City of Belfast: Development

Part of the debate – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:15 pm on 5th October 1998.

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Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:15 pm, 5th October 1998

The issue I want to address is the development of the city of Belfast in the widest possible context. Most of us are aware that in the last century Belfast was a tremendous industrial powerhouse, and some of us would like to see it being a powerhouse again — perhaps in the technological sense of the twenty-first century. The one thing militating against that is a tremendous lack of co-ordination across all the Government Departments. I raise the suggestion in passing that when the Assembly gets organised perhaps we should have a Junior Minister for Belfast to co-ordinate work across the Departments, but I will leave that for the moment.

The whole community in Belfast has made tremendous strides in redeveloping and rebuilding the city, in both physical and human fabric terms. I have serious concerns, about the opportunities missed and squandered, just as I am pleased about the opportunities used. I would like to draw attention to some of those concerns, and I hope I will have a chance to debate this at greater length at a later stage.

While there are piecemeal plans, there is an almost total absence of any overview, co-ordination or integrated plan for the development of the city, and that is my overriding concern. There are a number of component parts to any worthwhile development strategy: constructing the physical attributes; developing a transport system; connecting the education system to the strategy; the economic aspect that involves people rather than bland structures; and generally ensuring that the health and social services underpin the whole thing so that when things go wrong, or when people are either ill or at a disadvantage, they are supported.

I could further subdivide the components, but it is not essential to do so at this stage to make my point. In our system, as I see it, all these parts function independently, and there is little linkage between them. Much, but not all, of the potential synergy is lost at a considerable cost to the city in both financial and human terms. Some five or six years ago, those of us who were on Belfast City Council were permitted to raise a small amount of money from the rates to promote the economic development of the city. We raised £1 million and we used that to unlock a further £1 million of EC funding. Tremendous strides have taken place, with many of the targets achieved across a whole range of programmes, unlocking some of the bottlenecks and providing opportunities for the people. I pay tribute to my colleague Mr Empey, sitting fornenst, to use the Ulster-Scots word. He has done an outstanding job in providing leadership, strength and drive.

In the city council we have built our whole agenda around three themes: community economic development; the development of existing businesses; and promoting inward investment where possible. I must emphasise that in most cases we have surpassed our own expectations, and successes range right across the whole spectrum including community projects, those which strengthen our retail sector, those working to build confidence and capacity in small business and those helping to build a formidable network of friends and allies across Europe and North America with a view to supporting the work of the Industrial Development Board.

We have mobilised and encouraged people and empowered them to believe in themselves and achieve their full potential.

I am seriously concerned that the efforts of the council and its staff are often frustrated by what can only be described as a distinct lack of enthusiasm. I have heard others put it much more strongly, using terms such as "lack of co-operation" or "petty rivalry". In that context I refer to some of the Government’s organs and agencies.

One of the issues that concerns me is European funding. It is great at the moment with structural and social funds. We even had the peace and reconciliation fund. But Objective 1 status is at risk, and the question that must be answered is what happens when the funds run out. Who will organise the exit strategy and who will be left holding the baby?

I am particularly concerned about land availability and the structured land-use strategy that we need. Land use is fundamental to any development plan, but we do not have a strategy, and I am not sure whether we even have a complete list of land availability in Belfast.

In addition, we have tremendous problems with the Planning Service of the Department of the Environment. For all sorts of petty bureaucratic reasons, it exerts a stranglehold and obstructs much necessary and desirable development.

There is poor co-ordination between the various subsections of the Department of Economic Development. They all do their own thing, sometimes communicating with each other but often acting like strangers. We desperately need a united, co-ordinated approach. Another concern is the total lack of any transport strategy for the city. We have Translink, Citybus and Northern Ireland Railways, and we all have a lot to learn.

The gasworks development has been left idle for the last two years because of petty obstruction by the planners. First, they said that Belfast City Council had to spend £500,000 on widening the Ormeau Road some 600 to 700 yards from the gasworks site. That project was needed in any case, but they saw the opportunity to lumber the city council with the burden for it. Now that that matter has been resolved, they have blocked the developments because they have decided not to allow any cars on the gasworks site. I am at a loss as to why they insisted on widening the road for cars supposedly coming in and out of the gasworks when it now transpires that there is not to be any adequate car park for those who are there. There are some 1,000 to 1,200 jobs hanging on that bit of petty bureaucracy, and that situation cannot be allowed to continue much longer.

The north foreshore is another issue. Some 330 acres of European prime site would be ideal for a bio-technology park, where the universities could co-operate and we could create a massive web of twenty-first century jobs. The city council has spent over 40 years reclaiming land from the sea and recently spent £20 million on cleaning it up. Some 120 acres of it are now ready for development. It is ideal for the science and technology park that this city and country badly needs. The Department of the Environment has fobbed us off for the past three or four years, saying that the Harbour Commissioners wanted it. We now know that they do not want it; but still we cannot have it. Thousands of pounds worth of methane gas, which could have been used to make electricity, has been blown off that site.

I will briefly mention the D5 and hypermarket developments. Sainsbury’s at Forestside has devastated the Ormeau Road, as will the D5 development the city centre. There has been much indecision in relation to the city’s southern road approaches and the inner-city distributor box. That box will cut a swathe through the southern centre of the city, from the Grosvenor Road, through Durham Street, Hope Street, Bankmore Street and across through the gasworks, seven acres of which has been blocked because of that.

Finally, I want to raise the issue of the privatisation of the port of Belfast. Will that privatisation be like the airport one, where millions were made? Who will be the beneficiary of the port’s privatisation? Some 2,000 acres of the best development land in Europe are attached to the port of Belfast — 600 acres on the Antrim shore and 1,400 on the County Down shore.

This offers the potential for jobs to a much wider community than those ratepayers in Belfast.

Many opportunities have been squandered due to muddle and confusion. I would like to have the opportunity to raise this issue in a more general debate, but I emphasise the urgent need for a co-ordinated strategy here, and I believe it falls to the Assembly to take the lead in this. We should discuss how we can co-ordinate development in this region, and it may be that, in due course, we will need a junior Minister for Belfast.