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Vision for Belfast requires giant leap in residential construction

The recent Department of Finance Construction Bulletin noted housing output in Q3 2016 increased by 1% compared to the previous quarter and was 3.3% higher than the comparative quarter in 2015. Housing output includes all public and private new build and repair and maintenance projects.

This increase in output, whilst a step in the right direction, is hardly a “giant leap for mankind” in our small part of the world where current output levels remain well below both historical levels and well published requirements for new build starts. Indeed new private housing output in Q3 2016 was some 69% lower than the volume reported in the pre-downturn period.

Belfast City Council has outlined, in The Belfast Agenda, what it describes as, “an exciting vision to develop a world-class city centre for the future”. This sets out the city council’s vision for Belfast in 2035 and includes a target for some 70,000 new residents in the city centre by then. For this vision to become a reality there will be a need for much higher levels of housing output than currently being achieved. In conjunction with delivery of relevant social housing projects, there will be a need for a focus on delivering more private housing. This can only be achieved by addressing key regulatory hurdles, particularly time-frames and processes involved in obtaining planning approval.

To deliver on the council’s agenda, a Local Development plan is being created. It will be vital that plan is agreed on a timely basis, does not become “bogged down” in the council chamber, links smoothly with the planning team (to ensure sufficient, relevant, sites are allocated to meet identified needs) and leverages on current investment powers of local councils. This needs to happen in tandem with investment to bring new jobs into Belfast. Workers and shoppers need modern residential accommodation, as well as viable transport links to where the jobs, shops and restaurants are located.

This is not just a Belfast centred concern as Northern Ireland’s 10 other local councils face similar issues. Individual economic development and regeneration committees will need to develop and maintain plans to proactively build economic prosperity in their local areas. Key constituents in delivering on strategic and regeneration plans will include the ability for each council to identify and release relevant land for residential development, a genuine focus on delivery of appropriate planning decisions in a timely and efficient manner and appropriate use of available external funding opportunities.

Banks and specialist funders have an important role to play in providing capital to ensure the NI construction industry can help local councils deliver on their regeneration plans but this would be a topic for an article on its own”.