What’s in Belfast City Council’s draft investment programme?

belfast city council draft investment programme 2012 2015 - front of brochure Belfast City Council launched their 2012-2015 Draft Investment Programme (PDF) this morning. The 44-page colour brochure is packed with optimism, bullet points and potential. But away from the headline £233m figure and the photocall with Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness, Niall Ó Donnghaile and Deirdre Hargey, what’s the real story?

It should be recognised as a plan with cross-party and cross-institution agreement. All the parties represented in the City Hall have put their name to the plans. It’s a coordinated effort with OFMDFM, DSD, DFP (small business rate relief) and other departments. And yet, it’s not a plan full of mirrored investments: notably, there’s no Falls Road plaza to match the Shankhill Road piazza. While it’s been dubbed Belfast’s “Marshall Plan”, it should be noted that the US version started in 1948. The Belfast plan has taken a lot longer to agree since the “end of the war”. You can see the result of the cross-party negotiations in the small pockets of money set aside for a myriad of minor activities, £300k here, £700k there.

Councillor Deirdre Hargey, chair of Belfast City Council Strategic Policy and Resources Committee at launch of 2012-2015 Draft Investment Programme

Not all the money is new. And not all the money is guaranteed and in place. It’s a basket of new and existing initiatives, plans, and funding requests. While no one would want investment to be delayed until the Review of Public Administration concludes and council boundaries are changed, it should be noted that these plans are all within the existing BCC wards, and will need to be reviewed post-RPA.

£75m capital investment in council facilities. New “third generation hybrid pitches” and “state-of-the-art changing facilities” are promised along with playgrounds and refurbishment of local facilities. [Ed – a zero-value prize for the first person to explain what can be state of the art about a changing room?] And another £75m capital (partnership and European money) split across large and small city regeneration projects, as well as economic infrastructure and sectoral development.

A £20m extension to the Waterfront Hall will provide exhibition and conference space. (They could build a glass walkway/bridge across to the nearly-complete building opposite the Waterfront for a lot less than £20m!) Improving the Waterfront’s conferencing offer is at the expense of other smaller commercial venues. Will the council invest public money to help a public facility become more popular at the expense of competing commercial facilities, or will bringing bigger conferences to Belfast boost the smaller venues too?

£300k bursary fund to help 16-24 year olds move into further education, training and employment.

Belfast City Council employs over 2,500 people. The draft investment programme will target the creation of 400 work placements, internships and apprenticeship opportunities within Belfast City Council (focussed on graduates, young long-term unemployed and disabled people).

Belfast City Council spends £170m locally. There’s a commitment in the draft programme to buy local – targeting a rise from10% to 60% of local council spend with local suppliers by 2015. (No indication of what qualifies as ‘local’). Suppliers will also be delighted to hear that the council are committing to pay 90% of their creditors within 28 days to improve business cash flow, something they should have been doing before now.

On top of any capital investment, there’s £34m to grow tourism/major events, arts and culture, and targeted sectoral business growth. Working with Invest NI, 400 “local companies” will be helped “explore export opportunities for the first time or grow into new markets”, and 60 community organisation will “explore the potential of becoming social economy enterprises”.

Belfast Enterprise Academy (and competitions) will introduce 150 undergraduate students to the practicalities of managing a business, with a target of creating 80 new business start-ups. A positive move, but a drop in the ocean.

£29m overall investment for people, communities and neighbourhood. Includes £2.4m for advice/support centres. Playgrounds (ten in total) and community gardens get £2m along with £4m to tart up Dunville and Woodvale Parks (with matched funding from DSD). £3m for community safety, including £700k for further alleygating.

Councillors voted through a below inflation 2.6% rates increase last night. (Small business rate relief should offset much of this rise for local traders.) This additional money is ringfenced for capital initiatives in the investment programme. The parties have agreed to keep future rates increases at or below the level of inflation. Social and community benefit clauses will be introduces to contracts.

Reading through the brochure, North Belfast seems to be the weakest area. A bid of £8m to develop an green business park on the North Foreshore. Improving the recreation/community facilities on the Loughside. And a £9m EU PEACE III funding proposal for a community hub at Girdwood. A partnership proposal to regenerate St Kevin’s Hall and develop a cultural corridor linking the city centre to north Belfast. OFMDFM and DSD want to reopen Crumin Road Gaol as a tourism and business centre. Little of this is committed funding yet.

There are just four paragraphs devoted to “positive relations and shared space” mentioning just £4m of EU PEACE III funding. The creation of an interfaces regeneration strategy that amongst other things will include “sensitively [work] towards reducing barriers” may not deliver much change on the ground.

While there is a commitment to monitoring and review, there is no indication of any provisional payback period or targets for how the city’s ratepayers will recoup their investment.

In all, the draft investment programme is underpinned by a strategy to raise and spend additional public money in a bid to boost confidence in Belfast and encourage private investment, inward investment from businesses in GB, Ireland and beyond, and lift tourist income.

Attendees I spoke to at this morning’s launch were pretty positive about the Council’s plans. They welcomed the forward thinking, and felt that the investment was credible and would benefit the city.

Belfast City Council are consulting on their draft investment programme. Deadline for responses is Friday 27 April 2012.

(Photo by Belfast City Council.)

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