Brendan Mulgrew: We can do better than tolerate a city of ruins
"Development of the city centre should not be led by the agenda of the private developer but surely needs to take place in a managed way which adheres to an established and agreed policy framework."
I THINK we can all accept that Belfast is far from perfect. We so some things very well and particularly during the summer, with outdoor concerts galore, with the city centre and the streets out to Cathedral Quarter packed with revellers you can really feel you are living in a modern European capital.
Likewise with the big events such we have hosted in the past such as the Giro, major sporting finals, the MTV awards, all of those flagship occasions helped put the city on the global map.
But there are still too many unaddressed issues which hold the city back. There has been significant media and political focus recently on some specific parts of the city, especially the north west quarter, where there are particular problems around drug abuse, anti-social behaviour and unfortunately there are some areas in which are, let's say off putting, particularly at night time.
The under development, you can even say abandonment, of streets around what was to be the Tribeca project is actually very sad to witness. I took a stroll around North Street recently and was met by boarded up windows, empty streets. It is clear too that there are addiction and homelessness issues in play which are not easily addressed.
However, we can do better than tolerate a city of ruins, and even off Garfield Street and North Street there are some shops, bars and cafes which have survived and in fact which do well, and which are a testament to the courage and conviction of their owners, the Deer's Head among them. There is a bar and management which deserves to be successful.
There are many contributing factors and if the problems are myriad, then the solution is complex too. Chris McCracken from the Linen Hall Business Improvement District (BID) made an important contribution to the debate on the airwaves last week.
He pointed out that the current regeneration model for Belfast is not working and argued, not unreasonably, that too many government departments share out the responsibility for different elements of regeneration. That has led to signifiant redevelopment projects not moving forward and new projects being stuck in planning stage.
So what is the answer? Some European cities have appointed regeneration agencies where real power and funding is genuinely devolved to the agency which in turn sets out a broad planning and policy framework within which new projects are delivered. Can that approach work in Belfast and across Northern Ireland?
Here, it is not unusual to have a development project which will require some agreement and input from the Department for Infrastructure, Department for Communities, Invest NI and Belfast City Council. That level of bureaucracy can lead to a situation where planning applications can take years instead of months to be decided, and where each application is considered in isolation.
Development of the city centre should not be led by the agenda of the private developer but surely needs to take place in a managed way which adheres to an established and agreed policy framework. We have been listening to plans for the North Street area for literally 20 years now, and we seem as far away as ever from a shovel going into the ground. That’s simply not the way to build our city.
As Chris McCracken pointed out, a Belfast Regeneration Agency (not to be confused with the existing Belfast Regeneration Directorate, which is a unit within Department for Communities) could provide a more efficient way to free up projects, get development moving and it is a challenge for any incoming Executive to take forward.
The recent focus on areas where anti social behaviour is prevalent has unfortunately led to some reactive and short term suggested responses. That was evident last week when a Belfast City Council committee was asked to consider closing Crescent Park between dusk to dawn and to remove more of the benches in the park, all with the apparent intention of tackling anti social behaviour.
Crescent Park is an oasis of green in the busy Botanic Avenue / Upper Crescent / University Road area and is perhaps the one park which as things stand remains open 24 hours. The buildings around the park have character and when combined with the green space of the park it makes for a square which is quite unique in Belfast. With improved lightning recently installed it has the potential to become a healthy inclusive and open space for workers in the area, commuters and visitors.
The answer to anti social behaviour, homelessness, drug abuse cannot simply be to close our eyes, close gates and hope the problems go away. It might move the problem on for a street or two but the problem still remains. I have confidence that our elected representatives will take a longer term and more holistic view of the issue when they come to reconsider it next month.
The same approach to developing our major city would be very welcome too.
Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast