not be in keeping with the surrounding special conservation area.
A Belfast City Council spokesperson confirmed to the Sunday Independent last week that the plans for the visa centre have now been withdrawn.
The Chinese consulate was contacted but did not respond to a request for comment on why the planning application would not be proceeding.
The issues around the proposed visa centre is not the first planning dispute at the consulate’s base in Belfast.
Several years ago, the Chinese authorities had sought planning permission to build a new perimeter fence around the consulate, saying the 3ft wall was needed for security reasons. However, many local residents registered their opposition to the proposed wall and a number of protests were held outside the consulate.
The Chinese authorities claimed the wall respected the character of the area while also meeting its security requirements.
Despite this, the consulate withdrew their planning application for the wall in February 2020, but it was constructed later that year without planning permission.
Belfast City Council attempted to obtain a court injunction to halt the construction of the wall but the consulate cited diplomatic immunity and claimed it was not subject to the jurisdiction of the court.
When the case came before the courts, a judge ruled she had no power to intervene to prevent the works.
At the time, the council said it had been working with the consulate to try to resolve residents’ concerns.
“When that was not possible and works remained ongoing, council had no option but to apply for an injunction in order to safeguard the protected building, trees and conservation area. Regrettably the court did not find in the council’s favour,” a council spokesperson said.
As well as their concerns about the wall, the residents also claimed a new exit from the consulate site, which was created during the construction of the perimeter wall, was not safe.
Commenting in 2020, the Department for Infrastructure (DfI), which has responsibility for roads issues, said the department had asked the consulate to carry out the required works at the new Adelaide Park entrance in accordance with “pavement construction standards”.
A DfI spokesperson said they would inspect the pavement to confirm it had been “restored to a satisfactory condition”.
When contacted last week, a DfI spokesperson said the required work had been carried out.
“The Chinese Consulate applied for consent to carry out the works at Adelaide Park and this was approved,” the spokesperson said.
“The department has inspected the footway and it is considered to be in a satisfactory condition.”
However, Martin McBurney, who lives beside the Chinese consulate, said local residents still had unanswered questions over the construction of the wall. “The consulate authorities say the wall was erected for security reasons. We have asked what these reasons are but have been told nothing,” he told the Sunday Independent.
“We have contacted the Department of Infrastructure and the council to try to get answers but we are no further forward.
“This has been handled really badly and residents are still angry at the way things have turned out.”