Northern Ireland regeneration game hinges on having a sole, expert body to drive it
Regeneration powers won't be passed to local councils but who is best placed to drive our future wealth, asks Denis Rooney?
The recent announcement by the Department for Communities that it is to hold on to its regeneration powers and not pass them to the local councils came as a surprise to many, and a great disappointment to the councils.
The councils have been getting ready for some time to accept the additional powers, and to use them to drive forward the regeneration agenda, but are now left in a rather confused position, a bit like an army trying to fight a modern battle with small arms.
The question for us all is who is best placed to lead regeneration? Is it the central government department taking an overall strategic approach, with the council becoming more of a de facto lobby group trying to influence the regeneration focus, or would we be better served by councils with strong powers driving the local agenda?
This decision joins a long list of changes of mind by our Assembly on major regeneration and economic investment issues, and gives another indication of a devolved administration which lacks a coherent and consistent policy in this key area. If we look at the impact on Belfast, which is the key economic driver for the whole of Northern Ireland, we can see why this is a less than ideal situation.
Evidence from all around the world suggests that the best examples of positive urban economic development occur when you create the right organisational structure and give it appropriate powers to get on with the job.
If we look at the most successful cities in the UK recently such as Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh, they all reorganised to drive their respective regeneration and investment strategies through strong local leadership with appropriate powers. They sent out a clear message to the investment community and other key players that they could get things done and they built trust through their performance in handling opportunities.
Whilst I am sure that not absolutely everything these cities have done has received universal acclaim, most agree that their regeneration has been a success and has attracted investment and jobs which would not have happened otherwise.
Belfast City Council has demonstrated a strong desire to take on this role, and its executive has shown enough examples of its understanding of the key drivers of regeneration which the city needs, to be given the opportunity.
The council has a strong marketing vision which is bold and imaginative. In order to really deliver regeneration and associated economic activity, the council needs acquisition and land assembly powers, a sufficient budget and targeted financial incentive instruments.
The councillors have a key role to play in supporting their Executive and in resisting over-pushing their local pet interests at the expense of the overall good. The private sector has a key role but this will be better facilitated by engaging with a more powerful and engaged council.
An alternative model which has been used to drive redevelopment has been the Development Corporation. Corporations with land assembly powers were formerly used in the cities mentioned above, and a case can be made for the model. Recent evidence would suggest that council-led redevelopment units with appropriate powers offer a better model.
If we examine our record in delivering major projects in recent years, apart from a few notable exceptions, it is a depressing picture. In several cases, large amounts of money have been wasted in futile pre-planning activity for projects which did not go ahead. Some of the projects got caught up in the inter-party political wrangling which should have been sorted at the early concept stage. For others, the over complicated, badly managed procurement process resulted in abandoned projects and a resultant waste of large sums of public money.
There is little evidence to suggest that anything is going to change soon and, therefore, we need to find new, better ways to drive our economy forward. The proposed transfer of power to councils offered a new approach in an important particular area and it has now been taken off the table.
Looking at Belfast in particular, its success is important for all the towns and cities here and for the whole of Northern Ireland. The best result for Belfast will be delivered by a strong Regeneration Unit within the council administration, supported by an engaged and informed council. Potential investors are much more likely to do business with such a body and prefer a "one-stop shop" which can be decisive because it has the appropriate expertise and the requisite power.
As noted above, cities which have excelled have delivered this and have gained the reputation as places where things get done. Conversely, cities which have failed will generally be plagued with too much bureaucracy and a lack of joined-up government, something which we unfortunately can identify with only too well.
With the operational freedom which additional powers would give to Belfast Council comes the responsibility to use them wisely, and this requires ensuring you have the best expertise on board and the right delivery mechanisms, along with a mature due diligence which understands how to properly handle the type of risk which goes with the territory.
We certainly need new ideas, imagination and new investment if we want to avoid falling behind globally, and if we want to compete with other towns and cities in the UK and Ireland. I am aware that the former Department of Social Development, which is now the Department of Communities, did do some good regeneration work in recent years but we really need to dramatically up the regeneration game and it is time to quickly rethink where the powers should be allocated.
- Denis Rooney is a director of the Regeneration Consultancy, Rooney Smith Associates