'New planning powers give super councils chance to be bold'
Architect Michael Corr has returned from London to help make our cities and towns more attractive to live and do business in, writes Margaret Canning
Down with generic consultants offering generic advice – instead, be bold and ambitious with how you use your new planning powers. That's the message to the 11 new 'super councils' from Michael Corr, the creative director of built environment charity PLACE NI.
Others, including economist John Simpson, have urged councils to use their powers wisely to make towns prosperous and attractive areas to live.
After working for London Mayor Boris Johnson, Mr Corr will be considering the regeneration of Belfast and other areas of Northern Ireland – using lessons learned in areas like Kilburn, north London.
Mr Corr, who was born in Papa New Guinea and moved to Ballymena aged two, said the structure of the Northern Ireland's 11 new super councils will be similar to the structure of London boroughs.
But councils needed to be "bold and ambitious" in what they do with their new planning powers, which will leave them able to make all but the biggest of planning decisions.
The Queen's University architecture graduate, who has also worked in Switzerland, urged councils not to fall back on the advice of "generic consultants".
"At present there is a need for more people with the experience of the new system, experienced in creating development plans and community plans, which will be required from next year," he said.
"The danger is that some councils will outsource this work to generic consultants who produce generic plans and nothing will change. Councils need to be bold and ambitious.
"This is a key moment, and if it is not seized now, it will be a huge opportunity lost.
"I think over the next few years you will see a big disparity between councils who maintain the status quo and others who are more progressive.
"Councils who get the right expertise now will be ahead of the game."
Mr Corr still has a foothold in London in an architecture practice called Pie, which is overseeing two outer London regeneration projects in south and east London.
Belfast has the potential to make more of the buildings already available to it, he said – and in doing so, it could attract more successful companies to it.
Already businessman Bill Wolsey of the Beannchor Group has taken historic buildings like the old Ulster Bank in Wareing Street, which he transformed into the five star Merchant Hotel, and the old National Bank of Ireland in High Street, which is now bar and nightclub The National, a homage to its origins.
And while there are those who use old buildings, commercial property agents and companies, especially inward investors, protest at a lack of new Grade A office space in the centre of Belfast.
"For a city like Belfast, with a huge number of vacant buildings and spaces, there is a massive opportunity for 're-use' and 'meanwhile' uses, which is vital for economic recovery.
"I see a rapidly growing interest in this area and we are currently working with arts and community groups, councils and developers to programme vacant spaces."
The expertise of PLACE NI is allowing it to reactivate Belfast's own buildings – but is not without its pitfalls, he said.
"Rates is a major issue and a reduced rate, or zero rated policy, for landlords who are keen to accommodate temporary uses, would make a significant impact.
"Kilburn in London promoted such a policy. We run a programme called Somewhereto_ which matches young creative entrepreneurs with vacant spaces and this has great potential to nurture and encourage home grown start-ups."
And he said there was a lot which Belfast could learn from London.
"Regeneration can have a transformative effect on struggling areas of a city, but it is essential that this process is carefully managed, from procurement to project delivery, by a team with the appropriate expertise and understanding of the city.
"Such a team does not yet exist in Belfast and this work is often outsourced to external consultants.
"I see a real opportunity for PLACE and to use my expertise in this area."
Northern Ireland can at times represent a challenge after living in London.
"London has its issues too, but there is an energy and optimism about moving forward that we lack at times here."
But he added: "I chose to return to Northern Ireland as I see a massive opportunity here with PLACE and potential for the country with the changes in local government.
"Northern Ireland and Belfast in particular has definitely evolved over the time I have been away and continues to gather pace.
"I also teach architecture in Queen's University and I am keen to hold on to that home grown talent, rather than young people feeling like they need to move away to develop their careers."
London has – arguably – benefited from the leadership of its flamboyant and some times controversial Mayor Boris Johnson.
Mayor Johnson has indirectly had a big impact on Northern Ireland by championing the new London bus, which is designed and built by Wrightbus in Ballymena.
M Corr said a similarly high-profile figure could benefit Belfast – someone with "both personality and experience", he said.
A city architect would also help.
"There has been a lot of talk recently about the appointment of a new city architect for Belfast.
"If one is appointed, that person would need to have enough sway to affect decisions at the highest levels of government."
Tom Ekin is a Belfast councillor and a developer in his own right, who has also called for the appointment of a city architect.
"Such a person would look to the structure of the city and make sure that anything that's built is in sympathy with the aims and ambitions of the city and its heritage," Mr Ekin has said.
Whether one is appointed or not, balancing the needs of companies looking for Grade A office space in the city centre, with putting old buildings to use, will present an interesting challenge to Mr Corr and PLACE NI.
History behind new premises
Place NI has also decided to practice what it preaches by renovating an old premises on run-down Lower Garfield Street as its new offices.
According to research by Place NI’s Gary Potter, the building was built during the 1880s as a the premises of cabinet-makers JC Mayrs.
Mr Potter said its construction came during the laying out of Royal Avenue to replace the ‘slums’ of Hercules Lane.
Other occupants of Lower Garfield Street included The Hammond Typewriter Company, flour merchant John Harper and the Irish Times and Weekly Irish Times branch office.
Reas Electrical Store occupied the premises up until the 2000s — and the space was then left empty for around five years before PLACE NI took it over.