Who Should Run Belfast?

Jim Allister, Simon Hamilton and I all attended the same school in Newtownards, but it’s Simon’s report on Belfast that really caught my eye this week.

‘Empowering Belfast’ is Belfast Chamber’s answer to dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic and a sense that Belfast is falling behind similarly-sized cities.

Behind the glossy cover and upbeat aspirations, there is an impression that the city may have been let down by successive Northern Irish Executives.

Rather than focus on the city’s strengths and business opportunities, the report laments the lack of local powers and absence of strong leadership as to the reasons why the city – whilst making huge progress over recent decades – has failed to reach its true potential.

But despite this gloomy backdrop, there is reason to be hopeful.

Belfast City Council, together with five partner councils, have secured £1 billion of investment through the Belfast Region City Deal. It has also found new confidence in promoting a leading financial services centre and Fintech hub. And with burgeoning tourism (before the pandemic hit), an expanding Glider bus network and an impressive greenways programme, the city has much to champion.

Having escaped the destruction of The Troubles, the city has risen like a phoenix despite historically high levels of deprivation, a heavily congested transport system and an exodus of talented school-leavers.

But credit where credit is due, Simon Hamilton, the CEO of Belfast Chamber, hits the nail on the head when it comes to identifying some of the problems and suggesting some solutions. He describes a ‘splintered system of government’ and creating ‘more empowered structures that can knit together the enablers of growth like regeneration and infrastructure.’

The report’s authors, Pivotal, say that;

‘Our research has found that existing decision-making powers for councils in Northern Ireland are narrow in comparison to their counterparts in places like Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool.  More localised decision-making and powers have the potential to act as a catalyst for innovation and regeneration.’

They go on to say;

‘At present, decision making in Belfast lies within multiple government departments which limits the development of coherent strategies for change…. The Belfast Region City Deal may provide a useful testbed of enhanced partnerships between local councils, universities and business partners to develop regional change in the greater Belfast area’.

Pivotal has compared models of devolved decision making in places like Greater Manchester, Tees Valley and Glasgow City Region, with that of Belfast. Highlighting the advantages of consolidating transport budgets, like in the Northern Powerhouse initiative. Also, the creation of long-term regeneration, investment and growth plans.

Whilst the amalgamation of local powers may, or may not, be far off here in Northern Ireland the report recognises that city deals, like the Belfast City Deal, may act as a ‘stepping stone’ to greater devolved powers for a city region like Greater Belfast.

But surely the ultimate solution lies in a permanent rebalancing through the transfer of more powers to local authorities – as was originally imagined when the new super councils were created.

It was back in 2016 when the Communities Minister and now First Minister, Paul Givan took the decision to block the transfer of regeneration powers to the new Councils. At that time, he said that it was not the time to tinker with who was responsible for delivering these powers or to split up the regeneration budget.

But things have moved on since 2016. The new councils have demonstrated their competency and capability, successfully delivering planning and local economic development functions, and vital services during a persistent pandemic.

In July this year, Belfast City Councillor, Peter McReynolds, proposed a motion calling for the transfer of full regeneration powers and associated resources to local authorities as a matter of priority. This motion was successfully approved, but sadly there remains a lack of consensus at Stormont to turn this aspiration into reality.

With all the current turmoil around the NI Protocol, no one could be blamed for wondering if these powers will ever be transferred.

But all credit to Simon Hamilton for starting this debate and challenging our perceptions on who should run Belfast.