Belfast Telegraph

'Belfast 2035' plan needs to be reshaped

By John Simpson

Belfast City Council has published a draft Belfast agenda for up to 2035.

A major consultation is under way on its application to the whole range of community and public services which will be monitored and influenced by the decisions of the planning authority.

The draft Belfast Agenda points to 70,000 more people living in the city, 37,000 new homes and 50,000 more jobs by 2035.

These indicators are derived in a series of development proposals which are expected to grow the economy, improve the quality of living conditions, plan an improving infrastructure and enhance the skills and learning of the people available to fill better jobs becoming available.

Much of the agenda is not controversial and fulfilment depends on each agency playing its part.

Some of the understated features of the agenda lie in the inconclusive discussions about housing developments, jobs expansion and the scale of daily commuting into the city. The supporting documents for the Belfast Agenda seem to underestimate the problems of:

(a) Planning for an adequate house-building programme.

(b) Planning for regeneration of housing where older properties need to be replaced.

(c) Dealing with an imbalance between increased employment and insufficient housing accommodation, meaning increased numbers commuting daily into the city.

Each of these problems is interdependent and, with an added administrative layer, calls for agreed policies from the city council, central government departments and neighbouring local authorities.

If Belfast is to plan for 37,000 new homes, that means an average of 1,762 each year within the present city boundary.

This target seems large but is well justified by the extensive population and housing study published alongside the draft agenda. A comparable outcome has not been experienced since 2010. Indeed, in the last five years the annual average new build has been nearer to 500.

Although the target is to accommodate 37,000 new homes, the present assessment for new housing in Belfast shows a potential for only 25,000 new units (at current densities) being identified. Of the 25,000 new units, 9,000 would be in the city centre and Harbour (including Titanic Quarter). The draft agenda admits that the plans assume an increased density of housing development across the city, particularly in the city centre.

Even if the city centre and Harbour are earmarked for 9,000 new homes, that would mean that at least 16,000 sites were needed in the rest of the city. This points to a major challenge in identifying and bringing into use large areas of 'brownfield' land for residential development.

The draft agenda has little to say about this challenge. What financial support for urban redevelopment and urban restructuring is envisaged and what legislative support would be needed? Belfast has some inner city areas where older housing is less fit for purpose. The draft agenda is silent on the legal and financial mechanics of securing major change.

The arithmetic of the housing market becomes even more uncertain when a second priority is added. This is that a percentage of 'affordable housing' should be included in all new home developments. The exact level is left to be determined by up-to-date needs assessments and would include social housing, affordable housing and intermediate housing options. The draft agenda acknowledges the objective that the plans should ensure that there is an appropriate mix of housing preferred options.

However, the delivery of the different housing options is clearer in the aspiration than in a delivery mechanism. The guidance is that "flexibility would be allowed for the exact mix delivered to be negotiated with developers on a case by case basis". It adds: "This would be supplemented with specific housing mix requirements for key residential zonings."

For Belfast, within the existing city boundary, the draft agenda needs to be reshaped to make the ambitious plans operationally feasible.

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