Belfast City Council has a responsibility to influence the development of many features affecting the standard of living of its residents, none more important than the social consequences of a continuing increase in population above the current 339,000.
There is now extensive written material outlining these ambitions based on the main Preferred Options Paper and other related documents. However, there is a worrying lack of reconciliation between the anticipated increase in the population numbers and the desirable housing needs plans.
The city council must start from evidence on the current employment and housing provision and then build in some key policy objectives. These objectives are necessarily partly subjective. The council is working, looking to 2035, on a population increase of 66,000 people which will link to a need for 37,000 more homes and the creation of 46,000 more jobs. Then there is an alternative scenario which is even more ambitious on population numbers, homes needed and higher employment.
For the purposes of this comment, only the arithmetic of the initial baseline is under review.
The arithmetic poses some critical questions.
Within the Belfast boundary, can 66,000 more people be accommodated alongside 37,000 more housing units with acceptable living space bringing improving living standards?
Does it make sense to plan for 46,000 new jobs with the implication that the scale of daily commuting into the city will increase significantly, with the demands that will then fall on transport services?
The draft Belfast Agenda, as formulated by the council, accepts that within the current boundaries Belfast should plan for greater density of the urban population and, also, that the city will cope with a larger number of daily commuting employees. Is this really a reflection of citizens' preferences?
One feature emerging from these questions is that, yet again, the structure of local government is seen to distort wider planning issues. Instead of a metropolitan concept for the wider Belfast region, the planning framework is unduly constrained. Dare a whisper be uttered to ask why the reform of local government was left inadequate for these challenges?
Both of the critical questions lead into important discussions.
The study for the council by the Ulster University Economic Policy Unit opens the prospect that Belfast city might well attract even more than 46,000 new jobs in the next 15 years. Unusual though the idea might be, this raises the question of whether official policies, by differing government and council agencies, might consider steps to disperse the employment increases (to a modest degree) away from Belfast city, particularly for industry and back offices. The logic of that idea would appeal to Lisburn, Ards and North Down, and Antrim and Newtownabbey.
The first critical question is even more complex. The supporting studies published by the council do not adequately show that 37,000 more housing units could be readily located in the existing urban area. Large numbers are expected to locate in Titanic Quarter, the former Sirocco area and the city centre.
The arithmetic of anticipating the plans for housing need suggests that, in total, Belfast should be accommodating just over 1,700 new units each year. In the recent past, an average of 500 units each year has been recorded. If Belfast, outside the immediate city centre and Titanic, is to find 'brown field' sites for anything close to 1,000 units each year, then this needs an emphasis on urban regeneration on a scale not currently envisaged.
The Housing Executive has examined the scale of housing need in parts of Belfast and its figures confirm the search for about 1,000 each year. To achieve an acceptable balance of private, social and affordable housing will call for planning, legislative, financial and incentivised initiatives.
This is more than a desirable change: it is a necessary official commitment.