Needham: Belfast is hobbling along … in real danger of being left behind

Speaking to me last night about the transformative effect of the Tall Ships visiting Belfast back in 1991, Sir Richard Needham reflected on Belfast today in 2017.

“I’m very worried about it now” as “it’s starting to miss out on all sorts of fantastic opportunities”. He compares Belfast with Bristol (a city close to his old constituency).

“Bristol now has half the number of kids on free school meals that Belfast has, so that gives you an indication of the difference in wealth between the two cities. Bristol is now one of the most exciting, forward-looking, smart cities of the 21st century and Belfast is hobbling along a long way behind. And that’s not because it doesn’t have people who are clever or enthusiastic within the City Council [but] it doesn’t have a government.”

He highlighted the layers of government – MPs, Stormont, Belfast Council and the surrounding councils.

“What Belfast requires in my view is it needs a metropolitan mayor, which is quite difficult because of the problems of power sharing. But you could need somebody with a cabinet who has major responsibility. Belfast should be part of the northern powerhouse. If you look now at what’s happening in places like Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol and Manchester, Belfast is in real danger of being left behind.

“Although having said that, it is still an incredible city. It’s still got wonderful life and vitality. It’s got very bright young people … Belfast should be aiming to become a world class city, but if it doesn’t have the right imagination and leadership it’s very difficult to see how that’s going to happen.”

But he says that Direct Rule is “absolutely not” the answer.

“They’d be frightened of upsetting anybody so they wouldn’t do anything, I don’t think that’s the solution at all. I think Brexit is an utter disaster. It’s a disaster more for the island of Ireland than it is for the English but the English have shot themselves in every part of their anatomy and they’re going to have to live with the consequences. It is not good news.

“And the politicians in Northern Ireland are playing party politics and that does not help the economic social development of the city. It’s easy for me to say that because I’m not a politician in Northern Ireland, but that’s the reality.”

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  • ted hagan

    The last time I heard Needham on radio he was promoting a gambling emporium in Belfast centre but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Has this anything to with his sentiments, I wonder? Seems relevant.

  • DaptoDogs

    About time someone put the fantastical identity politics aside and made it clear that Brexit is going to increase the pressure dramatically. The best thing that can now happen in NI is for Westminster to enforce a bit of Realist Machiavellian ‘self help’. A steep reduction in the block grant, time limits for all welfare payments, and the duplication wastages in health and education. Match those with subsidies for small-scale industrial start ups and do as they do in England. If people can’t make work for themselves or find sustainable employment, they should be asked to move elsewhere in Ireland or the UK. No more subsidisation of internecine hostility and violence.

  • ted hagan

    Thank you Norman Tebbitt.

  • Dan2

    Well said

  • hgreen

    Hokum. Will the time limit on welfare apply to the royal family as well?

  • The worm!

    I’d include the farming industry as well. No more “area based” payment schemes, make any level of subsidy “production based” so that you actually work for it.

  • Seán Regan

    If under Direct Rule the British Government were to introduce Marriage Equality and an Irish Language Act, bringing Northen Ireland into alignment with Britain could Sinn Fein then re engage with Stormont as the two main impediments to resumption will have been resolved? Perhaps Sinn Fein could could when claim credit for the movement?

  • DaptoDogs

    Mine is a utilitarian approach to a specific issue, not a deontological approach to economic theory. Sure you live in the Republic Ted, there’re few hand outs there and the joint is much better than NI for it. Séan Lemass was Europe’s first neoliberal outside the Bundesbank, which is why Ireland is much more resilient than a lot of NI Unionists appreciate. The recovery from the Landesbank bond crisis in the Eurozone is passing through the Irish system much faster than the impact is passing out the the UK’s. I’m not saying Ireland’s austerity method was the only way, far from it as Portugal demonstrates, but a ruthless austerity program would solve several secondary problems in NI. The subsidisation of the ethno-sectarian hostilities would be greatly reduced for a start, and I can’t see many returning from England or the Republic for the Twelfth or Internment commemorations. They couldn’t afford it.

  • DaptoDogs

    I’d say that the loss of Common Agricultural Payments will do much of that job. But, essentially: yes, ending subsidies that are predominantly payments for the ownership of land that isn’t being productively utilised would make it a lot easier for younger people with some entrepreneurial wherewithal to create economic opportunities for others and to get some property for themselves, instead of propping up little fiefdoms and a quasi-gentry.

  • DaptoDogs

    More than happy to make them pay for themselves too, but my plan is about ending the subsidisation of NI’s historic antipathies and the tendency towards viewing contemporary politics as a zero sum game that neighbourly murder may represent a road out of. I’d go as far as making marches, parades and protests pay for the security costs too.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Belfast City Council is on a roll these days. They generally seem to have a clue what there are doing, which is novelty for NI politics. They have good leadership and even the councillors have generally stopped bickering.

    if we are going to continue in political limbo Belfast should get more powers to get on with the job.

  • Brian O’Neill

    I always liked Richard Needham, he seemed one of the very few politicians we ever got that seemed to give a damn about the place.

    Maybe they should have forgotten about the Assembly and just made him the Viceroy of this place 😉 At least we would have a better economy.

  • Surveyor

    Yawn! Cut money for the poorest in society, as if we haven’t heard that before. Got any original ideas?

  • The worm!

    Local government in general has to get on with things to a much greater degree than they can get away with at Stormont. I live in the new Mid and East Antrim council area (i was formerly Ballymena) but I also spend a fair bit of time in Causeway Coast and Glens area (Moyle before that), and while they can give you the runaround a fair bit, you usually can actually get something sorted with them if there’s an issue.

    And if all else fails then a councillor is going to get a proper ear bending, and he/she can’t avoid it because they live among the people they represent and have nowhere to hide.

    While the system of local government has unquestionably many faults, it has an inherent accountability which the assembly doesn’t.

    There’s probably lessons to be learned there but most likely won’t be!

  • The worm!

    No, while I see your logic, unfortunately I don’t believe that leaving the CAP will improve things “per se”, as agricultural policy has been controlled by the EU for so long now that there are no remnants of UK self-control remaining. It will take a conscious decision to move away from what we have now, in order for things to improve.

    However, that’s a whole new debate on it’s own and seriously off-topic here so I’ll not labour the point.

  • William Kinmont

    Do we need butter mountains and overproduction again?
    What products would you think should qualify ?

  • eamoncorbett

    Nasty one that ,h.

  • eamoncorbett

    Whilst I agree with your last statement I don’t think you can alter DNA with economic policies.

  • William Kinmont

    A DNA test might be interesting

  • The worm!

    What should be subsidised and to what degree, would obviously form the very hub of UK agricultural policy post-EU, and while it’s a discussion I would happily contribute to, I would suggest that an already fairly off-topic diversion on this particular debate is not the place.

    I will however just make a quick clarification. I would not be advocating a system which encouraged production, that was not my point. All I was saying was that any agricultural support should be related to production (or possibly I should say “the product”), rather than the area based system we have now which simply rewards land ownership.

    In other words, future support (at whatever level) should go to those actively farming rather than those who simply own land.

  • Timothyhound

    It’s a world of cities and there is a strong argument for a directly elected mayor in both Dublin and Belfast. Dublin has four local authorities and the lack of joined up thinking hobbles its development- Belfast is the same on a smaller scale without perhaps the same complexity.

  • Steve

    If Needham thinks Belfast is in danger of getting left behind he should take a trip out to the rest of Northern Ireland, and especially to the North-west. That would show him the land that political time forgot.

  • DaptoDogs

    You’re right Eamon, but epigenetic expression may be the thing to think about here: “epigenetics – the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.”

  • DaptoDogs

    Yeah, I know, the Marxian ‘immiseration dislocates false consciousness’ thesis isn’t that new.

  • mark vincent

    I agree, however the problem is that the Nationalist community benefit disproportionately from the welfare system,any attempt to reduce their dependency on handouts would cause an uprising.

  • mark vincent

    People already pay taxes to cover the cost of policing or didn’t you know that.

  • sparrow

    ‘If you look now at what’s happening in places like Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol and Manchester, Belfast is in real danger of being left behind.’
    Population stats for those cities: 715K, 598K, 428K and 530K. Population of Belfast, 280K. Lets start comparing like with like. Sunderland and Bolton are more our size and they’re hardly booming.

  • DaptoDogs

    Do they cover the cost, or are costs met by the English taxpayers?

  • DaptoDogs

    Do you have anything to back up that assertion? The post-industrial wastelands around Belfast are much more dependent on the welfare system than the Green hinterlands.

  • Steve

    It’s difficult comparing the sizes of cities, as where do they start and end ? Belfast had a population of over 425,000 until the Troubles started and people starting moving to its wider suburbs (or leaving NI altogether).

    The accepted definition of Greater/Metropolitan Belfast had a population of 673,000 in the 2011 census. And Manchester has a population closer to about 2m all-in-all, not just the city council area of 428k.

    Knowing Bristol well I would say it’s a fair comparator to Belfast, and if anything a bit smaller once you add in its suburbs (again – diffiuclt to define). Newcastle would also be another fair comparison in terms of size and regional status. Manchester & Glasgow much less so.

  • sparrow

    My point stands, even if you start looking at Greater Belfast. If you’re taking the population of Greater/Metropolitan Belfast as 673K, then to compare like with like you have to look at the Greater Metropolitan areas of the other cities too, at which point Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow move into the millions. I would dispute your point that Newcastle is a fair comparator. I’ve stayed there a few times and it’s a much bigger place than Belfast. I’ll give you Bristol, since it’s a place I don’t know at all. Finally, I don’t go much for this ‘Greater Metropolitan’ area stuff. Who here seriously thinks that North Down or Carrickfergus are really parts of Belfast? I’m not even sure I’d let Glengormley in the door.

  • Stephen Kelly

    Very good answer. See there is no reply.

  • Stephen Kelly

    Is that for real was he really promoting such a disaster for Belfast and NI as a whole. I like a pint now and again but could never stand gambling, seen a few good families destroyed by it. Drink as well but as one unfortunate woman once told me you can only drink your fill but you can gamble everything away in a night. Going to google it . Wow its true (Sir Richard said Northern Ireland could become a “mini Singapore” if casinos were allowed to set up here, something which the relatively conservative culture in Singapore has adopted successfully.) Sorry but he was paid by a big gambling group Rank forty thousand a year then. I worked out of Singapore for many years and believe me we are no Singapore, them i would trust if anyone to control it but our crowd with five pound pieces of land and all the alphabet groups it would just be a human disaster in my opinion. Thanks for that ted i was away and missed that one must take it to our little group discussion lol. I just read on he thought it would help Belfast become a world class city.

  • Hugh Davison

    Figures please, or links.

  • DaptoDogs

    Thank you Stephen.