Posted on Thursday 15 March 2012 by Ulster Business

Belfast City Council takes strategic initiatives

Pictured at the launch of the investment package are the six party leaders from Belfast City Council: Jim McVeigh (Sinn Fein), Robin Newton (DUP), Maire Hendron (Alliance), Tim Attwood (SDLP), Davy Browne (UUP) and Hugh Smyth (PUP).

John Simpson finds there is much to praise in Belfast City Council’s recently announced investment package and plans for economic regeneration of the city

Belfast City Council has taken a welcome and useful initiative affecting the economic and social development of the City potentially investing over £200m.

Some of the headlines have focused on the upgrading and extension of the Waterfront complex costing £20m. However, the details are wide ranging and have the potential to improve services, facilities and amenities across the City. The north foreshore scheme for a Green Economy Business Park may invest £8m. The Forth River Business Park may become the base for an £8m Innovation Centre.

The full plan contains over 100 projects and community schemes with an emphasis on the merits of the most needy areas ranging from a possible Shankill Piazza to regeneration in a west Belfast Gaeltacht Quarter.

The development and regeneration of Belfast city region is critically important both to people who live within the city and also, because of the extensive and wide ranging indirect linkages, to the whole Northern Ireland regional economy. However, the governance and administration of development and regeneration policies is more complex than in many other comparable cities in Britain.

Belfast is both a major city in its own right and also the ‘seat’ of regional government. Consequently, there is significant overlap in the responsibilities of the many public agencies. Stormont based departments are serially responsible for roads (drainage and sewerage), public sector housing, public transport services, education, health and social services. The City Council is responsible for civic amenities of many types, including sports grounds, parks and leisure facilities, as well as waste collection and disposal, along with crematoria and burial facilities.

In the last 50 years, the imbalance between central government and local government, Stormont and the City Hall, has increased.

An end to centralisation at Stormont

The trend to place more responsibility in Stormont was driven by several factors. First, because of the distribution of Northern Ireland’s population, province-wide coherence has given an organisational logic to centralisation. The creation and evolution of one public sector organisation for public transport, by rail and bus, was economically and socially sensible. Belfast Corporation controlled bus and tram services are a distant memory.

A second reason for greater centralisation can be attributed to the search for governance arrangements that were less vulnerable to complaints of inefficiency or unfair political partiality. The creation of the Housing Executive removed local government from what was then a controversial arena.

A third reason for increased centralisation at Stormont was that, whilst Belfast might be large enough to sustain efficient administration, most other local government units were too small to carry a full range of public services.

The forthcoming reform of local government opens new horizons for the reconsideration of the policies and effectiveness of public sector influence in localities based on the evolving natural population centres around Northern Ireland. This is particularly important for Belfast and Derry City. Both cities have the potential and some of the organic interest groups to take advantage of (and contribute to) a major urban development impetus.

New powers for the City

In Belfast, a big initiative has been launched by the City Council.

The Belfast City Investment Programme, 2012-2015, is a challenging wake-up announcement that there is a recognition that the process of urban regeneration and redevelopment needs to be stimulated through an appreciation of the factors that will give stimulus in both direct investments and indirectly through giving assurance to private sector investors.

The Belfast Investment Programme is important as much for its coherence as it is for the actual scale of capital investments in the next four years.

The Belfast Programme is overdue, in terms of the merits of the main proposals, but it is also ahead of the curve in terms of local government reform. The concepts fit logically into the expected reshaping of the boundaries of local government units (which is more significant outside Belfast City) and the reallocation of devolved local responsibilities.

The devolution of general responsibility for town planning decisions (subject to various caveats) gives a symbolic and substantive impetus to local government. The expectation is that the unacceptable standards that were evident pre-1972 are now gone and forgotten.

A wider agenda

The proposed allocation of expanded powers to local government may be less extensive than would match the ambitions of city councils. In particular a balance must be found between the respective roles of the Roads and Transport divisions of the Department of Regional Development, the regeneration remit of the Department of Social Development (with its current emphasis on Street-scape planning) and the City Council.

The present arrangements create an unfortunate combination where the City Council has little influence or responsibility for the Street-scape in the main urban centre and the traffic management plans as they affect the commercial, industrial and leisure activities that are central to the further development of the City.

The argument that the City Council should have a clearer and broader remit on aspects of the physical infrastructure merits further clarification in the legislation, now due, on local government reform. There is also merit in creating scope, within defined limits, for the City Council to be given greater flexibility for social and community services.

The Belfast Investment programme includes a number of useful projects that are already within its remit. These include support for local communities, advice services, and projects drawing from the Local Investment Fund, the Social Investment Fund, Neighbourhood Renewal Funding and, by extension, using these funds to leverage support from the EU regional development funds.

Belfast City Council has also proposed a £34m investment in job creation and local economic growth.

This part of their ambitions is more contestable. Where the proposals extend into education, training and skills development, these are all necessary but less easily justified unless they come within the remit of the education and training world. There are a number of local enterprise agencies in the Belfast area. These need to be sustained and developed but not by separation from the remit of Invest NI, which needs to give them a higher priority.

There is less controversy in the Council’s ambition to take a direct role in activities to encourage tourism, arts, culture and creative industries. However, any overlap and tensions in providing for visitor services and sponsoring events where the Council, the Visitor Centre and the Tourist Board all have interests should be avoided.

Delivery Challenge

Belfast City Council has made a dramatic and persuasive bid to deliver a highly leveraged investment programme. It deserves strong support. Finding adequate funding is not guaranteed. However, the delivery mechanisms must now meet this challenge.


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