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Why Belfast must work hard to hit its goals

Analysis

By John Simpson

Belfast City Council has published its agenda for the development of the city. It emphasises the importance of the city, the scale of its current deficiencies and offers a coherent analysis of the necessary policy changes.

The Belfast Agenda headlines an ambition for the city in the next 20 years to grow by an extra 70,000 people, living in a city which enjoys the creation of 50,000 jobs and where steps are taken to reduce inequality. The challenge posed by the agenda is in both the methods and in setting the operational priorities for specific actions.

Belfast City Council, as does each of the restructured local government areas, holds a range of development responsibilities including critical powers for community planning in the context of the exercise of decision making on most planning decisions affecting local development proposals.

In order to give coherence to a planning agenda, each local authority is now obliged to publish and gain approval for spatial and community planning principles to guide decision making.

At present, whilst area plans are in preparation, local authorities are making decisions without the full influence of longer-term planning ambitions. Each of the 11 local authorities is at an early stage in this important process.

The Belfast Agenda, focusing on 'Your Future City', is an ambitious draft set of proposals that, after consultation until March 9, will be reviewed, amended and shaped as an agreed series of proposals for adoption by the council and, indirectly, the many other official agencies with over-lapping and differing responsibilities.

In setting the agenda for Belfast, the 50-page consultative paper can be read both as an impressive prospectus of a range of important interlocking issues as well as a forbidding large range of questions for many of which there are no easy deliverable answers.

Belfast City Council has made itself, necessarily, accountable for its own actions, its influence through other agencies, and the delivery of co-operative constructive actions by businesses, statutory bodies, social agencies and community groups.

The collective responsibility held by the council is more extensive and more demanding than any that has been experienced in the last 50 years.

The new institutional arrangements are urgently needed. When will the Belfast Economic Growth Forum get started?

Is the city agenda adequate and comprehensive?

If Belfast is to improve the delivery of better living standards and lift the level of productivity needed to be a more competitive place for investment and extra employment opportunities, then the agenda does pin point some critical questions.

Policies to catch up with international education and skills delivery are well noted. Recognition of the gaps is the easy step: measures to ensure that the gaps are narrowed and closed are less certain and the agenda must find methods of securing change rather than treating change as an imprecise ambition.

There are policy issues where the published agenda is either silent or inadequate.

Critical to a revived city economy, Belfast awaits the implementation of a road usage and transportation strategy that shows how the city could cope with economic growth, higher living standards and an ambitious and acceptable means of accommodating the bus, private car, bicycle and walker. Simply to deny developing more varied options because Belfast 'is full' is a misreading of possibilities and would stifle the expected range of future urban actions.

The most critical issue inadequately reviewed by the agenda is the growing need for a more ambitious social housing programme linked to an extensive review of how Belfast is to accommodate and attract urban regeneration.

The agenda proposal of about 450 new housing units each year seriously understates a sensible measure of need.

Belfast City Council has launched an ambitious strategy.

Securing its full delivery will need a major upskilling of urban development incentives and techniques.

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