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Why council plan for future of Belfast is ambitious but flawed

By John Simpson

Published 13/10/2015

Belfast city centre could be set for a change with the council’s plan
Belfast city centre could be set for a change with the council’s plan

Belfast City Council has published an ambitious and visionary strategic planning document for the (narrowly defined) city centre area. The detailed proposals are intended to be a baseline to influence the main permitted physical developments over the next 20 to 30 years.

Congratulations to the council for launching an ambitious presentation with the support of all the political parties. The plans are written in colourful social engineering language that is less demanding than the evidential constraints of hard quantitative analysis.

The agenda for Belfast city centre has eight objectives to:

1. Increase employment in the city centre

2. Increase the resident population

3. Manage the retail offer

4. Maximise the tourism opportunity

5. Create a regional learning and innovation centre

6. Create a green, walkable, cyclable centre

7. Connect to the city around it

8. Create shared space with social impact.

The city centre plan is not yet an operational programme. Also, there is no estimate of the capital costs which, if the plan is accepted, would call for several hundred million pounds to be provided either by the Northern Ireland government, Belfast ratepayers or private investors.

Many of the proposals make ambitious judgments that the planners would regard as beyond question but in implementation are much less secure.

The full city centre plan excites debate about the merits of some heroic assumptions. There are many aspects where suggestions are made about the merits of managing the development of retail investment (including the scope for a large further multiple store at Royal Exchange), the merits of a relocation of the BBC to a new site in the north of the centre (assuming that the BBC are a willing investor), the scale of the proposed new Transport Hub (regenerating Great Victoria Street Station) and the scale of investment in pedestrian connections across the city centre.

The city council as the newly authorised planning authority must temper its ambitions with competence to deal with future planning applications in a constrained environment.

There is no doubt that many of the specific proposals in the plan will encourage welcome developments. However, the tensions emerge when the aspirational social engineering attracts criticisms and also when decisions must be tailored to the available long-term budget of the appropriate delivery agency.

Transport and roads investment pose the most critical questions. There is, even today, much evidence of the inadequacy of traffic management in Belfast. Different degrees of congestion are almost daily features of Carlisle Circus, Shaftesbury Square, and the Arches. To those areas can be added the daily grid through the M1, Westlink and junctions with the M2 and M3.

The plan offers only modest traffic management improvements. It may be criticised because present inadequacies are worsening but unacknowledged.

Critical to the Belfast plan the proposals, for roads management in the plan, come with no firm commitment that the Department for Regional Development (DRD) has given any priority to these suggestions.

Into that milieu, the plan has the usual hostility to the needs of cars. It starts with the assumption that there is no shortage of off-street parking and that a reduction and rationalisation of parking provision should be proposed. If Belfast city centre follows this advice, the retail and service footfall will be further pushed to the suburbs.

Possibly the most fraught traffic idea in the plan is that Oxford Street should be pedestrianised and Victoria Street should become two-way and carry the displaced Oxford Street traffic. Do the transport engineers believe that this is practical and offers a sensible hope of improving traffic flow?

This Belfast plan is ambitious but is also flawed. It must be put into the context of a full city plan and the conflicting priorities need to be better reconciled. This publication is a triumph for controversial social engineering pushing against strong market economic forces.

Company report: Westland Horticulture Ltd

Westland Horticulture is based in Dungannon and Pomeroy with its registered address in Belfast. The principal activities are described as the processing and distribution of products for the gardening and horticulture markets and the sale of bird seed and related products.

The company continues to grow, partly by acquisition of existing businesses as well as capturing part of a growing local market. In April 2012, the company completed the purchase of the company Pet and Aquatics Holdings for £18m. More recently, it bought the English company, William Sinclair Horticulture for £13.5m.

In November 2013 the group paid £1.3m for assets in Seramis GmbH with a stated value of £2.4m which gave rise to a negative goodwill item of £1.1m which was accounted for in 2014.

Alongside the recent acquisitions, the company has delivered a significant capital programme for its own assets. Capital spending increased in 2014 to reach £5.5m.

To support its expansion plans, at the end of 2014 the company had increased its bank borrowing to nearly £15m. During 2013, the level of bank borrowing reduced but increased again by the end of 2014. 

In 2014, turnover rose by 4%. The ratio of pre-tax profits to turnover at 5.2%

in 2014 was slightly lower than in

other recent years. Employment in the group has increased further and, on average, in 2014 there were 475 employees — that’s an increase of 10% on the previous year.

Given the nature of this type of business, the value of stock holdings is high in relation to turnover. Stock holdings have generally been valued at just over 24% of annual turnover.

Dividends of £1.5m were paid to shareholders during 2014.

Belfast Telegraph

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