If development planning in Belfast only needed a well-informed ‘wish list’, Belfast would be top of the international league table.
A long-term development plan is needed that prioritises proposals so that cause and effect relationships are considered, costs and benefits are evaluated, responsibilities of different sectors and official agencies are separately identified and allocated, funding is organised, and the various stakeholders ‘buy-in’ for their contribution.
The recent ‘Initial Directions’ consultation for Belfast city centre including about 50 development strategies shows the wide ranging agenda.
The author, Joe Berridge of Urban Strategies, lists as one of his top five actions the need to develop a modern transport hub for railway and bus services based on a major investment linked to Great Victoria Street — formerly the terminus of the Great Northern Railway, before Belfast Central Station was conceived.
Elsewhere, as an aid to maximise tourism activity, he asks for work with the George Best Belfast City Airport “to understand missing markets and new connections (to attract) business conference tourism”. In a potentially conflicting suggestion, he also asks for work to resolve passport and visa issues inhibiting easy access to Dublin airport.
Other projects identified to support the city centre development include:
- The new University of Ulster campus on York Street, which acknowledges the impact of the York Street Interchange, linking the Westlink, M2 and M3.
- The potential to be derived from a relocation of the BBC to a new site, possibly close to the new University of Ulster.
- A new museum or gallery (in one of five possible sites).
- Improved infrastructure along the River Lagan corridor.
Successful city development will depend on a widespread ‘buy-in’ for a sequence of steps where limited resources must be stretched to give maximum impact.
Belfast City Council can be congratulated because it has made an important start. Arguably, the start is overdue. However, now that more planning powers are being devolved to local government, this makes the initiative more logical. Stormont departments must now contribute to an integrated series of policies where local government takes the lead.
A professional team has been appointed to develop a city centre regeneration and investment framework. The preliminary ideas have been published and, just to regenerate the city centre, the investment agenda is a multi-year multi-million pound budget commitment.
The scale of the desirable ambition for Belfast city centre is huge. Time lost during 40 years of short-term ‘Troubles-related’ priorities must now be regained.
First, a cautious preliminary is justified. Belfast City Council has set to work on policies to enhance the development of the city centre. It is an important starting point. There is no denial that the perspective of the wider city commuter area poses further questions on issues such as housing, roads, educational and health provision. The wider Belfast commuter region merits specific plans to tackle emerging deficiencies in all of these services.
Second, whilst Belfast City Council has initiated some creative thinking — and the initial directions are the easier part of the exercise — next comes a difficult series of decisions on priorities, timetables, funding and identification of responsibilities. Will central government departments weigh in to put the Belfast priorities into, for example, the central government capital spending programmes?
Third, the initial ideas lack persuasive evidence on some issues. The ambitions to establish a strong retail axis in the city centre are commendable. However, the absence of ideas to incentivise the levels of urban footfall whilst hoping that city centre stores will be the engines of their own expansion seems over optimistic. The plans for improved car management, displayed at the consultation conference, merit a specific place on the final agenda. Without an increased retail foot-fall, many of the proposals will under-perform.
And finally, will the consultants please reread what John Lewis said and has re-stated about Northern Ireland? John Lewis made a convincing argument about Sprucefield.