Before we move to the next item on the Order Paper, which is the motion on the Committee for Social Development’s report on the inquiry into town centre regeneration, I advise Members that certain matters relating to the draft Planning Policy Statement 5 are subject to judicial review. I understand that those matters concern the decision-making process under which draft PPS 5 was developed and adopted. Although the subject of the motion itself is not sub judice, I warn Members that sub judice rules apply to the matters related to the draft PPS 5 that are under review. Any reference to them should be avoided.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 15 minutes to propose and 15 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Social Development on its inquiry into town centre regeneration; and calls on the Minister for Social Development to implement the recommendations.
The Committee for Social Development began its inquiry into town centre regeneration around two years ago. It has been a significant undertaking, during which the Committee received and reviewed a great deal of evidence from councils, regeneration bodies and the Department. The Committee also made fact-finding visits to examples of regeneration best practice. Informed by those visits and by the evidence, the Committee deliberated at some length on its conclusions.
I thank the witnesses for their evidence and patience. I thank also the current and previous Committee staff for their assiduous hard work on the report and the current and previous members of the Committee for Social Development for their contribution to the inquiry. I am a bit of a johnny-come-lately to the inquiry: I waited for others to do the hard work, and I came along at the end and poached the goal.
Urban regeneration is a responsibility of the urban regeneration and community development group in the Department for Social Development, and it accounts for annual capital expenditure of tens of millions of pounds. The larger parts of that spend go to Belfast and Londonderry, and the remainder goes to the regeneration of our hub towns and smaller cities. Those towns and smaller cities form the heartland of Northern Ireland. They combine some of the most beautiful, historic and vibrant places with important economic, retail and population centres. Their regeneration, following historic underinvestment, and, in some cases, decline, is central to Northern Ireland’s future well-being.
The Committee’s inquiry into town centre regeneration cuts across a few Departments’ responsibilities, but the Committee’s recommendations are very clearly focused on the Department for Social Development. I therefore welcome the Minister for Social Development’s presence in the Chamber.
Rather than listing all the recommendations in the Committee’s report, I will highlight a few key elements of the inquiry. Just after the inquiry commenced, the Committee sought information from the Department on its overarching strategy for town centre regeneration. The Department advised the Committee of the difficulties that it had experienced in the development of that strategy, including the division of responsibilities across Departments, the disruptive impact of the suspension of the Assembly and the review of public administration.
Around 18 months after the original questions were posed, officials gave evidence to the Committee on the Department’s internal stocktake on urban regeneration. They indicated that no strategic framework currently exists to determine the direction of the urban regeneration and community development group’s policies and programmes. The Committee was surprised by that, and it was also surprised to learn that urban regeneration policymaking is not always evidence-based and that strong monitoring and evaluation structures were absent from policy development.
If there is no strategic framework, if policy is not always based on evidence and if monitoring and evaluation is weak or mediocre, is it not surprising that stakeholders report dissatisfaction with town centre regeneration? Numerous witnesses to the inquiry indicated that town centre regeneration was haphazard and driven by issues. On the basis of careful consideration of evidence from stakeholders and the Department, the Committee formed the opinion that a characterisation of town centre regeneration as somewhat unco-ordinated appears somewhat accurate. The House will not be surprised that the Committee’s key recommendations centre on that fact.
The Committee recommends that, before public administration is reformed, the Department should develop an overarching town centre regeneration strategy and that ways must be found to work with other Departments with overlapping responsibilities to implement that strategy. The Committee was recently encouraged by interdepartmental working led by DSD on the Including the Homeless strategy. It hopes that the same can-do attitude and approach will be applied by the Department to town centre regeneration and that the Minister will explore improved co-operative arrangements with other Departments or will consider alternative governance arrangements.
Like all Committees, the Committee for Social Development believes that monitoring and evaluation must accompany all important policy objectives. Therefore, the Committee recommends that the Department bring forward its monitoring and evaluation framework, which it is understood to be developing. Committee members believe that town centre regeneration must be monitored to provide a guide for the implementation of policy and evaluated to identify good practice, waste and error. The Committee believes that town centre regeneration should be evaluated through a range of key performance indicators, including economic benefit, community cohesion, poverty, and improved access for disadvantaged and disabled groups.
In selecting organisations to deliver better town centre regeneration, witnesses said — the Committee agrees — that the post-RPA councils would be best placed and appropriately motivated to undertake that role, even if they are somewhat under-resourced. The Committee also feels that the councils’ allocation of time and resources to town centre management bodies represents shrewd investment that will stimulate economic growth in our towns. Therefore, the Committee strongly recommends that councils take a lead role in the delivery of town centre regeneration and receive commensurate funding. It also recommends that that long-term support and seed funding should be provided for town centre management bodies, which might, in order to ensure good value for money, be required to cover more than one town.
The Committee spent some time considering the benefits of business improvement districts, which already operate informally in Northern Ireland and could complement the town centre management bodies that I have mentioned. The Committee commends the Minister for her support of BIDs, and it urges her to bring forward proposals for their statutory introduction. Members have witnessed how run-down districts of urban neighbourhoods have been transformed by the efforts of BIDs or other town centre management bodies. The support that those bodies provide is practical and includes highly visible measures such as co-ordinated district-wide shopfront improvement schemes and evening economy promotions. The Committee believes that the delivery of such practical measures, with their tangible benefits for ordinary ratepayers, is how the Department will and should be judged.
I anticipate that during the debate we will hear about many town centre regeneration projects undertaken by the Department; there have been many good projects. It may even be suggested that much of the evidence given to the Committee was based on a poorly informed perception of town centre regeneration. Perception, though not everything, is important. Recognising that and the difficult budgetary position that the Department and the Executive face, the Committee recommends the development of a town centre regeneration fund. The Committee proposes not to boost expenditure on town centre regeneration — or, at least, not necessarily — but rather to provide a more transparent delivery mechanism for existing funds.
