Matt Garrett: Local Development Plan will build the Belfast of the future
John Simpson's recent analysis of Belfast's planning system, and particularly the Local Development Plan ('Belfast must show greater ambition in plan for future' - 20 November), made many valid points.
It also addressed issues that are of concern to Belfast City Council, there are several comments which require clarification. He also asked a number of questions which deserve to be answered.
The Local Development Plan will deliver the spatial aspects of the Belfast Agenda, the community plan for the growth and development of the city between now and 2035.
John asserted that "…the city is struggling to escape the legacy of decades of the Troubles".
The Local Development Plan (LDP) contains policies specifically designed to address community cohesion and the spatial legacy of the Troubles.
He stated: "Belfast is not an overcrowded place to live by the industrial standards of the 19th century. By the standards of this century, however, it is too crowded." The population of Belfast declined during the second half of the last century, decreasing by almost 33 per cent from 1971 to 2011, while the population in the north as a whole increased over 18 per cent in the same period.
John asked if it was "sensible to envisage a growing Belfast population living with less living space per family, an increasing number of daily commuters and a continuing concentration of new employment opportunities in the city?"
The LDP contains minimum space standards for all new residential accommodation, designed to ensure that units still provide a suitable living environment. If employment opportunities continue to be located in parts of Belfast most accessible by public transport, then placing new homes closer to these jobs will enable more sustainable travel options, such as walking or cycling, more viable.
According to the 2011 census, Belfast has the smallest proportion of residents who travel to work by car (56 per cent) and the largest proportion who either walk to work or use public transport. With more people living closer to where they work and the goods and services they need, car travel should further decrease.
John asked should "…the Belfast planners, and those in the 10 other local authorities, be expected to take an all-Northern Ireland perspective which, in a rebalancing use of living space, gives Belfast a better chance to regenerate and provide for higher living standards?"
Belfast planners have taken a regional perspective, to ensure that the city competes economically with other cities in these islands in terms of being a liveable city with enough jobs and homes to sustain the growth required to compete.
Making Belfast regionally competitive will benefit the north as a whole. John concluded with a number of specific questions, particularly in relation to housing and traffic management: "Avoid planning for more people to live in smaller housing units?"
Predicted demographic changes, such as an ageing population, reducing household sizes and a decline in the number of households with children, emphasise the need for future accommodation to be flexible, catering for smaller household types, as part of the wider housing mix.
Policies aim to encourage provision of the right mix of housing (sizes, types, tenure, and affordability) that the city needs.
"Anticipate the spatial implications of a 10-plus% rise in average living standards?"
The draft plan strategy seeks to support improvements in living standards through a range of interventions, including improved design quality, minimum space standards and housing that is more accessible and adaptable for use over a person's lifetime.
"Seek housing plans to allow at least one off-road parking space for each new house?" Experience in other places across the world shows that creating more road and parking space for cars creates less sustainable behaviours.
"Ensure 50% of housing units provide access for electricity charging for a car?" The policies contained within the LDP will not preclude developers from providing electric charging for cars.
"Plan for more employment space in areas away from the city centre?" The plan seeks to enhance the role of Belfast city centre as the accessible regional capital and focus of administration, commerce, specialised services and cultural amenities.
However, it also seeks to ensure an equitable spread of employment space across the city in locations that suffer from high unemployment.
"Build an improved traffic management system and more off-road parking?" A lot of investment has been made in public transport into the city centre to make it easier and quicker to access the city. More people are making the choice to travel by public transport, cycle or walk, every day. The LDP sets out plans for a growth in city centre living, which will mean more people are living and working in the city centre and have shorter distances to travel. So, it will make walking, cycling and public transport journeys quicker and easier. The provision of more roads and more parking has been found to create more car use, congestion and associated decline in air quality.
"Add a planning policy for significant major areas of urban regeneration?" Part of the reason for the decline and dereliction of some of Belfast's inner city areas can be attributed to both industrial decline and previous policies to de-populate the city.
The LDP seeks to encourage the regeneration of such areas, partially through the reversal of historic trends and growing the population. Placing greater emphasis on the re-use of previously developed land for the provision of future employment and housing will in turn promote regeneration to create a more sustainable city.
Councillor Matt Garrett is chair of Belfast City Council's planning committee