Belfast must show greater am­bi­tion in plan for fu­ture

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - News - with John Simp­son @bel­tel_busi­ness

The pol­icy ex­perts, think­ing ahead for the area within the bound­aries of Belfast city, have pub­lished early draft plans about how the city might look by 2035. These pro­pos­als will have even longer-term reper­cus­sions.

The plan­ners have made a good tech­ni­cal start. How­ever, their am­bi­tion is, un­help­fully, too mod­est. The cit­i­zens of Belfast will want to live in a city that re­cov­ers its place as one of the best places to live in western Europe. The am­bi­tion should be to re­gen­er­ate a city that de­liv­ers a suc­cess­ful 21st cen­tury en­vi­ron­ment.

Belfast has mod­ern univer­sity fa­cil­i­ties, as well as be­ing a re­gional cen­tre for many busi­nesses in the emerg­ing knowl­edge econ­omy. How­ever, the city is strug­gling to es­cape the legacy of decades the Trou­bles and an even longer pe­riod as a city where liv­ing stan­dards lagged be­hind com­pa­ra­ble west Euro­pean cities.

The ge­og­ra­phy of Belfast city, con­strained by tight bound­aries, means that it must have am­bi­tious devel­op­ment plans.

The city has a Vic­to­rian lay­out and a built en­vi­ron­ment that risks be­ing main­tained in his­toric style with­out the de­sir­able char­ac­ter­is­tics of the 21st cen­tury, such as cop­ing with the de­mands for higher liv­ing stan­dards in hous­ing, in­creased ameni­ties and scope for leisure ac­tiv­i­ties, as well as the in­creased per­sonal mo­bil­ity ex­pected by a more af­flu­ent pop­u­la­tion.

The Lo­cal Devel­op­ment Plan for Belfast must show how to plan and in­flu­ence a re­newed city, func­tion­ing as a sus­tain­able re­gional cen­tre linked to the wider pro­vin­cial set­ting. This has im­pli­ca­tions that have not all been built into the early pro­pos­als.

A suc­cess­ful devel­op­ment plan for Belfast must ask how an im­proved city should in­te­grate with the rest of North­ern Ire­land.

With good ur­ban plan­ning, North­ern Ire­land has plenty of scope for an in­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion, in­creased em­ploy­ment and sus­tain­able in­dus­tries.

That readi­ness to plan for a larger re­gional pop­u­la­tion (and all that that im­plies) raises ma­jor ques­tions about suc­cess­fully mod­ernising Belfast.

Belfast is not an over­crowded place to live by the in­dus­trial stan­dards of the 19th cen­tury. By the stan­dards of this cen­tury, how­ever, it is too crowded.

If liv­ing stan­dards and pub­lic ameni­ties are to im­prove, Belfast city (within its present con­strain­ing bound­aries) would be bet­ter-served if plans to im­prove the qual­ity of the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment were based on a pop­u­la­tion that in­creases only mod­estly as other parts of North­ern Ire­land plan to ac­com­mo­date larger in­creases. The present draft of the Lo­cal Devel­op­ment Plan aims to see the pop­u­la­tion in­crease by 66,000 peo­ple by 2035. That scale of change in Belfast would mean more than 2,000 new hous­ing units or apart­ments each year within the city bound­aries. A grow­ing apart­ment-based life­style is im­plicit.

There is surely an al­ter­na­tive so­cial and eco­nomic model which would de­cen­tralise the role of Belfast. Is it sen­si­ble to en­vis­age a grow­ing Belfast pop­u­la­tion liv­ing with less liv­ing space per fam­ily, an in­creas­ing num­ber of daily com­muters and a con­tin­u­ing con­cen­tra­tion of new em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties in the city? Should the Belfast plan­ners, and those in the 10 other lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, be ex­pected to take an all-north­ern Ire­land per­spec­tive which, in a re­bal­anc­ing use of liv­ing space, gives Belfast a bet­ter chance to re­gen­er­ate and pro­vide for higher liv­ing stan­dards?

Are the city plan­ners ready to take a more am­bi­tious ap­proach to: • Avoid plan­ning for more peo­ple to live in smaller hous­ing units? • An­tic­i­pate the spa­tial im­pli­ca­tions of a 10-plus% rise in av­er­age liv­ing stan­dards? • Seek hous­ing plans to al­low at least one off-road park­ing space for each new house? • En­sure 50% of hous­ing units pro­vide ac­cess for elec­tric­ity charg­ing for a car? • Plan for more em­ploy­ment space in ar­eas away from the city cen­tre? • Build an im­proved traf­fic man­age­ment sys­tem and more off-road park­ing? • Add a plan­ning pol­icy for sig­nif­i­cant ma­jor ar­eas of ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion?

Can the city en­sure that this op­por­tu­nity to plan a more suc­cess­ful Belfast will be grasped?

There is still a mas­sive amount of un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing Brexit and its im­pli­ca­tion for busi­nesses in the UK. In the con­text of com­mer­cial leases, one in­ter­est­ing case is the on­go­ing saga be­tween the Ca­nary Wharf Group and the Euro­pean Medicines Agency.

The Euro­pean Med­i­cal Agency, the ten­ant of the premises in ques­tion, is ar­gu­ing that its 25-year lease of its Lon­don head­quar­ters at Ca­nary Wharf has be­come “frus­trated”.

The Euro­pean Medicines Agency is ar­gu­ing that un­der the doc- trine of frus­tra­tion, they should be re­leased from their li­a­bil­ity un­der the lease as they are un­able to per­form their obli­ga­tions un­der the lease due to events oc­cur­ring out­side their con­trol.

The event out­side its con­trol is of course Brexit, which they are say­ing has “frus­trated” their lease with the Ca­nary Wharf Group.

The land­lord, how­ever, has taken the case to court, de­mand­ing £500m in un­paid rent, rates, ser­vice charges and other pay­ments due un­der the lease are paid.

The land­lord is also seek­ing a dec­la­ra­tion so that the agency is clear that its lease obli­ga­tions will not be af­fected by Brexit.

The land­lord has ar­gued that Brexit was not “un­fore­see­able” be­cause Ar­ti­cle 50 of the Treaty of the Euro­pean Union, al­low­ing mem­ber states to with­draw from the EU, ex­ists.

Lawyers in­structed by the land­lord have also said any rul­ing in favour of the ten­ant — i.e. a rul­ing which would per­mit the ten­ant to walk away from its obli­ga­tions un­der the lease — would set a very dan­ger­ous prece­dent for other leases which could badly af­fect the prop­erty in­dus­try.

It will be in­ter­est­ing to find out what rul­ing is made. A rul­ing in favour of the ten­ant would be wor­ry­ing for land­lords not only in Lon­don but across Great Bri­tain, as well as North­ern Ire­land.

When ter­mi­nat­ing a lease, land­lords and ten­ants alike are ad­vised to care­fully check the term of their lease, as well as any break clauses — clauses which al­low a party, usu­ally the ten­ant, to ter­mi­nate the lease be­fore the ex­piry of the con­trac­tual term — and if the break clauses are un­con­di­tional, or if they con­tain con­di­tions such as rent be­ing paid up to the break date. Michael Duffy is a prop­erty solic­i­tor in the com­mer­cial depart­ment at Wor­thing­tons So­lic­i­tors, Belfast act­ing for clients with prop­erty in­ter­ests in North­ern Ire­land, as well as in Eng­land and Wales. He can be con­tacted on 028 9043 4015, or at [email protected]­thing­ton­slaw.co.uk

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