A town centre regeneration fund operates in Scotland and allows town centre stakeholders to bid for resources for capital projects. Projects must fit in with local development plans and be delivered by credible locally based organisations — usually councils but voluntary organisations can also apply. The projects are assessed by an independent panel, and allocations are spread so as to ensure that a fair share of development money goes to smaller towns. Crucially, the projects are rated, and the ratings are published. The Committee believes that a Northern Ireland town centre regeneration fund run along those lines could provide transparent engagement between the Department and key stakeholders and dispel the perception that town centre regeneration can be unco-ordinated and subject to geographical bias.
The inquiry was long, and it involved hard work; yet it has been informative. The Committee feels that town centre regeneration is important for the future of Northern Ireland and deserves an overarching strategy, monitoring, evaluation, appropriate resourcing and a delivery structure involving town centre management bodies that will sit well in large councils.
The inquiry was wide-ranging and touched on other important issues. I am sure that Committee members will want to discuss those issues during the debate. As Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, I commend the report on the inquiry into town centre regeneration to the House.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I commend and thank the Chairperson, the Committee and its staff, past and present, for their hard work and commitment in producing the report. I also thank all those who gave evidence to the Committee.
The development of an overarching policy for town centre regeneration is essential, and revised governance arrangements are necessary to ensure the effective delivery of such a policy. The review of public administration presents an opportunity for the Department to develop policy. Large post-RPA councils with properly constituted town centre management bodies can be the appropriate organisations to manage town centre regeneration. Some of the funding for town centre regeneration should be made through a town centre regeneration fund similar to that operating in Scotland.
Town centre regeneration policy and related planning controls act together to favour the facilitation of town centre or edge-of-centre developments. That should also apply to the important practical issues, such as pedestrianisation and parking facilities. The report identifies the terms of reference for town centre regeneration, which include the identification of areas where the application of regeneration funding has failed to address disadvantage and poverty. The nature and effectiveness of engagement with local communities and other key stakeholders must be considered when developing and taking forward regeneration initiatives.
The lack of a town centre regeneration framework in the North has tended to leave room for opportunist development, rather than planned and researched regeneration. The Committee believes that it is important for an appropriate policy framework to be put in place prior to the advent of the review of public administration. Properly financed post-RPA councils, with the support of appropriate town centre bodies, could be the most effective delivery channels for town centre regeneration. The Committee believes that an overarching strategic framework for town centre regeneration should be developed and put in place before RPA. Control of town centre regeneration should be delegated to the enlarged councils and appropriately constituted town centre partnership bodies. Ring-fenced financial support must also be secured. The Assembly should also consider the provision of appropriate advisory support and liaison for councils.
The Department should publish key performance indicators and implement actions relating to those. Town centre regeneration key performance indicators should include indicators relating to economic activity, community cohesion, poverty, disadvantage and disability access.
The Department should clarify roles and responsibilities in relation to the provision of car-parking capacity and the control of parking charges. That is increasingly an issue in Newry, as the largest shopping centre there recently introduced parking charges. I have had a number of meetings about that issue over the last week. It is impacting on the local community, because that area, which already experienced gridlock, is becoming even more gridlocked. Unfortunately, that will get worse in the lead-up to Christmas. That is an issue that definitely needs to be looked at.
The Department should clarify roles in relation to the pedestrianisation of town centres and how that will impact on all stakeholders, including the visually impaired and the elderly. Another recommendation is that regeneration strategies should include access to decent and affordable housing.
As the Chairperson has stated, the report by the Committee for Social Development is very comprehensive. If implemented, it will be only beneficial and positive for all sections of our community. Therefore, I commend the report to the Assembly for approval.
I am genuinely pleased to speak in support of the report. It is not so long ago that urban regeneration in Northern Ireland referred to little more than the rebuilding of the latest town or city centre to have been the recipient of an IRA bomb aimed at a so-called economic target in a deliberate attempt to destroy the local economy. The past years have seen a welcome change, and policymakers have been able to shift their focus to ensuring that our much-neglected towns and cities receive the care and attention that they badly need to ensure that they are fit for purpose in the early twenty-first century.
The review of public administration offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to radically change the public policy landscape of Northern Ireland. Much of the focus has understandably been on new arrangements for local government, and I fully support the view of the Committee for Social Development that the new, so-called super-councils are appropriate organisations to manage town centre regeneration.
One of the weaknesses of the current arrangements is that functions are spread across Departments, most notably DSD, DRD and DOE. That does not make for quick decision-making. The more powers that are transferred to new councils, the better it will be. I am a long-standing supporter of devolution and believe that government is best delivered and at its most responsive when it is as close to the people as possible. It follows that local councillors, whether in Cookstown, Coleraine or Carrickfergus, are better placed to know the needs and wants of the communities that they serve than unelected civil servants who sit in offices in Belfast.
I have been amazed by some of the decisions that have been taken over the years regarding town centres in my constituency and elsewhere, particularly with the growth of out-of-town developments, which have a detrimental effect on town centres. To that end, I encourage the Minister of the Environment to publish Planning Policy Statement 5 as soon as possible, to give new councils the confidence to introduce and implement regeneration plans without fear of being faced with more new, damaging out-of-town developments.
The new councils will not only need the legal powers to make a difference; they will require sufficient funding to enable them to carry out town centre regeneration functions. That is a key point, because past experience tells us that bureaucracy’s first instinct is to centralise power, not to give it up. One means of centralised Departments retaining power is for them to be seen to hand over powers to local councils but to then starve those councils of the funds necessary to deliver anything meaningful.
The Assembly has received a great deal of criticism from the media and the general public for not being responsive to the needs of the people of Northern Ireland and for being isolated “up there”, remote and cushioned from the problems that ordinary people face in their daily lives. The report will bring practical benefits to the shopping and working environment of our fellow citizens and will restore local accountability. I welcome the report, and I commend it to the House.
I speak as a member of the Committee for Social Development, and I declare that I am a member of Antrim Borough Council. I support the motion. I largely agree with the Chairperson of the Committee, and I thank him for providing the Assembly with a summary of the report. It is a lengthy document, and some Members may not yet be familiar with its contents.
Town centre regeneration is an important issue, and it has already been given a high priority by DSD and the local councils. We want to make our towns and villages better places in which to live and work and to visit. In my constituency of South Antrim, much work has been done on town centre regeneration. Master plans for places such as Crumlin and Randalstown have already been produced, and, a few weeks ago, I accompanied the Minister to the launch of the consultation on the plans for Antrim town.
The report makes 17 recommendations. I do not have time to comment on all of them, but I shall speak about the recommendations that I feel are most important. Other Members have already spoken on those matters, and I shall try not to repeat their contributions. The key recommendation is to introduce a better strategy framework to manage town centre regeneration. I agree 100% with that recommendation; it is an important step that must be taken. The phrase “joined-up government” is used for many issues, but it must become a reality in town centre regeneration. In the past, urban regeneration was not managed well. It is hard to carry it out when DOE, DRD, DSD and local councils are all doing different bits and pieces here and there.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
The second recommendation is that the new super-councils must have greater responsibility. That goes hand in hand with the first recommendation. The framework must be put in place soon, before the transfer of responsibilities to the new super-councils under the RPA.
The Committee also recommends that the Department provide long-term core funding for town centre management partnerships; I strongly support that. Town centre management is funded from a variety of sources, but that does not provide the stability that is needed to plan ahead.
Undoubtedly, effective partnership management is vital for successful town centre regeneration. Money must be made available for that, and, to keep costs down, consideration should be given to giving partnership teams responsibility for more than one town in each council area.
The report covers the issue of waste ground and vacant properties. Many villages and town centres have terrible blots on the landscape, and DSD should be able to vest land more quickly and more easily. Some of those sites would be ideal to kick off regeneration instead of sitting empty for years. I will not go into much detail, but anyone who knows Antrim town will know the Ulster Bar corner site, which was an eyesore for years. It is a superb development opportunity, and, in the near future, it will be turned into a library. That should have happened years ago.
Secondly, I will say a few words on social and affordable housing. Decent affordable and social housing should be part of every town centre regeneration plan. Recently, housing has been debated in the Chamber many times in various forms. I want to make the point, once again, that town centre regeneration strategies must include social housing. Redevelopment of brownfield sites and living over the shops offer great opportunities to drive forward the new housing agenda.
I support the motion. I also want to thank the staff and all those people who took part in the inquiry for their efforts. I very much endorse all the report’s recommendations and findings. I want to highlight a few of those recommendations.
Other Members have mentioned recommendation 1, which relates to the need for an overarching strategic framework for town centre regeneration to be developed and put in place before the transfer of responsibilities under RPA. Its importance must be reiterated. The report also recommends further that the Department develop proposals for either improved cross-departmental co-operation or alternative governance arrangements for town centre regeneration.
The Association of Town Centre Management informed the Committee that intervention in town centre regeneration has previously been driven by single issues, rather than an overarching strategic framework. I agree with the association that the lack of policy must, to a large extent, have hindered the growth of town centres. It appears that not only is an overall strategic framework absent, but there is a lack of interdepartmental co-operation, which has resulted in an ad hoc, piecemeal style of working.
Furthermore, the Department, in its evidence to the Committee, admitted that it has no strategic framework to steer its town centre regeneration policies and programmes. It also indicated that the division of responsibility for town centre regeneration between different Departments has caused problems and difficulties.
The Committee also heard from councils that town centre regeneration funding criteria and time frames were unclear. At times, funding is made available at the last minute before the end of the financial year. Having come from the voluntary sector, I certainly know what it is like when calls come from different Departments in February asking for bids to be made in order to use up departmental underspend. Often, projects are rushed through so that the funding that suddenly becomes available can be used. That is not good planning or value for money from the public purse. Without strategic and co-ordinated planning, monitoring of set targets and evaluation of outcome, town centre regeneration will not be effective.
The Committee saw examples of projects at Ballymun and the Dublin docklands in the South. Those huge and impressive projects have a vision to revitalise their entire areas and are supported by strategic planning and proper resources.
I also support the recommendation that the Department delegate control of town centre regeneration programmes to the enlarged councils and appropriately constituted town centre partnership bodies, so that they can focus on regenerating their own town centres.
The energy coming from the Dublin docklands regeneration project was inspirational. The relevant Departments and planners worked together, and that is how joined-up working should be.
Town centre regeneration must not be just an economic matter. I support the recommendation that the Department should set out a menu of town centre regeneration interventions designed to actively address inequality and exclusion and that that be delivered by a range of agencies working in concert.
I refer to the comments of Down District Council.
It said that towns are segregated not only on a sectarian basis but on a social class basis as demarcated by housing. Many people from low-income families who live in housing estates in which there is poor public transport suffer not only economic disadvantage but physical isolation.
I broadly welcome the recommendations of the inquiry into town centre regeneration. If the report is effectively actioned, it has the potential to make real, positive change to town centres. In the time allocated, it is impossible to do justice to the report, which deserves to be comprehensively analysed. I will, therefore, highlight the critical matters of importance to today’s debate from the five principal areas and 17 recommendations in the report. However, this is by no means an exhaustive examination of the critical matters before us.
We must look to the establishment of key performance indicators that afford us the opportunity to appraise our overall approach and to effectively invigorate and breathe new life into town centres. In that respect, we will look at markers of disadvantage, social debarment, and business and commercial interests in an equitable fashion to gauge and identify our progress.
We can utilise the window of opportunity that exists with the review of public administration to address governance and organisational procedures. Identified clearly is what has been termed joined-up government, which amounts to genuine cross-departmental engagement and buy-in that will roll back the barriers to policy development. It is now time to move from rhetoric to reality.
The Committee applied itself to looking at which organisations are best positioned to maximise the benefits of town centre regeneration. Its conclusion that enlarged councils are best placed to do that should be looked on favourably. The transfer of functions to the councils will require that comparable and adequate financial resources are provided to get the enhanced job done.
It is always beneficial to look at best practice elsewhere to examine what actually works. In that respect, the Scottish model of a town centre regeneration fund has many attractive features and has much to commend it. Specifically, it affords the opportunity to have short-term capital investment, in addition to ensuring openness and transparency in investment allocation.
Ring-fencing of financial support for councils to develop town centre regeneration gives the best financial arrangements for councils. Of course, additional services to councils in the form of advisory and liaison roles would complement that arrangement and should be advocated.
