In the run up to the local elections, John Manley’s Irish News article on Hill St. in Belfast added more fuel to an ongoing debate over car restrictions. But why does a tiny cobbled back street in Belfast warrant a quarter page in one of NI’s biggest daily newspapers and continue to generate a running commentary on other media outlets?
Hill St. is located at the back of St Anne’s Cathedral in the old print district – and runs through an area now known as the Cathedral Quarter (CQ). It has a few of the last cobbled streets left in the city and resembles the back streets of London’s South Bank or Dublin’s Temple Bar – places designed for footfall.
During the troubles it was one of the few places in the city centre with a pulse after 6pm, mainly because it backed onto Donegal St. – Belfast’s equivalent of Fleet Street. There was a lot to write about back then and a lot of it was phoned in from numerous pubs in the area. Nick’s Warehouse and a newly refurbished Duke of York were in the vanguard in rejuvenating the area in the early 90s, before the GFA funnelled in the regeneration money.
The newly branded Cathedral Quarter was modelled along the lines of Dublin’s Temple Bar – low rent to attract the artists – Catalyst Arts, The John Hewitt and The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival being early adopters. They attracted the punters, the businesses followed along with the inevitable hike the rents. In terms of regeneration, it’s been a mixed bag – the Tribeca debacle on the other side of the Donegal St. is a case of how not to do regeneration. Nonetheless, Commercial Court – at the heart of the CQ – has become Belfast’s most photographed street, because streets designed for footfall, attract more people, more buzz and more content for Instagram.
CQ still has an arty whiff about it on a weekend, but after 10pm the whiff of diesel gets stronger. Given Belfast’s night-time economy isn’t backed up with any night-time public transport, Hill St. has become a honey pot for black and yellow taxi signs, where the buzzing cobbled streets morph into Belfast’s longest taxi rank. You can’t blame the taxis – they’re providing an essential transport service – supporting 100s of jobs in the hospitality sector and all perfectly legal. But whether you’re a walker, cyclist or petrolhead – most tend to agree – cars squeezing through this alleyway of a street, are a buzz-kill at best and dangerous at worst.
For a politician or party needing quick “green” points on the board – Hill St. represents the lowest of the low hanging fruits. Just within reach – ripe for the picking. We all know about the temptation of low hanging fruit, but Nichola Mallon (SDLP Minister for Infrastructure 2020-22) picked it on 15th May 2020, announcing a trial pedestrianisation and closure of Hill St.
Carl Whyte (SDLP, Castle DEA Belfast) pitched in, saying this is just the first step – apples are hanging everywhere! Rumour had it there was a hidden orchard inside the Derry Walls. It was all likes and shares, until the rubber hit the road – literally the next morning – and a solitary metal “Road Closed” sign was pushed to one side, and the cars began flowing freely again.
A FOI request to Dfi revealed all was not well in the garden. There had been no consultation – business owners were rightly concerned about access to office parking and deliveries. A year later DfI admitted the entire barrel of apples had gone soft and in 2022 the whole project was quietly binned.
Belfast council elections ’23
Hill St. sits in the bottom left corner of the Castle DEA in Belfast, where the battle between Carl Whyte (SDLP) and Mal O’Hara (Greens) for the last seat in the 2023 Belfast City Council elections always looked like a coin toss. Manley’s article featured a few quotes from Whyte. In the week leading up to the election it was maybe no surprise that O’Hara countered – essentially saying the Greens will deliver where SDLP couldn’t. O’Hara was referring to Union Street – in the neighbouring “Queer Quarter” – where he championed and helped deliver pedestrianisation but with a fraction of the column inches.
In the final count Whyte pipped O’Hara for the final seat. Was Hill St. top of anyone’s priorities as they walked into the polling station? No. However, championing a contentious, but newsworthy campaign in the mouth of an election can have some advantages.
Has Green space opened up in Castle DEA for the SDLP to move into? Sinn Fein and the DUP have shown little interest in Hill St. – let alone reducing car access across the city. The Minister for Infrastructure may ultimately claim any victory, but if Whyte keeps digging and helps gets it over the line – it will continue to generate column inches, retweets and potential votes. His colleague, Séamas DeFoite (SDLP), claiming he would purge cars from the city centre on Sundays during the summer certainly didn’t harm his count in Lisnasharragh.
Hill St. also signifies something broken in politics. A minister for infrastructure was unable to close a tiny, cobbled street. A massive, publicly funded department (DfI) with 2000+ staff, are unable to organise a simple consultation process. Elected representatives on Belfast City Council are powerless to pull levers (transport and parking) available in other UK councils. It represents how impotent our politics is. Those with the real political skill and ambition, quickly discover the few tools at their disposal are blunt, broken or worse – no one remembers how to use them.
Where is the public consultation for the pedestrianisation of Hill St?
# CathedralQuarterBelfast pic.twitter.com/PRhHtXX2sA
— DestinationCQ (@DestinationCQ) October 21, 2022
The wider picture
Zoom out a few streets, and the new Ulster University campus – one of NI’s biggest regeneration projects – is just next door. 15,500 students are flowing into the area. Their campus and accommodation is currently marooned in seas of tarmac and fast flowing traffic. Car restrictions in the area are essential for the project to flourish.
The North of the city now faces increasing pressure from traffic and parking. There’s a danger an already congested and polluted part of the city will become the new Holylands – arguably Belfast’s largest free car park – if councillors and MLAs don’t get a grip of things very quickly.
Is Hill St. the Jenga brick that brings a car saturated tower down? Time will tell. Politically it comes with a health warning. So, keep an eye on it over the coming years, and remember, let’s be careful out there.