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Steps Northern Ireland needs to take to shape up for future

David Jones


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Revitalising our high streets is one of the key issues to be tackled

Revitalising our high streets is one of the key issues to be tackled

Revitalising our high streets is one of the key issues to be tackled

Boris Johnson has announced his desire to accelerate the transformation of high streets across the UK with an influx of residential developments to fill the gaps left behind by departing retailers.

Towns and cities across Great Britain are already seeing revitalisation of their high streets with new co-living and build to rent schemes, alongside an increasing focus on leisure uses.

But is Northern Ireland ready to take these steps, now that the decline in the traditional high street has been accelerated?

I believe Northern Ireland can seize the opportunity provided by the current pandemic to address a number of key issues, allowing the country to make positive, sustainable progress.

The Belfast Agenda and its proposed revitalisation of the city's heart, reflects a real desire to bring thousands of people back to live, work and play in the capital.

Before the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed, Belfast was moving towards realising the long-anticipated potential in our city. While Covid-19 has obstructed this progress in the short term, the vital signs remain strong.

Two key challenges, however, must be overcome if Belfast and Northern Ireland's main towns and cities are to embark on their transformation plans: planning and water.

The planning process has not yet been aligned to the policies proposed by the Belfast Agenda.

Delays to planning applications in Northern Ireland are discouraging investors.

The stark differential between Great Britain and NI is likely to be highlighted further with the changes proposed to speed up the English planning system to be fast tracked through by September.

If our towns and cities are to be revitalised, providing thousands of young people with affordable housing and vibrant, sustainable places to live, work and play, quicker planning decisions and more realistic and valid interpretations of what is historically significant are needed urgently.

The second challenge is our water infrastructure. Everyone is becoming increasingly aware of the need for urgent action to be taken with regard to how NI Water is funded. This issue is now having an impact on the ground, preventing investors from bringing forward badly needed projects.

If we are to realise the objectives of the Belfast Agenda, then the material intensification of use of space and resources requires additional investment in our water infrastructure, estimated at approximately £2bn.

Build to rent and co-living schemes are a fast-growing trend in Great Britain.

In Belfast alone, almost 25,000 people (mostly under the age of 35) are employed in IT firms, with this sector being a major driver of our economic rebalancing.

However, for this growth to continue city centre office accommodation and appropriate residential developments are essential.

If development height and use restrictions, heritage considerations, current planning timelines and water infrastructure investment can be properly addressed,

Belfast and Northern Ireland's urban centres will be able to regenerate and repopulate much more effectively, sustainably and quickly, with an incredibly positive impact on both the economy and quality of life for everyone in NI.

David Jones is head of real estate at Belfast-based law firm, Tughans

Belfast Telegraph