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Why council chief needs bold plans for Belfast's future

By John Simpson

Published 18/08/2015

Vital role: Suzanne Wylie is the new chief executive of Belfast City Council
Vital role: Suzanne Wylie is the new chief executive of Belfast City Council

Local government is now a new force in the complex mixture of policies affecting the quality of life for people in each council area. Because of its size and influence, Belfast City Council will play a major role. That ambition falls to a new council, exercising a broader range of functions and led by a reshaped professional team.

That team, reporting to the elected councillors, is headed by new chief executive Suzanne Wylie who brings to the job over 25 years of experience, most recently as the council's director of health and environmental services. Her career has involved several front-facing services and citywide partnerships.

Ms Wylie is the most senior professional officer and, in the formal language of governance, the servant of the council, led by the Lord Mayor and the elected councillors. The job is essentially a complex managerial responsibility, calling for leadership, forward vision and skilful working relations with a network of colleagues, the elected councillors and a wide network of civic representatives.

The reform of local government has changed the role and responsibilities of local authorities. The challenges are daunting and nowhere more so than in Belfast City Council. Gone are the days of just 'bins, marriages and burials'. Economic development and powers over planning and planning decisions have now been devolved from Stormont to the 11 councils, with urban regeneration to transfer next April.

The changes will make local government services more accountable and responsible. The boundaries have been redrawn, the governance arrangements agreed (or in some aspects, more correctly, imposed) and now the operational framework must meet the tests of delivery.

A critical requirement is that councils must face the problems of thinking ahead and how to meet sensible longer-term planning needs. Ms Wylie is, for example, leading the council in the development of its new City Plan, focused on economic growth, connecting neighbourhoods and people, and including critical social and community values.

Interestingly, even large councils in Northern Ireland will not have responsibility for roads and public transport, or housing development.

Arguably, the reform of local government has left some unfinished business. The balance of decisions made at Stormont and those made in the city still leaves a source of potential friction. With the opportunities now available to the city, Ms Wylie readily accepts that there is scope for more ambitious plans for the city, particularly in the delivery of physical, economic and community development actions. Further delegation of functions may come later, but there is now a big enough challenging agenda to start with.

Does the city council necessarily endorse the traffic and transport planning decisions of Department for Regional Development (DRD) as they affect congestion, the ease of movement and car parking?

The momentum of change in Belfast's development is already increasing. In the professional leadership of the city, Ms Wylie has two new highly qualified lieutenants. Phil Williams has been appointed director of planning.

Then, on secondment from Invest NI, Donal Durkan is taking up the job of director of development, where his talent in securing and motivating additional business investments will be deployed.

Harnessing extra expertise will be a challenge to the team of senior people. A city centre delivery group has been formed, with support from central Government departments but under the guidance of the City Council. Sounds like an overdue focus.

At this stage, the planning agenda might be described as purely aspirational.

However, under the guidance and leadership of the chief executive, there are signs of cohesion and motivation, along with a willingness to match ideas with resources, including an increased programme of capital works, to generate increased momentum.

Belfast city has a huge backlog to tackle in terms of regenerating a modern urban environment.

The new leadership has the tools to do the job: the test lies in the delivery and results.

Belfast Telegraph

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