Integration is key if we are to unite such a divided city
For a returning visitor, Belfast is a much more attractive place than it was 30 years ago.
The face of Belfast, over the whole commuting region (well beyond the now outdated Victorian city boundaries), offers plenty of scope to make complimentary judgements about physical progress into the 21st century.
Beware the trap of only emphasising improvements but neglecting the deficiencies. The glass is indeed partly full - it is also partly empty.
As in many European cities, within Belfast there are contrasts: affluence and deprivation are both conspicuous. Critical questions emerge in any examination which asks whether the governance of the city is taking sufficient account of the need to ameliorate or remedy the widening inequalities.
The critical challenge is to have a vision for a successful city region, stretching beyond the artificial and now unhelpful city boundaries. In these early years of the 21st century, there is an inheritance, particularly since 1970, of disrupted and inadequate progress.
While there are disagreements expressed between various interest groups, there are serious tensions about aspects of urban deprivation which are greater than is usually acknowledged. The degree of inadequate progress in steering towards a more prosperous Belfast region can be illustrated using some of the worrying characteristics.
In many older parts of Belfast the population is too crowded. Victorian (or even post-1945) housing sits uneasily alongside the demands of improved living standards for space, amenities and services.
In too many parts of Belfast the performance of primary and secondary education leaves too many young people ill-equipped for the changing employment opportunities (and unemployment and educational attainment are inversely correlated). Third level education is often beyond the ambitions of too many.
In too many parts of Belfast the urban infrastructure of roads, transport, and commercial development is constrained by existing inherited patterns and there is little overall vision of the efforts and planning needed to secure change.
In too many urban wards in Belfast the indices of social and economic deprivation are worryingly low and, consequently, there is a critical impact linked to the (now changing) social welfare system.
In some areas in Belfast, the current recession has reduced employment prospects for many people. Job promotion agencies have not sponsored sufficiently encouraging results.
In some parts of Belfast the conventions and rules of the town planning service are inconsistent with the ambitions of a growing 21st century city.
Of course, these features of Belfast (and its wider commuting region), while they are significant, are not unique to Belfast. There are contrasting examples in Belfast of change, success and failure. A reappraisal of the relevance, weaknesses and scope for an improved system of planning and governance is merited.
The institutions of Government, central and local, have created a complex set of relationships where the full range of urban development responsibilities falls to several departments of central government as well as to the city council.
Belfast city council has a narrower remit for social and economic services than most English cities. Even after the impending reform of local government, the city council will not have responsibility for housing, education, transport management or major issues in planning policy. To its credit, during 2012, the city council initiated an imaginative (but partial) plan for capital and current projects within its remit.
The functional allocation of governance responsibilities is not, in itself, critical provided that there are adequate arrangements for the integration, between central and local government, of an ambitious series of measures. Urban regeneration, particularly in the inner wards of Belfast, is a much more demanding task than can be achieved through Neighbourhood Renewal projects. Housing development policies merit a more ambitious approach than will emerge from a 'demolish and rebuild comparable density' passive strategy.
For the good of the economy, jobs, living standards and the quality of life ... better results are surely possible?