Newton Emerson: Belfast Harbour's approach to development would have avoided the city's Tribeca fiasco

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

An artist's impression of the proposed Tribeca development in Belfast city centre.
An artist's impression of the proposed Tribeca development in Belfast city centre. An artist's impression of the proposed Tribeca development in Belfast city centre.

It is a tale of two cities in Belfast, and not just in the usual sense. Beside the Titanic Centre, work has promptly begun on the £175 million ‘Loft Lines’ project, a riverfront development of 800 build-to-rent and affordable high-rise apartments.

Meanwhile, the £500m ‘Tribeca’ mixed development in the city centre appears permanently stalled. Much of its huge 12-acre site has been left to rot for 20 years.

This is a complex comparison and parallels should not be overdone. However, one distinction that jumps out is that both sites are under dramatically different governance.

Loft Lines, part of the Titanic Quarter regeneration project, is in the Belfast Harbour Estate – a ‘trust port’ covering one-fifth of Belfast’s surface area. The estate is a sort of Victorian development corporation, created by Act of Parliament in 1847 to operate, maintain and improve the harbour. With no private or public shareholders, it effectively owns itself. It is run by a board of between 10 and 15 commissioners, appointed by Stormont but independent of it, with positions publicly advertised.

Belfast city centre, of course, is an ever-changing patchwork of private and public property, under a bewildering mix of council and Stormont control. Assembling a large development site there is inevitably a longer, messier process. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe the harbour estate would have bought the hill of magic beans Tribeca seems to have become. Titanic Quarter is a far larger project, involving decades of partnership with private developers. It has had its problems, critics and delays, yet still nothing approaching the fiasco in central Belfast.

This is not an argument for favouring unelected technocrats over imperfect democracy. Four of the harbour commissioners must always be Belfast city councillors and their role on the board is equivalent to company directors – they have genuine power.

At Belfast City Council, decisions are made by unelected senior officials and councillors mainly perform a scrutiny function. Belfast’s councillors have tried to hold the failure of Tribeca to account, without success. Part of the problem is that Stormont has been heavily involved and the division of responsibilities obstructs and obscures decisions. This is a wider problem across Northern Ireland, where councils have no say over roads, for example, unlike in the rest of the UK and Ireland.

What Belfast Harbour proves is the value of simplicity. A small, focused team with almost complete control over the area and a well-defined development objective can deliver what often seems to be the only part of Northern Ireland that works.

The make-up of the team scarcely seems to matter, if its members will forgive me for saying so. The four current councillors are from Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and the Greens, although at other times unionists predominate. The chair was previously the top unelected official at Lisburn council.

Extending a similar model into the city centre is an obvious conclusion and has been done before. The Laganside Corporation, which operated from 1989 to 2007, developed more of Belfast than is often realised, including the Ormeau Gasworks and the Cathedral Quarter.

The development commissions for Derry and Craigavon are two other fascinating precedents. History records them as failures, as they coincided with the outbreak of the Troubles, yet they achieved a great deal within their remit.

The Londonderry Development Commission is particularly worth recalling, given recent underinvestment in the north west. An unelected cross-community committee was set up in 1968, replacing the city and county councils, with a budget of £2 billion at today’s prices. It was tasked with delivering 10,000 new houses, 12,000 new jobs and the modernisation of all public amenities, including roads, utilities, recreation and education. Everything was to be completed by 1981.

Most of this had been achieved or set in motion when the commission was wound up in 1973 and most of it was ultimately delivered. The investment must have contributed to Derry becoming relatively peaceful in the latter half of the Troubles.

Replacing councils with an unelected committee was considered acceptable to undo gerrymandering. It would be unacceptable today. But consider what radical proposals are made for post-Brexit development: free ports, enterprise zones, city deals.

Town and city centres are dying because conventional planning and development cannot keep pace with economic and technological change. Tribeca is a good illustration. It replaces a retail-led scheme, made obsolete by online shopping, with an office-led scheme, now made obsolete by home working.

A time-limited development commission, for areas facing a development crisis, should not be a far-fetched solution.