The official policy for revitalising the main urban centres in Northern Ireland is based on the inappropriate assumption that town and city centres need to be given support by restricting planning permission for new out-of-town centre developments.
In addition, and in a parallel policy, the ability for customers to gain easy access to town centres is to be handicapped by policies which deter the use of a private car.
The combined impact of decisions by Alex Attwood, Minister for the Environment, and Danny Kennedy, Minister for Regional Development, are set to handicap the rebuilding of the urban economies.
Changes are taking place in the commercial role of town centres and in the development of retail outlets that, effectively, mean that current Canute-like policies will not only fail but may cause even greater damage to the vitality of urban centres.
If urban development policies are to succeed, then they need to harness the willing support of the population. Individual shoppers have an important economic weapon: freedom of choice.
If freedom of choice is constrained (as it will sometimes be) then behaviour will turn to other options which are not necessarily the preference of the social engineering professionals.
The ‘accepted wisdom’ of the policy makers for the main urban centres is that people should not expect to use the private car extensively and that, to ease traffic management, we should be incentivised to use subsidised public transport. That analysis has much to commend it. However, there is a necessary caveat.
Policy to cope with the use of the private car in town centres is absolutely necessary.
Not only do more cars add to congestion, but they slow down movement and make the problems of kerbside parking more and more difficult.
There is however a major policy option which this ignores. If the main urban roads were kept entirely free of parked vehicles, there is little doubt that a much larger flow of traffic could be easily managed. Congestion is as much a consequence of road space denied as it is of excessive traffic flows.
The supportive change that would also be necessary is that the market place for off-street parking should be liberated. Developers looking for viable uses of off-street sites would quickly submit a range of imaginative ideas if planning policy was made constructively helpful.
Multi-storey buildings with a partial multi-storey parking facility, akin to the small number in Belfast, would come on the market and share in the currently good returns of existing sites and, maybe, see the cost of off-street parking come down. Despite the stated policy of discouraging car usage for access to Belfast city centre, is there any doubt that Victoria Square, CastleCourt and Titanic Quarter would make commercial sense unless they had major car parking facilities?
Similarly for the Foyleside centre in Londonderry.
Cities like Belfast and Derry need to free up the roads for movement, eliminate kerbside parking, and make car users pay market rates for access to off-street facilities.
The second core strand is that planning policies which try to confine commercial developments into a defined city centre are both unrealistic and, with commercially discriminatory consequences, socially and economically hard to justify.
This is NOT an attempt to open up a free-for-all.
A change is needed to appreciate that spatial activities must be less restrictive and also to liberate the developments that could be attracted to the main arterial routes around the cities.
The recent refusal of a group of retail development applications on the eastern side of Derry seems to have been a victory for protectionism over modern investment.
And finally, who mentioned John Lewis at Sprucefield? For the Minister for the Environment to determine that he will oppose the application invites a very caustic reply.