Belfast Telegraph

Economic growth limited by restrictive planning

By John Simpson

Rebalancing the economy and giving Northern Ireland a better chance of generating higher living standards calls for a carefully improved operational agenda for business and government. There should be consensual agreement that today's development environment lacks coherence and drive.

An important constraint on a more successful economy is the unnecessarily restrictive application of planning policies and, more importantly, the general unhelpful ambiance for the rebalancing of the economy and showing a will to offer a much improved business environment in terms of sustainability, living standards, a quality built environment and public space that betters what is available in competing regions.

Northern Ireland is an attractive natural region with plenty of space but with evidence of too little coherence in spatial applications. Ironically, the sense of place and space is in danger of being eroded in two contrasting ways.

First, despite years of notional acceptance of policies to protect rural areas from scattered housing development, many rural areas resemble a 'draughts board' of houses being used for rural-urban commuting. The logic of the grouping of developments to give economics of service provision has not been honoured.

Second, that criticism of rural sprawl sits alongside a restrictive policy on improving the quality of living and housing in urban settlements. If there is serious intent to encourage higher living standards, then a policy which promotes greater density of urban housing will be counterproductive.

Nothing illustrates the perversity of planning policy as a means of damaging economic growth than proposals that new housing, and the standards for new houses, can largely be accommodated within the existing urban footprint or, as sometimes suggested, with 60%-plus being located on brown field sites.

These restrictions played a large part in the excessive house price inflation in 2005-7. Brown field sites were sold at multiples of normal market rates because house builders were being squeezed into less space.

The needs of sustainable development as they affect the full range of public services can be met with a more rational attitude to development plans. Northern Ireland would not be overcrowded even if the population rose by 50%. What is needed is an appreciation of how to improve urban capacity, layout and amenity.

The housing issues are parts of the full agenda for an improved approach to regional development. Part of the problem with the revised Regional Development Strategy is that it has been written in a form that will deter consideration by organisations and agencies with interests in economic progress.

If the planners want to offer positive value to life in Northern Ireland, where is their vision of real dramatic urban regeneration, modern urban communications and housing standards for 2030 rather than 1990?


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