Belfast Telegraph

Probe into Belfast's shrinking populace branded a colossal waste of city funds

BY VICTORIA O'HARA

A row has erupted over a report costing £25,000 commissioned by Belfast City Council to probe the reasons why people did not want to live in the city.

The findings of the population research report said the main causes for a decline included house size and type, affordability of housing and cost of living.

But the SDLP described the report, carried out by consultants in 2012, as a "colossal" waste of money and highlighted "nothing new".

DUP councillors, however, claimed it was part of an overall strategy to help understand why people were leaving so steps could be taken to make the city a more attractive place to live.

According to committee minutes, the research provided "initial useful raw data".

Concerns were raised that the population had dipped in the city since the 1960s, leading to calls for the research.

In 1991, 279,237 people lived in Belfast. This fell to 277,237 residents in 2001.

However, the number rose to 280,962 in 2011 – a jump of just 0.62%. This was not as rapid a rise compared to the rest of the province.

Overall, Northern Ireland had a 15.8% population increase between 1991 and 2011.

Lisburn experienced a 20.8% rise and Carrickfergus a 19.4% jump in that period.

Other reasons for residents quitting the city included crime, anti-social behaviour and the political situation in Belfast.

Reasons cited for wanting to live in the city of Belfast were the closeness to amenities and the better public transport network.

The analysis showed that wards in west Belfast experienced the highest levels of population decline in the last 10 years.

The Upper Springfield and Andersonstown wards had a 11.1% and 14.7% reduction in population respectively.

But wards in south Belfast experienced the greatest incidence of population increase.

Rosetta, Shaftesbury, Windsor and Ballynafeigh had increases of 28.3%, 24.7%, 14.8% and 12.8% respectively.

The report gave nine recommendations to address the problem of population decline in Belfast.

These included improving residents' sense of safety and reduce negative perceptions of crime in Belfast, and adopting plans for the development of affordable housing.

In 2012 David Gavaghan, the chief executive of Titanic Quarter Ltd, and former head of the Strategic Investment Board, said Belfast needed to double its population if it was to become an economic force to be reckoned with.

The SDLP's Colin Keenan said it agreed to the commissioning of the report despite being given a "very vague concept that the population of Belfast had depopulated over several decades. "We were told this had caused an avalanche in the ratebase in Belfast," he said.

However, he added: "This information had already been in the public domain through Census research."

Mr Keenan said he was "less than surprised" with the report results. "We paid a consultant to tell us something we already knew," he added.

Mr Keenan also described the report as a "colossal waste of money" and "laughable".

The DUP's Lee Reynolds defended the report, adding it did not cost ratepayers any additional money.

"We have a corporate objective of getting more people to live in this city," he said.

Mr Reynolds said evidence-based information was needed, not anecdotal. "This wasn't any additional funding. It was an allocation out of a pre-existing research budget, so it didn't cost us any money," he said.

Mr Keenan, however, said the money could have been spent on more relevant research.

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