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Presenting preferred options for Belfast

A ‘liveable’, ‘smart’, ‘connected’, ‘resilient’, ‘green’ and ‘active’ place. This string of adjectives articulates the outline of a city that Belfast City Council wants to realise through its Local Development Plan (LDP).

A plan to create a ‘vibrant economy' cementing Belfast’s status as Northern Ireland’s regional economic driver, a modern regional capital, competing with cities such as Sheffield, Manchester or Dublin. The draft Preferred Options Paper (POP) might be considered the new ‘Mission Statement’ for our city planners. It accompanies the broader ‘Vision’ set out by the Belfast Agenda (Community Plan) and echoes the values first unveiled by Joe Berridge in the Belfast City Centre Regeneration and Investment Strategy (BCCRIS).

The POP presents a confident direction of travel aimed at modifying the pattern of usage across the city, particularly its centre. As presented, they ask a lot from developers and Government partners – but can the POP live up to its own ambition?

A liveable place

The aim to shape a liveable place is clear, and the measuring stick will be the number of people who want to live here. The growth ambition of the council is to allocate sufficient land to accommodate 37,000 new homes in Belfast during the 15 year plan period.

This growth factor will be achieved by increased densities in the city centre and other locations that benefit from high accessibility. It is an option that encourages urban regeneration and growth within existing settlement limits. Allocation of sites for housing will be informed by an urban capacity study in order to maintain a viable five year land supply. Expansion of villages or small rural settlements is to be resisted. New settlements are strictly off the cards. An extension of Belfast City is considered only as a last resort.

If you can’t move outwards, move upwards – a supplementary planning guidance document and a tall buildings policy will guide urban design criteria for city centre development. The council also proposes (in accordance with SPPS) the adoption of a sequential preference for brownfield land to accommodate new housing. Whilst no triggers are set for affordable housing, references to 10% and 20% land contributions may squeeze viability for developers.

Types of affordable housing (social/affordable/intermediate) will be informed by an up-to-date Strategic Housing Market Assessment and Local Housing Need Assessment. The POP indicates that the draft Plan Strategy will include policies to ensure a mix of housing and balanced communities, and a specific policy for quality design in residential developments with minimum space standards, alongside standards for public and private open space and general place making.

The POP emphasises people and place through the promotion of healthy communities and community infrastructure. This illustrates understanding by the council that in order to create connected but locally distinct places, both spaces and behaviours must change. This is important in a city where the barriers have been social, political and economic, as well as spatial.

Creating a vibrant economy

Not unexpectedly the city centre looms large in the POP. With plans for a larger permanent resident and visitor population, the city centre boundary and extent of its Primary Retail Core (PRC) are to be reviewed. High-quality design principles dovetail with wider regeneration initiatives (though not powers), and plans to promote the city centre as a vibrant retail and leisure destination.

It's evident that the council is keen to change the face of the city centre, transforming it from current retail and associated commercial uses into a centre with a mix of uses and opportunities. A policy framework will be formulated to support development on key sites for new tourism and hotel development, and similar policy tools will be used to assess the development needs of educational institutions.

The message for retail development is clear – consider where in the retail hierarchy you sit and make a submission to identify and protect your interests. In line with the SPPS it’s evident that in order to secure development for future retailing, additional centres must be identified. The POP consultation also seeks views on the range of alternative non-retail uses to maintain these vibrant centres.

Planning policy relating to employment development has often been seen as overly onerous. To provide an environment and the opportunity to create 46,000 jobs, the council intends to identify new sites. It will also review the Strategic Employment Sites identified in the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) and seek to protect existing sites in line with current policy. The POP plans to provide a flexible approach to the assessment of alternative uses on zoned sites.

A smart, connected and resilient place

In Belfast, a city recovering from ‘the Troubles’, people just don’t walk through particular areas and this is not because of physical barriers.

With such a focus on boosting the resident city centre population, unless the council can establish social and physical connections with the inner city, its POP runs the risk of disconnecting the core from its suburbs.

The plan talks about improving walkability and cycling across the city through improved infrastructure. Does this perhaps signal that the council will return to plans to pedestrianize parts of the city centre? This was an idea first muted in Streets Ahead 2 and would be reliant on the buy-in and adoption by the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) and Transport NI (TNI).

Indeed, without the broader powers available to councils in other jurisdictions of the UK (including regeneration powers), the success of the POP and resultant LDP will lie in the council’s ability to encourage others to follow its plan – to influence others without power or authority.

One such example relates to water and sewerage requirements. A suggestion put forward in the POP is the introduction of Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDSs). Whilst these are proven to be successful elsewhere in the UK, NI Water does not yet adopt such systems. If NI Water does not adopt infrastructure then maintenance costs could fall on the developer or residents.

The council is proposing to provide policies for the provision of infrastructure. Once again it must work closely with DfI, and other statutory bodies to ensure accurate infrastructure costs are allocated fairly across sites. If the statutory sector does not have adequate resources, once again the council may be forced to pass the cost on to developers – impacting viability.

A green and active place

One fact that surprised us is that Belfast already has more than 14,000 street trees and 40 public parks. The POP sets out the unique opportunity to master plan a network of ‘green and blue’ infrastructure by extending existing community greenways and green wedges, enhanced by additional open spaces and green corridors.

The release of open spaces for development will still only be considered in exceptional circumstances, and the scale of proposals for which the provision of new communal space is a requirement will be reviewed as part of the plan process.

New developments will be required to provide, where possible, net gains in biodiversity and trees to offset unavoidable carbon emissions, reduce air pollution, provide shade and mitigate flood risks. They will be required to contribute to this green and open city either through onsite provision or financial contributions (Section 76 Agreements).

In praise and in summary

Belfast wasn’t the first of Northern Ireland’s councils to publish its POP, but the resultant LDP will perhaps be the most significant to the development sector, and the wider public.

Adherence to high standards means the council’s preferred options present compelling opportunities for the city. Without all the powers and authority to realise it, others both within and without government, must buy-in. The POP asks a lot from developers (BREEAM standards, open space, infrastructure, affordable housing and a preference for previously developed sites). This will mean adoption of Belfast’s LDP must strike a balance between adherence to these options and the commercial viability of sites.

The 12 week consultation on the POP ends on Thursday 20 April 2017.

If you have any questions about the draft Preferred Options Paper, please contact Angela Wiggam or Emma Walker.

26 January 2017

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