Belfast Chamber have called for the commencement of a conversation about what powers Belfast needs to realise its full potential as a city.
Speaking at their BelFastForward conference which is focusing on issues associated with the regeneration of the city, Belfast Chamber President Rajesh Rana has outlined the business organisation’s belief that Belfast does not have the powers and controls that a city of its size and importance should have if it is to compete successfully with other cities for jobs and investment.
In his address to the conference’s 400 delegates, Rajesh Rana illustrated how other cities have more control over regeneration, transport and housing and have used tools such as development corporations and enterprise zones to stimulate growth whilst Belfast has a fragmented system of government in comparison.
Belfast Chamber President Rajesh Rana said: “Belfast Chamber wholeheartedly welcomes the scale of ambition the City Council has set for all of us in the Belfast Agenda, but how do we deliver on these? There are great plans for major developments, particularly on the north of the city and on the waterfront, but how do we knit these projects together in a way that creates an urbanism we can be proud of? And how do we deliver a growth that brings benefits to all of the people of this city, in a way that is inclusive and sustainable?
“There is no doubt that our city has transformed in many ways in the past couple of decades. Belfast is booming and is now a world beater in sectors that simply didn’t exist in our city 20 years ago. Sectors such as cyber security, fintech, and the film and creative industries. This success is down to the drive and talent of our people.”
He added: “We need to make our city a great place to live. A city that is inclusive, that supports the ambition of our people, and that will attract the skills and talent that we will need in the future. That means providing high quality and affordable housing particularly in central city. It means well-functioning public transport and a cycle network. And a city with a thriving cultural scene coupled with an international outlook.
“We are so fortunate to have at this time, many great developments planned in key city centre sites, from Belfast Harbour to Weavers Cross, from TriBeCa to Titanic Quarter and Belfast Waterside. But beyond the development of these sites, how do we ensure that we capture the essence and character of the city? It is crucial that we coordinate these masterplans so they join up to create a unified whole, and to actively contribute to the regeneration of neighbouring quarters. It is essential that individual projects are planned to deliver the services that a city centre population will need, the healthcare and childcare, movement connections and a way for the culture of this city to be expressed.
“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and place making requires a vision that is both innovative and local, forward looking yet respectful of the past. The challenge, the ultimate challenge, of course is delivery”.
Turning to the issue of the need for more powers for Belfast, Rajesh Rana said: “As frustrating as the past few years have been, it hasn’t been without indications of hope and progress. Whether it has been the securing of the Belfast region City Deal or the projection of brand Belfast to the world at MIPIM, I think all of us in the business community have observed a better and closer relationship between the private and public sectors in our city. I wish to put on record our praise for the civic leadership that has been shown by Belfast City Council and the city’s big institutions like the universities and Belfast Harbour, in stepping forward and filling the vacuum. We also recognise the close working relationship that has developed between the City and government departments. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, and in the absence of an Executive, necessity has spawned an unprecedented period of cooperation between city stakeholders.
“My message today to all of our partners is let’s not vacate that space simply because Stormont is back. Instead we need to deepen those connections and explore how we can empower our city further.
“At Belfast Chamber, we believe that it is our duty as the voice for business in the city, to point out the impediments to our city achieving its full potential. That could be in terms of skills or infrastructure or the planning process and, as we firmly believe, how the city is governed.
“Belfast is the region’s biggest city by far, the centre of a metropolitan area that is home to nearly 600,00 people, the source of 1 in 3 jobs in Northern Ireland and a quarter of its rates take. Belfast is the driver of the region’s economy, yet no one could say our city has the powers and controls fitting a city of this size and importance.
“Our competitor cities, and even much smaller conurbations, across these islands have far greater powers and are increasing these further. They enjoy control over regeneration, transport and housing. The basic necessities of urban life.
“Successful cities also have successful development corporations and enterprise zones. These are tools that are effectively stimulating regeneration and attracting investment to areas of need.
“In contrast, Belfast’s governance is fragmented and we lack the levers to deliver change where it is needed.
“So today Belfast Chamber is seeking to start a debate on how our city is governed in the future want to shine a spotlight on how other cities have ensured their system of government has been reshaped and reformed to maximise the opportunities that growth can bring and commence a conversation about how Belfast can learn from those lessons and adapt them to our own needs so that we can realise that vision of a vibrant and dynamic Belfast.”