Belfast Telegraph

Planning controls threaten to encourage urban sprawl

The review of the Regional Development Strategy is deeply flawed. It's time to think again, says Peter Carr

During the last few months, Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy's reputation for competence has taken something of a bruising. His current review of the Regional Development Strategy (RDS) will do nothing to restore that reputation.

The strategy's key directional issue is the brownfield, or urban footprint, build target. This is all about where we build our housing.

Do we use it to regenerate our towns and cities? Or do we - in line with the wishes of the influential greenfield building lobby - continue to let our towns and cities sprawl?

The original RDS was very clear on the matter: it recognised that housing can be about much more than giving people homes. If built in the right places, it can help mend the social fabric; creating a healthier society.

In 2001, the RDS faced down the industry and set a 60% urban footprint build target for the province's towns and cities. ('Urban footprint' means built within the town's development limit, excluding parks etc, which remain protected.) This was progressive. It was also ambitious. The urban footprint build was then only 25-30% of the counted total.

Heart was put back into our towns and cities. Urban populations were boosted, age-profiles rejuvenated, neighbourhoods revitalised. Dereliction levels were cut. Sprawl was reduced. Shops and services were supported. Infrastructure was used more efficiently. Housing choice was extended. Revenue flow increased, making towns more financially self-sufficient.

The review's response to these successes is puzzling. It does not seek to build on them. Perversely, the review proposes we abandon the target, contending that brownfield reserves are unlikely to be sufficient to meet it, if it is carried forward. According to the review, the greatest availability lies in Belfast and Londonderry. Wrong. Ballymena, Craigavon-Lurgan-Portadown, Coleraine and Omagh all have greater availability than Londonderry. Newry and Ballymoney have comparable levels.

And the claims get odder. The review asserts that the target 'may have contributed towards pressure for higher density development in established residential areas'.

This is absurd. Do builders really say, 'I'll build three storeys and I'll add another two to help the department meet its brownfield target'? Of course they don't.

Development proposals are dictated by commercial considerations - by what builders think they can get away with.

Regulatory laxity and the deliberate weighing of the planning system in favour of development is the bugbear here, not the target.

The review cynically conflates the two. It seeks to enlist support for the abandonment of the target by appealing to nimbyism and community frustration. It also seeks to narrowly redefine brownfield as 'land and buildings which have an industrial or commercial use'.

The department doesn't even try to make a case for this regressive proposal. It simply announces it - once again putting the claims of the greenfield lobby before the defence of the public interest.

It may even believe that these derogations will bring prosperity. This is naive. Their effect will be to push supply into the hands of monopolistic providers, whose business models depend on anti-competitive government land grants. This will stifle enterprise, not encourage it.

The first thing the incoming regional development minister should do is take a red pen to these proposals and start again.

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