The Department has much to offer in respect of linking planning from the regional development plans with operational planning and master planning processes. I encourage the Department to use some blue-sky thinking to produce a vision of how natural assets such as rivers can be included in strategic planning processes.
Continuing in the vein of there being an imaginative and creative response from the Department, the Department should apply itself to the issue of decent and affordable social housing and should focus on how brownfield mixed developments can be best utilised to that end.
The issue of car parking is of the utmost importance, and the provision of adequate spaces is vital. The Department and other relevant Departments should explain their roles and responsibilities in a plain manner that can be easily understood. The issues of car park charges and car park capacity must be taken forward in a sympathetic manner that allows the potential of town centres to be maximised.
In conclusion, we all recognise the positive aspects of business improvement districts; much excellent work has been done in that regard, but there is much more to do. Recommendation 10 speaks specifically to the business improvement districts and includes a request for the Department to bring forward legislation to introduce statutory business improvement districts. I strongly support that approach. It is imperative that that recommendation is given due regard.
I welcome the proposal for the Department to provide the long-term financial resource for town centre management partnerships. In recognition of the fact that enlarged councils will have many town centres within their remit, the Department and the councils must take a joined-up approach with the aim of establishing a value-for-money town centre structure that can deliver for the towns in the council areas.
There are many other important aspects in the report that I have not mentioned, not least the promotion of the night-time economy, the vesting of derelict property and vacant lots, pedestrianisation, and the improvement of shop fronts, all of which are commendable in their own right. It is important that the report on the inquiry is read and reread. There is much to gain, given the review of public administration and the window of opportunity that that affords. I commend the inquiry’s findings to the House.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Committee Clerk and other Committee staff for providing the Committee with valuable backup during the course of the inquiry.
Although I understand that Belfast and Derry were excluded from the inquiry’s terms of reference, as a city person, I believe that a separate inquiry is required to deal with the particular problems that exist in those cities, not least the sequential policy that was operated in Belfast by previous Social Development Ministers and which has been carried on by the current Minister. That policy has serious consequences for people living in north and west Belfast.
If the inquiry and the publication of the report do anything, I hope that they will lead to the proper resourcing and co-ordination of town centres. Many individuals and organisations that appeared before the Committee had, to the point of frustration, been promoting a more joined-up approach to the regeneration of town centres. Almost as one, they spoke of the difficulties that they experienced in trying to hold together town centre structures and in lobbying for assistance — not always financial — and of how they came up against a wall of bureaucracy in the different Departments that they had to deal with. That is not a criticism of those individuals within Departments who tried to make a difference but who found it difficult to do so. We came across people who work locally, within DSD, and who have done sterling work, but, in many ways, they found it difficult working inside a box that did not exist.
I thank my colleague Claire McGill, who constantly reminded us of the plight of Strabane and the surrounding area. Perhaps those of us from the city are too focused on the many problems that we face to understand the wider problems faced by towns — and I learned from this inquiry that those problems are many. I believe that, if adopted by the Department and acted on, the report’s 17 recommendations will go a long way towards overcoming many of the problems faced by town centres. The report gives some pointers on what the problems are and how they should be approached.
I believe that true partnership, which garners all opinions, is the only way forward. However, it has to be a meaningful partnership in which all Departments play a key role with other stakeholders. The partnership should not be built on a “them and us” basis, but on the basis of equality for each element of the partnership. Such a partnership needs to be properly resourced, and Departments must be upfront in allocating resources to town centre management partnerships.
The problem of derelict land in our towns must be tackled, which can help in the repopulating of town centres. Where it was piloted, the LOTS scheme played a part in that, but that has ground to a halt because of a lack of funding. New housing should be planned on derelict land or land that is owned by Departments, should promote mixed tenure housing and should be planned with new shopping developments. I do not believe that any Minister should announce proposed developments if they know that the money for them does not exist. Such announcements may gain column inches in the local press, but they do nothing for the morale and well-being of local towns, especially when towns are building those developments into their masterplans.
We need to look again at the impact that out-of-town shopping centres have on town centres. It is wrong to say that they do not have a negative impact; the evidence is there for everyone to see.
For generations, town centres were the hubs of community life, where everyone from miles around came to shop and socialise. The suggestion that the new councils will control of town centre regeneration post-RPA may be a blessing, because that will put responsibility into local hands. However, that can only be achieved if Departments commit to a proper funding mechanism that will ensure that plans, post-RPA, are successful.
In Committee, I raised the issue of Departments and utility companies carrying out work soon after public-realm work has been completed. In cities and towns throughout the North, there is a patchwork to be seen due to digging. There was a recent example in Cornmarket, Belfast, where public-realm work, which cost the Department for Social Development millions of pounds, was dug up by the Department for Regional Development days after completion. Such instances are serious problems and must be considered. Those responsible must have an idea of the work that needs to be carried out and should be able to include it in restructuring plans.
Some of the remarks about Belfast and Londonderry have been interesting. The Committee began its inquiry into town centre regeneration on 11 October 2007. There were specific reasons for ensuring that the inquiry did not cover Belfast and Londonderry. Indeed, there was a belief that the two cities received the bulk of all funding for regeneration. The Committee set about its work and conducted extensive consultations with towns, many of which were well outside the two main cities. A common theme became apparent to all Committee members, and it was that there was no joined-up thinking or co-ordination by the Department in dealing with towns on a one-to-one basis.
I can speak from experience in my own town centre. Over the past 20 years, when Lisburn representatives sought assistance for town centre regeneration from the Department, they were told not to waste their time applying. We all recognise that during that time, the two main cities faced huge difficulties with regeneration. However, life has moved on, and I am glad that the report highlights a more co-ordinated and productive way forward for town centre regeneration throughout the Province. Many towns have draft plans in operation: Lisburn has issued its draft master plan for consultation. It is good to see the Department and the Minister driving forward those ideas.
I hope that the Minister will take on board the report’s recommendations for moving towards a more formalised process for town centre regeneration. I can only plead with her to ensure that there is a more equitable way of distributing funding for town centre regeneration. The Committee has discussed how that can be done, and, undoubtedly, the Minister has taken some of those ideas on board and will also have some ideas of her own on the issue.
