Posted on Sunday 13 October 2013 by Ulster Business

John Simpson

John Simpson finds both laudable ambition and a degree of naivety in Belfast City Council's new Masterplan for the city.

Belfast City Council has launched a citywide Masterplan for the development of the civic assets of the city in the years up to 2015 and beyond. It offers a coherent and understandable description of how the Council would wish the City to develop and, in support, has listed a number of actions and projects for the City Council to implement.

The Masterplan includes a big expansion of the Waterfront Hall to be better able to cope with conferences and exhibitions.

In recent weeks other plans for strengthening the quality of life and living standards in Belfast has been under the microscope of a team of six experts seconded from IBM to test, validate and/or amend the current planning ambitions. The advice of the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge team will be published during October and comes at an opportune moment. The advice of IBM on tackling deprivation and refreshing housing policies may be critically influential.

Belfast needs a regeneration strategy for the whole city region that takes account of, first, the existing deficiencies in the social and economic infrastructure and, second, anticipates what people (as citizens, consumers and employees) will ask for in the next 20 years.

Nostalgia can be, unfortunately, an attractive emotional force. Easy phrases such as 'revitalise the high street' and 'reduce the congestion caused by large scale commuting' stretch the credibility of officials who are asked to implement suitable planning policies. Nostalgia, without an understanding of the wider forces of change, is the motivation of King Canute.

The early acclaim and now the later cynicism for the ideas espoused by Mary Portas, as the Government adviser on city centre policies, illustrates the deceptive nature of apparently straightforward concepts. Her remit, on policies to revive and sustain the 'high street' can now be seen to have been too narrow.

Comprehensive city-wide planning is a laudable ambition. Its delivery is a complex matrix of interacting participants. A macro overview of the society of a large city-wide area must be consistent with the design for smaller subdivisions such as the city centre and each of the identified internal sub-regions and the functional responses to economic and social questions.

Perhaps the biggest intellectual hurdle in the appreciation of the value of comprehensive planning for large urban regions, such as Belfast, is to recognise the difference between an ambitious (and undeliverable) grand redesign for much of the urban infrastructure and a realistic appreciation of how incremental changes can and should be foreseen and facilitated.

Todays' planners do not have a choice on whether to knock down whole networks and start again. Today, the question is how an ambitious incremental process can be made effective.

The Belfast Masterplan is a constructive and welcome initiative. However, the City Council would acknowledge that the delivery of a full multidisciplinary plan calls for the support of Stormont Departments on, for example, roads, public transport, housing, schools and health care. Overall planning policy will become a City responsibility when responsibility transfers on the re-organisation of local government.

A parallel hurdle is that a comprehensive plan must articulate and prioritise the possible actions of each of the relevant major public agencies which have different decision making responsibilities and hierarchies. The collective remit of the several and varied agencies should, ideally, be integrated by a 'lead' agency.

To the credit of Belfast City, the officials are working through a Delivery Forum. This is to be a guiding forum involving other agencies in the public and private sectors.

At one level, the current City Masterplan is more visionary than operational. On a different level, the statement on spatial objectives comes closer to a sequence of operational decisions. All of these variables depend first on developers being motivated to make investments and second on the planning authorities offering (or refusing) planning permission when appropriate.

The Masterplan sets out the ambitions for Belfast to be:

• A learning city
• An accessible and connected city
• A low carbon city
• A digital city, and
• A neighbourhood city

The delivery route for these broader visions is analysed in over 35 subdivisions. Many of these must be qualified as depending on private and public enterprises being attracted to these challenges. The Masterplan is stronger for this planning matrix but still not guaranteed.

The more direct physical aspects of the Masterplan are outlined in the spatial priorities for parts of the city. In the City Centre, there is a further subdivision analysing possible priorities in the centre, cathedral quarter (including the site of the expanded University of Ulster campus), the east bank area, the west link and the area around Shaftesbury square. Beyond the city centre, there are suggestions for the Titanic and Harbour catchment to the north and the University catchment to the south.

The critical test for the Masterplan is not whether the conceptual ideas make sense, which without commitment to them being implemented, they do. The critical question is whether there is sufficient leverage or incentives to put in place the improved public sector infrastructure (social housing, schools, roads, bridges, traffic management, better car parking, road realignments and additional green space) and facilitate complementary private sector developments. The Masterplan is, in reality, a matrix of ideas. At this stage, the degree of fulfilment and its timing remains in doubt.

The IBM team is publishing their ideas on aspects of social policy, including welfare support and housing, which might be added to the Masterplan. The team has chosen to review the situation in some of the most deprived wards in the City. The recommendations will be keenly reviewed by the City Council but will also be a challenge to the departments of central Government holding these social policy responsibilities.

Shortly, there will be arrangements for the commercial interests in parts of the city to come together to develop their own ideas within Business Improvement Districts. These Districts will be a test of collective self-interest since schemes will be financed by an extra levy on businesses in the defined area.

The most high profile debate on one major aspect of the City Masterplan is the debate about the changing structure of the 'high street' in the city centre. The strong statement from the former Chairman of John Lewis that, for them, a city centre store is not feasible is a clear indication the changing commercial logic and appreciation of consumer interests.

Market forces, combining commercial logic and revealed customer preferences, means that planning policies need to adapt to out of centre dispersal for some large scale retailing. In the review of rating valuations, city centre retail property must seek some significant relief and out-of-town centres should expect to face higher valuations.

Planning issues on retailing, customer access, space for (and standards) of new housing will all become a challenge to the City authorities when the Reform of Public Administration is finalised and most planning decisions become a decision of the devolved planning policies due to be passed to the City in the next two years.

For elected representatives and their city officials, there is now a major opportunity to adapt the city Masterplan and a major challenge in the search for updated planning policies. Has King Canute been washed away?

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