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Property developers warn of 'stagnation' after decision on regeneration powers

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Published 27/11/2016

Belfast City Hall
Belfast City Hall

Property developers hoping to plough millions of pounds into Northern Ireland have expressed disappointment and frustration that regeneration powers will not be devolved to councils.

The decision by Communities Minister Paul Givan was widely criticised by political opponents bu t p rivate investors, some with huge stakes in transforming Belfast city centre, have also thrown their weight behind the backlash.

Patrick O'Gorman, principal at Bywater Properties, which is responsible for a number of multi- million pound developments, said: "We are hugely disappointed.

"Belfast City Council are fantastic. They have been so helpful, positive and have great ideas but they do not have the powers.

"If they do not have vesting powers then there's nothing much they can do to change the city.

"The council are the ones with the fantastic ideas but without those powers they cannot deliver."

The London-based developer, whose firm is conducting a major transformation at Belfast's Donegal Place, also warned that regeneration of some areas could become stagnated.

He added: "Belfast is made up of fragmented ownership and one owner could block re-development and that prevents jobs being created in the construction phase and at the end use.

"I do not understand the minister's reasons for doing this.

"Belfast should be seen as an area of opportunity but it cannot grow without these powers.

"Belfast City Council is doing an exceptionally good job at promoting the city but they have not got the powers to execute the promotion into real-life projects. And, vesting is the number one power to change the city for the better.

"All developments could fall significantly behind now that the council do not have the powers.

"Our money is already in, but it is going to be harder and longer."

When the number of councils in Northern Ireland was cut from 26 to 11, responsibilities such as planning were passed to them by the Stormont Executive.

Anthony Best, whose Lacuna Developments was behind the £16 million John Bell House student accommodation in Belfast and is working on another £16 million project on the Athletics Stores site as well as an £8 million scheme on the Dublin Road, said there was a sense of frustration at the minister's move.

He said: "There is a gener al frustration in the private developer-world about the decision.

"If we go anywhere else in the regions within the UK it is the council's that we deal with on all fronts - whether that is for planning, regeneration or wider aspects which could be brought into a development for the benefit of the city and the scheme."

Mr Best said he believe Belfast could be disadvantaged by the continuing disjointed approach.

"At the minute the council is operating with one hand tied behind its back," he added.

"For the city to grow and prosper, and Belfast is a city which is certainly on the up, to make all that development happen we have got to have a joined up thinking."

Mr Best said he would like to discuss the issues with the minister.

He said: "I was surprised that it was just a straight 'no' from the minister.

"Why should Belfast be any different than anywhere else in the UK? The council should at least be given a chance - but there was no consultation, no trial period it was just a straight no."

"There are always two sides to a story and I'd like to hear what the other side is. It would be good to hear the reasons behind the decision because as far as I can see there are no real reasons - I have not seen anything which amounts to justification."

In his statement to the Assembly on Tuesday, Paul Givan insisted that local government would continue to play a major role in the implementation of regeneration programmes.

But, the DUP MLA said the time was not right to hand over powers.

The DUP MLA said: "The Programme for Government sets out an entirely new context for the delivery of our services, including the way in which we address poverty and disadvantage, and the way that we use our statutory powers to drive economic growth and lever new investment to benefit everybody in this society.

"The key message from the Executive is that we all, whether in central government, local government or outside of government, must ensure we work in a joined-up way.

"This is not the time to tinker with who is responsible for what, or to concern ourselves with the splitting up of the regeneration budget.

"Rather it is the time for all the stakeholders to work together to maximise our joint effect and achieve positive change in the issues that have bedevilled this society for too long."

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