It is good to see that the Committee, after almost two years, has finally produced its report. It contains many recommendations that will aid the development of proper strategies for all town centres in Northern Ireland.
Some town centres’ master plans are further ahead than others. It will be interesting to see each town centre’s master plan, but it will be much more interesting to see the extent to which the plans are implemented in the coming years. The proof of the pudding will be in how we move the strategy forward.
A long list of town centres in Northern Ireland has been neglected for many years; a lot of them for historic reasons. We all know about the need to regenerate the two main cities because of the destruction that was caused there in the past. However, destruction was caused in other town centres, including my own, which is in need of regeneration. The Minister has visited Lisburn and has witnessed those issues. I have no doubt that she will sympathise with the report’s recommendations.
I commend the report.
Like other colleagues, I welcome the report and congratulate the Committee, of which I am no longer a member, on its work.
The report is a timely and substantial piece of work that highlights the fact that, for many years, we have had an ad hoc approach to town centre development and regeneration. Evidence that was brought to the Committee’s attention, particularly by the Association of Town Centre Management, showed that, in the past, intervention in town centre regeneration had been driven by single issues, as opposed to being the result of an overarching strategic framework. Other colleagues mentioned the lack of an overarching strategic framework. It is vital to put that in place; otherwise, we will not progress. Any ad hoc approach will get things wrong and waste scarce resources.
Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce said:
“the lack of a town centre regeneration framework in Northern Ireland had left room for opportunistic development”.
We want co-ordinated development that is in the interests of the business community, the public, consumers and town centre dwellers. It is important to get that right. Therefore, the Committee is correct to put emphasis on that basic guiding principle. I hope that the Department is cognisant of that.
Hitherto, much emphasis has been on Belfast and Derry. It is time to concentrate on smaller towns throughout Northern Ireland. When I listen to ‘The Flower of Sweet Strabane’, I immediately think of our colleague, my good friend Claire McGill, who represents West Tyrone and, in particular, the town of Strabane. She is right to emphasise the importance of such a friendly and interesting town, which I had the pleasure of visiting with the Committee. She is right to put emphasis on the development of the town centre; it is right that people with local interests emphasise the importance of local development. It is good for business and for local people, who will have a sense of identity and ownership. We should encourage that continually.
The report makes several practical suggestions. Recommendation 12 deals with car parking and car park charging, for which it is important to have a co-ordinated policy. There is no point in three Departments looking after all those issues; the new councils should do so, or DSD should do so in conjunction with the new councils.
The report has attempted to reflect some of the issues that are linked to that point. Although the Member speaks of lovely Strabane, I have a prime interest in Ballymoney and Ballycastle, which have suffered as a result of pressure having been put on them by very successful town centres such as Ballymena. However, the issue is about who takes the lead, and that is a fundamental problem. It is all well and good to say that there should be collaboration, but efforts to regenerate town centres fall down because no one is prepared to take the lead responsibility for putting such co-ordination in place. That is the fundamental issue that must be resolved, and I hope that the report will stimulate debate on that point.
I welcome the Member’s remarks. I believe that the Department for Social Development should exercise leadership, but others may believe that local councils should take the lead. Although that is a matter for political debate, we need leadership and co-ordination nonetheless. It is crazy to have the Department of the Environment, DRD and DSD fighting the bit out or being reluctant to cede something to one another.
Pedestrianisation must be reviewed carefully to conform to the real needs of shoppers and others who use town centres. It is also important to identify —
I am running out of time, so I must proceed.
It is also important to identify derelict sites and to have brownfield development. It is vital to have affordable mixed housing development in town centres so that we enliven them and put life back into them.
My colleague Mr Burns talked about flats over shops –
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I was a member of the Committee for Social Development for part of 2007. I am no longer a member of that Committee, but I commend everyone who was involved in producing the report, which is substantial, running to approximately 500 pages.
We have, perhaps, been here before. In 1999, a report was commissioned that had 27 recommendations. I have identified a theme running through the Committee’s new report, which Members referred to. That report contains 17 recommendations, but what will happen to them? The evidence in the report shows that when Committee members mentioned the previous document, Department for Social Development officials told them that a number of those 27 recommendations had been implemented. The point is that if the Committee members did not know that those recommendations had been implemented, perhaps there was something wrong with the way in which that happened. The new report provides us with an opportunity to implement all 17 recommendations. I have doubts about whether that will be possible, but the goodwill exists in the Department to do it.
Recommendation 1 of the report ties in with what I said about the 1999 report. Several Members mentioned an overarching strategy, and that recommendation asks that such a strategy be implemented before the RPA changes are made. Having looked at some of the evidence — not all of it, because, as I said, the report is a 500-page document — I wonder whether there should be a focus on and a priority given to a number of recommendations. My colleague Mickey Brady mentioned car parking, and that is definitely an issue in town centres; it is certainly the case in Strabane. There has been some liaison with car parking attendants, which has borne fruit.
I declare an interest as a member of Belfast City Council. The issues of car parking and pedestrianisation have been raised, but one of the issues for town centre management is that of accessibility. One of the difficulties of pedestrianisation is that those who hold blue badges often find city and town centres more difficult to access after that work has been done. Does the Member agree that that would have to be looked at carefully to ensure that everyone has access to the city centre in the fullest possible way?
Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Member for her intervention, and I agree. I will return to my previous point: it is important that some of the key recommendations are taken forward.
Recommendations 7 and 8 of the Committee’s report address the issues of poverty, disadvantage and inequality. I was interested to hear from some of the witnesses who appeared before the Committee that DSD officials carry out a form of assessment and evaluation of new jobs being created in town centres. That was in reference to a number of new jobs in Lisburn city centre and how they would have a positive effect in the Collin Glen ward. Plenty of work can be done to examine the effect on areas of disadvantage if jobs are created in the town centre.
Victoria Square was also referenced during the inquiry. I know that there was a different economic climate in 2007, but one witness, Mr McGrillen, said that a major initiative was being embarked on to link the jobs in Victoria Square to all the disadvantaged communities in the greater Belfast area. If that sort of work is being done, it is very helpful, and should be carried out in towns as well as cities.
I thank the DSD officials and members of the Committee for Social Development for having representation from Strabane at the Committee, and also for visiting Strabane to find out what has happened there. The Minister visited Strabane last week, and that was a good community engagement.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak about the Committee’s report as a non-member of that Committee. I take a strong interest in these matters. I declare an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council and as a board member of Bangor and Holywood Town Centre Management.
It is important that we acknowledge the challenges facing town centres in Northern Ireland. We are all aware of the change in shopping patterns with the trend being towards out-of-town or edge-of-town shopping. That type of retail holds major attractions for people, including the ease of parking and the fact that they are able to shop in an enclosed framework away from the elements. That trend will remain in the future. The challenge is how we respond to that and revitalise our town centres.
It is unrealistic to try to turn the clock back to protect what we had in the past, or to try to restore that. We need to look at moving forward and doing things differently in our town centres.
I will highlight three elements. First, there must be a different type of retail that appeals to a different type of shopper. Secondly, there is the issue of bringing people back into town centres to reside. That would bring a critical mass of people who would use those shops and other leisure facilities, therefore helping to sustain new economic activity.
There is also the issue of office development and how we can encourage businesses to relocate in town centres where there used to be shops. Leaving aside Planning Policy Statement 5 (PPS5), which we should not delve into at this stage, there are problems with planning. Planning policy often militates against town centres being competitive in office development and steers large developments towards Belfast and Derry. We are losing out on opportunities for back-office development. Brighton has redefined itself from being a seaside resort to a place where much back-office work for the City of London is conducted. Many towns on the edge of Belfast could follow that example.
I want to highlight a number of challenges. I welcome the commitment to the various master plans across Northern Ireland, but there is an issue about how those will be followed up. Given the tight budgetary conditions, will the money be available to address the various recommendations that come forward? We must also recognise that much of the responsibility for delivering on the ideas and master plans will fall on Departments other than DSD, which raises the issue of joined-up government once again.
Does the Member agree that one point of concern is the master plans’ standing in relation to planning in various areas? Much public money is expended on the master-planning exercise, but the Planning Service often considers applications on their individual merits rather than in the context of a master plan.
Given the limited window of opportunity for European Union funding, does the Member agree that all opportunities must be maximised? We must enable town centre management committees and councils to get help in drawing up applications, and the Department should help to set out where funding opportunities lie.
That is another well-made point. I have been disappointed and concerned by the piecemeal approach to European funding over the past number of years. We have missed opportunities to create a lasting legacy on infrastructural improvement.
I also have concerns about the nature of the split of responsibilities among Departments. DSD has the lead role in overall urban regeneration policy, and I commend the Minister and her officials for the leadership that they have shown. However, the Planning Service, Roads Service and other Departments such as DETI and DARD also have responsibilities in this area, and it is sometimes difficult to tie things together. For example, in my constituency, the “front” development in Holywood has encountered problems in the transfer of ownership of a car park that involves DSD and DRD. That should have been a simple process, but it has been held up for years without meaningful explanation and has been a source of great frustration in the community.
Timescales are important to town centre regeneration. In Northern Ireland, bureaucracy sometimes stifles initiatives and discourages people from coming forward with ideas and bringing those ideas to fruition. We must streamline our bureaucracy as much as possible without throwing away any important scrutiny measures. We must ensure that decisions can be taken quickly and effectively and that we can seize the opportunities for regeneration in towns across Northern Ireland.
I went through almost my entire speech without mentioning Queen’s Parade in Bangor, but I commend the Minister for her actions on that project.
I thank the Committee for Social Development for the substantial work that it has done in preparing the work on town centre regeneration and for the opportunity that that affords us to have a wider discussion on an important topic. Assembly colleagues will appreciate that, although I have read the report — I did so yesterday — I have not yet had time to consider fully the Committee’s recommendations. Therefore, I do not intend to comment on those in detail today. I will provide the Committee with a more detailed response in the coming weeks.
I will, however, take this opportunity to comment briefly on the main thrust of the report and on some of the comments made by Members during the debate.
My Department is leading a substantial process of change that will see the delivery of urban regeneration transfer to the 11 new councils in 2011. To help that process, I have tasked officials with creating a new overarching policy and strategy framework for urban regeneration that will be fit for purpose for that new world. That will take some time, but the framework will be ready for use by new councils in 2011. However, time does not permit any legislative changes that may flow from it to be built into DSD’s transfer of functions Bill, which will shortly make its way through the Assembly; future legislation will be required for any such changes.
My Department’s work is aimed at supporting our towns and cities, and the people who work, live and socialise in them. I want that work to continue to be as successful after 2011 as it has been over the past few years. I am mindful of the recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report, which was published on 12 October 2009, into the review of public administration. In that respect, I will do all that I can to ensure that proper resourcing transfers with the functions to the 11 new councils. It will be also vital to create suitable financial and governance arrangements and shared frameworks — much reference was made to the need for strategic frameworks — to underpin the future partnership working arrangements between DSD and post-RPA councils. As Members are only too well aware, although the operational delivery will reside with the councils, the strategy and policy will remain with the Department.
As the House will know, I have been one of the Ministers who is most enthusiastic about transferring central government functions to local government. I fully support a model of enhanced local government, whereby joined-up government can take place at a more local level. That will be challenging work in a period of significant change. However, I am satisfied that we can continue to deliver and also improve the effectiveness of future delivery.
I remain committed to ensuring that all that work will be taken forward with full public consultation and further engagement with the Committee for Social Development. I want the House to be aware and Members to fully appreciate that I am drawn to many of the Committee’s recommendations, such as the need to evaluate properly the impact of our interventions and the need to support councils in town centre management initiatives, perhaps building on the potential of business improvement districts. In fact, last Friday, on the margins of the North/South Ministerial Council meeting in environment sectoral format, I had an opportunity to talk to Minister Poots about that specific issue. I have also written to Minister Poots, to his predecessor, and to the Minister of Finance and Personnel about the value of business improvement districts.
I am particularly interested in the Committee’s proposal for a town centre regeneration fund, as currently exists in Scotland, and that idea may come into its own, particularly in the environment of the ever-tightening budgets that we now face.
Although I acknowledge the value of the Committee’s recommendations, a number of them, as Committee members have acknowledged, appear to fall outside my Department’s remit, albeit they concern areas that have close links to urban regeneration. The other Departments involved are the Department of the Environment, particularly its Planning Service; the Department for Regional Development; and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, because any town in which the population falls below the threshold of 4,500 is the responsibility of DARD. However, I fully appreciate that some towns fall between the two stools. There is, therefore, a need for further discussion, and I am glad that Minister Gildernew and I will discuss the matter.
Although I will highlight such areas in my fuller response to the Committee, I will discuss some matters now. The Committee Chairperson mentioned the monitoring and evaluation framework and the need for it to exist at regional level. I acknowledge fully the historic weaknesses that have existed in that area, and I have undertaken to ensure that the work that is ongoing between the Department of Finance and Personnel and NISRA is implemented and dovetails with the policy strategy framework.
Mr Brady raised the issue of ad hoc development. That is an important area, and DSD is working on the master-planning exercise to address that. Sometimes, however, the reality is that much regeneration is relevant and is often predicated on private sector investors’ willingness to support specific schemes. Therefore, a balanced approach is necessary. Mr Brady also mentioned car parking charges, which, although of interest to the Department and me, remains the responsibility of DRD. My understanding is that tariff setting will remain with DRD even after the responsibility for parking and regeneration moves to the new councils.
Mr Brady also raised other issues that concern Newry. I met representatives of the Newry Chamber of Commerce and Trade about two weeks ago, and I was happy to inform them that we are considering a master plan for the area, as well as public realm schemes for Hill Street and Monaghan Street.
Mr Armstrong and Mr Burns emphasised that local councils are best placed to drive forward regeneration. I agree wholeheartedly, and I was glad that the Committee pointed that out. Given that councils and councillors are best placed to identify local issues, regeneration should reside with local government. Mr Burns also discussed the new opportunities that councils have to spread the costs of town centre management across a number of towns. Indeed, I have local experience of those issues.
Ms Lo highlighted the difficulties of managing available money effectively. That is why I commissioned work on the overall policy framework and funded a huge increase in the work to create development master plans. That local work will provide a better starting point from which to make decisions to allow funding to be diverted to new schemes.
Mr Easton raised the issue of ring-fencing funding on transfer to councils. That issue is close to my heart because if councils are to deliver on the agenda in question, they will need the resources to do so. He also emphasised the role that social and affordable housing has to play in town centre regeneration. Again, I do not resile from that viewpoint. I was very happy to secure and divert funding to lot schemes for town centre living. As Members will be aware, I see that as an issue of town centre regeneration. I was very happy to devolve that responsibility to local councils, and I was also very happy to ensure that the councils will be provided with additional finance in the meantime. I am sure that Mr Fra McCann will welcome that. In the meantime, I diverted those resources to ensure that all those towns that are exploring and pump-priming lots will be able to do so.
Mr Fra McCann spoke about the critical issue of ensuring that public realm schemes are delivered effectively. He raised the very fair point that, quite often, utility providers come after work has been done and dig up the streets that we have put down very carefully. In that respect, there is a clear duty on the Utility Regulator to enter into direct discussions with the Department to ensure that that does not happen and that we have better synchronisation.
Councils also have a role to play in the public realm in that they have a very clear duty to ensure its cleanliness. Those maintenance regimes are ongoing, and I hope that councils pick up on that point.
Mr Craig reflected on DSD’s change of approach in recent years to towns and cities, particularly Belfast and Derry.
In my time as Minister, I have supported significant investment in both LOTS schemes and public realm schemes, and I have emphasised the need for preparatory work to be carried out, particularly on master planning and the whole public realm. Underpinning all that work is partnership with councils, businesses and the general community.
Mr Alban Maginness raised the issue of co-ordination. Mr Storey pointed out that somebody must take a lead. I foresee councils, with their new roles, as being central to that. At present, responsibility for policy and delivery lies with DSD; however, operations will transfer to councils.
Mrs McGill spoke about Strabane, where I was glad to be last Wednesday night. I had a useful meeting with local representatives and the local community. The issue of the Melvin bridge was raised, and I look forward to the council’s economic appraisal’s being delivered for my Department’s adjudication. She raised the issue of master plans, which I will ask my officials to review. I will get back to the Member on that issue.
Mrs McGill also referred to the EDAW report, which was undertaken following departmental reorganisation in 1999-2000, and she stressed the need for it to be made clear when recommendations are implemented. I reassure the House that I will make a clear response to the Committee on the accepted recommendations, along with a time frame for implementation.
Mrs Long made the point that regeneration must balance community needs with those of town centre users, particularly for people with disabilities. I acknowledge that that is a difficult issue that needs to be addressed better at policy level; during consultation with stakeholders, especially for public realm schemes; and at implementation level.
Dr Farry mentioned Queen’s Parade in Bangor, where I am glad that progress is being made. I was pleased to visit Bangor some weeks ago. I think that I was asked two questions on Queen’s Parade during today’s debate. Dr Farry said that more of our towns and cities must come up with realistic uses. Mrs Long’s point about the master plan’s linking better into the wider planning context was well made. That is why I believe that we need better co-ordination and better input from the other Departments.
Mrs Dolores Kelly said that funding for the various schemes should be made available so that those involved in town centre regeneration are better informed. That goes back to the simple issue of the need for better communication, co-ordination and input by all the stakeholders and Departments involved.
The debate has been most useful and is one to which I have greatly enjoyed contributing. My officials were also happy to contribute. In fact, over the past two and a half years, I have visited Belfast, Derry and almost all the major towns in Northern Ireland that are at either the public realm consultation or implementation phase. They are probably at the draft master plan stage. We are now at the stage of introducing development briefs for the full master plan. The process can take a considerable time. I suppose that we are all asking for patience —
However, the direct involvement of central government, local government, the wider community and stakeholders is required.
Finally, I thank the Committee for its report. I will be more than happy to provide a full response to all its recommendations in the coming weeks.
At the outset, I declare an interest as a member of Carrickfergus Borough Council, as a director of the Carrickfergus Development Company and as a member of the steering group that is working on the Carrickfergus master plan with departmental officials.
On behalf of the Committee for Social Development, I thank, as always, the Minister and Members for their contributions to the debate. I also commend the Committee staff for their hard work during the lengthy inquiry.
The Committee for Social Development’s inquiry into town centre regeneration has been a long journey, and I am pleased to be able to bring that journey to a conclusion. I hope that when stakeholders in towns and cities across Northern Ireland look back on the debate, they will see it as a watershed moment in which a better understanding of the issues was developed and further progress towards improvement began.
The members of the Social Development Committee are drawn from some of Northern Ireland’s most picturesque, historic and economically important towns and cities, from Carrickfergus and Comber to Lisburn, Ards, Antrim, Cookstown, Newry and even Londonderry and Belfast. I must also mention Strabane, or I will fall out with some Members. Some of those towns and cities have benefitted from substantial capital investment by the Department.
The Committee believes that, along with that investment, the continuing validity and vibrancy of those towns and cities, particularly the ones that lie outside the main conurbations, is a tribute to the hard work, persistence and expertise of councils, town centre management partnerships and informal business improvement districts (BIDs). The Committee considered a lot of evidence from those stakeholders, and it concluded that they need practical help for regeneration initiatives, a workable and inclusive delivery system that addresses issues such as perceived geographical bias, and, crucially, an appropriate level of financial investment and support.
One of the report’s key recommendations is that the new councils are the right bodies to deliver town centre regeneration. The councils will need financial support for their additional duties, and they need town centre management partnerships or BIDs to help them. Although the Committee commends the Minister for her support for BIDs, it urges her to bring her proposals to the Executive before the onset of the review of public administration, which is about reducing bureaucracy and eliminating quangos. The Committee believes that BIDs, with their limited lifespan, delivery focus and local accountability, are far from typical quangos, and they should be actively encouraged under the RPA.
The Committee noted the frustration and confusion among councils and others with respect to the direction of regeneration policy. The Committee agrees that that is an unsatisfactory state of affairs, and, therefore, suggests that it be dealt with in two ways. First, an overarching strategy for town centre regeneration, married to master plans and backed up with a monitoring and evaluation framework, is an absolute necessity and must be developed without further delay. Secondly, transparency and engagement must be improved. The Committee suggests that that be done through the town centre regeneration fund, which, like the Scottish version, should be competitive and have understandable criteria for success. Furthermore, care should be taken to ensure that there is an even and transparent distribution of expenditure across the whole of Northern Ireland.
Although the inquiry was long, it was useful and informative, and, by and large, Members’ comments were also useful and informative. Mr Brady touched on many of the report’s recommendations. He highlighted his experience with car parking and pedestrianisation issues in Newry, which are also bugbears throughout Northern Ireland, and he urged the Minister to clarify roles and responsibilities in that regard.
Billy Armstrong pointed out how the RPA presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to devolve the control of town centre regeneration to the enlarged councils, thus delivering tangible benefits to ordinary people in towns and smaller cities.
Thomas Burns stressed the importance of joined-up government and the need to fund town centre management partnerships. He also referred to the importance of vesting and social housing as means to stimulate town centre regeneration.
Anna Lo mentioned the importance of having a strategic planning vision as the basis for town centre regeneration. She spoke about the inspirational leadership of regeneration activities in other jurisdictions, and she refereed to economic and sectarian segregation in our town centres.
Alex Easton referred to the importance of adequate and ring-fenced financial support for the enlarged councils to deliver town centre regeneration. He called for blue-sky thinking, and he praised the enhanced openness and transparency of the Scottish town centre regeneration fund.
Fra McCann expressed the frustration of community organisations that are seeking funding to support town centre regeneration. He called for meaningful partnerships between Departments and stakeholders and the directing of resources to projects that will support town centres. He also referred to the report’s final recommendation, which relates to the co-ordination of the work of utility companies.
Jonathan Craig spoke of the historical unevenness of regeneration expenditure and asked the Minister to consider measures to address the issue. He reminded the House of the master plan process that is ongoing throughout the towns in Northern Ireland.
Alban Maginness highlighted the need for a co-ordinated development strategy, which he said was in the interests of key stakeholders, including businesses and consumers. He reminded Members of the key roles of our small towns in the social and economic life of Northern Ireland. He called for leadership and co-ordination from the DRD, DOE and DSD in the resolution of key issues such as brownfield developments and pedestrianisation.
Claire McGill asked that the Committee follow the recommendations up to ensure implementation of the key issues; for example, car parking and pedestrianisation, which were recurrent themes. She also spoke about the importance of evaluating town centre regeneration in relation to providing jobs for deprived areas.
Stephen Farry referred to the challenges facing town centres in respect of retail offerings, customer profiles and the relocation of offices to town centres. He welcomed the master plan process but raised concerns about the delivery and financing of master plans. He also referred to the responsibilities of other Departments in town centre regeneration and the need to reduce bureaucracy.
The Minister commented on the change process that the Department is undergoing and indicated that she accepts the Committee’s recommendations on the overarching strategy. She undertook to ensure good financial support and appropriate governance for the transfer of town centre regeneration to local councils. She promised full consultation and engagement with the Committee in that regard, and we welcome that. She expressed support for the town centre regeneration fund and business improvement districts and acknowledged historical weaknesses in the evaluation of regeneration. She referred to issues outside her direct control but accepted the key role of new councils in delivering town centre regeneration in the future and said that schemes such as the living over the shop scheme were important. She called on the Utility Regulator to help the Department for Social Development tackle the disruption caused by the utility companies in our towns and for closer co-ordination among all stakeholders. She concluded by saying that she will respond to the Committee’s report in writing in due course. That is very welcome.
I commend to the House the Committee’s report on the inquiry into town centre regeneration.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Social Development on its inquiry into town centre regeneration; and calls on the Minister for Social Development to implement the recommendations.