Task Force for iconic Edwardian Austins building in Derry city centre established

Derry & Strabane Councillors have agreed the make up of a task force established to oversee a resolution in relation to the Austins building in Derry.

Council Chief Executive, John Kelpie has outlined actions that have been taken and that will be taken forward in relation to the landmark building, following a notice of motion passed by council on March 31, 2022.

Back then, councillors unanimously backed a motion from Sinn Féin Councillor John McGowan calling for a taskforce to review the site of the iconic former department store and ensure everything possible is being done to preserve the city centre building.

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Austins store was the cornerstone of the city’s Diamond area since 1830 and, until 2016, remained in operation as the world’s oldest independent department store.

The Edwardian former Austins Department store building in Derry.
The Edwardian former Austins Department store building in Derry.
The Edwardian former Austins Department store building in Derry.

The grand, five storey Edwardian building, a much-loved landmark for generations, closed on March 8, 2016 with the loss of 53 jobs, bringing 186 years of trading to a close.

Mr Kelpie informed members of the Governance and Strategic Planning Committee at their November meeting that council officers have undertaken an analysis and review of all potentially available enforcement powers.

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They have additionally sought counsel opinion and that includes additional measures under three pieces of legislation – the Pollution Control and Local Government (NI) Order 1978, the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act, and the Planning Act (NI) 2011.

He continued: “Part of the notice of motion required us to make contact with the current owners and a subsequent meeting has been held.

Austin's former department store.
Austin's former department store.
Austin's former department store.

“Officers have also engaged with a range of statutory and other partners that have an interest in buildings such as Austins and that includes the Historic Environment Division within the Department of Communities and the National Heritage Lottery Fund.

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“At this stage, in order to progress all of the issues and to discuss the outcome of all of the work undertaken to date, the establishment of the task force is required.”

Sinn Féin councillor Paul Fleming said: “We are a little surprised that the working group isn’t already up and running but we are where we are.

“In terms of our discussions with the owners and the agencies it’s about looking at a positive way forward as opposed to having to bring legislation to bear.”

Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Fleming.
Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Fleming.
Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Fleming.
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SDLP councillor Brian Tierney added: “We are glad to see the report before us but we do think, as the motion stated it at the time, this is only the beginning of something and we may need to use this as a pilot for other similar type buildings across the district which we have concerns about and we look forward to that.

“The taskforce will have a lot of very interesting but very difficult work ahead of them but it’s important to everyone across this district that we see this building protected and hopefully brought back to life.”

Stating that ‘time is off the essence in all heritage protection issues’, UUP Alderman Derek Hussey added: “The longer one leaves these buildings the worse the situation gets so it’s welcome that the taskforce can get down to work on the issues that have been identified to bring that building back to life within the centre of Londonderry.”

Members agreed the make-up of the task force will include two from each party and two independents.

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The Edwardian former Austins department store in Derry.
The Edwardian former Austins department store in Derry.
The Edwardian former Austins department store in Derry.

Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter