As a citizen increasingly it feels like our leaders and senior civic servants are on a solo run. We can vote but what does it change, (of course I’m not saying don’t vote), we can reply to consultations but then our leaders just do what they want. But when lots of people shout about something it can make a difference. I for one feel that contributing to consultations can be a way we can have an impact.
So I am very late to this, and doing it on a day off, but tomorrow (Thu 20th April) is the deadline for responding to the Options Paper put out by Belfast City Council about it Local Development Plan and the Belfast Agenda- the documents that will frame the cities strategy for the next fifteen years. I have some serious concerns about these documents and this will be my response specifically to the LDP.
Given the timeline please feel free to cut and paste some bits of this and submit here, or you can do a quick questionnaire here. Either way, lets get some other voices in the mix.
I am writing to respond to the LDP Options Paper as a citizen of Belfast and someone who runs my own business in the city.
Let me start by saying that I believe there is much to be commended about the paper, it is ambitious and thorough. In particular there clearly is some great work being done in the area of creating a more active population and that is one things that shines through in the paper that could have a major impact on my quality of life. I do have two major concerns however.
Firstly I believe that this plan if far too focused on economic considerations. The economy is one of a number of interwoven factors that will enable effective place making, but the paper reads as though bean counting residents, jobs and visitor numbers is the most important outcome.
The word ‘place’ is all through the paper but in my opinion it misses the mark entirely on what truly transformative place making is. I guess I would love to be inspired by this plan, excited about the place that I have chosen to bring up my children and build my life. My first reaction when reading it was that it was that it read like an bureaucrat’s plan. It was grey and boring. It was a portfolio designed to attract foreign investors not to inspire citizens. And this is what’s wrong with the plan in my opinion. It treats Belfast residents as resources, it shakes it’s tail feathers at investors without talking about the sort of jobs that we want them or to create or new builds without talking about the sort of businesses that we want to fill them.
What is it that makes cities great? It’s the X factor that makes visitors want to come, investors to invest and residents to stay. And you know what, Belfast has a ton of it, but I can’t see it in this paper. I don’t see the Belfast that I want to live in these pages.
This paper does not prioritise the things that will make it a better place in 2030 such as a civic centre that is based on shared space not commerce, retail that celebrates small local business over multi-national corporations, rates policy that animates vacant space. Basically a recognition that retail led generation is over, it stopped working 10-20 years ago.
Our story is not told in shopping centres or call centres or conference numbers. Our story isn’t told in museums or tourist attractions either. Our story is woven through the fabric of the city, the buildings, the people, the water, the bars, our creativity and our resilience. This is what makes us great. This should be the starting point for how we move forward - what we have that is unique. We’re a messed up, edgy, complex and exciting city, if you knock off all the rough edges to attract foreign investment then we’re just like everyone else. Great cities aren’t just like everyone else.
My second concern, not entirely unconnected to the first, is the complete absence of the role of the creative sector in this plan.
I must say I’m really struggling with this. I find it genuinely frightening that when our city leaders write a 150 page document mapping out their plans for the next 15-20 years that I can’t find any reference to the role of the arts or the creative sector much less the concept of creative led regeneration.
Clearly as someone who works in this sector I am bias. I would like to see the role of creatives, festivals, events etc writ large across this document. And not just from self interest. There is reams of evidence and case studies that highlight the absolutely central role of the creative sector in place making, urban regeneration and telling the story of a city. And I’m not talking about MTV Rocks.
Belfast City Council needs to take the proactive decision to trust artists. You don’t get an architect to do brain surgery and you don’t get a lawyer to fly a plane. Why would you let bureaucrats do art? Belfast artists are amazing. Without your support, without your trust and without your approval they are putting Belfast on the map, regenerating areas and improving the quality of life of your residents. They are talented experts, not drop outs that couldn’t cut it as an accountant and if you trust them they will tell the world the wonderful story of Belfast, (and why you should live/invest here).
In conclusion then imagine if as well as ‘economy’ ‘housing’ ‘transport’ and ‘environment’ there was a fifth strategic aim… Fun.
Imagine if our civic leaders realised that cities are about living, not just functionality. I don’t want to just exist, I want to thrive, I want to skip, I want to sing, I want to dance. This is not some secondary consideration, this is the reason to exist.
Most of all, the reason I choose to live in a city is because I want community. I don’t believe that the utilitarian plan laid out in this options paper will build community and they won’t facilitate Belfast to become a great city.
We’ll be fine. We’ll be OK. But we’re better than that.