Who Plans Belfast?
In March — for the second time in 12 months — the press carried reports indicating that the security forces are interfering in town planning decisions and the layout of housing estates. Derek Alcorn looks at the background and the issues raised.
Claims about security force involvement in housing and town planning first arose in March 1981, when correspondence relating to the New Lodge Housing Action Area, was leaked to a local community worker. This correspondence which SCOPE has seen, revealed a dispute between the Housing Executive and the Department of the Environment (DoE) as to which agency should pay for the construction of a security wall at the North Queen Street end of the site.
It also revealed much about the power relationship between two agencies since letters from the Belfast Development Office insisted that the estimated cost of the wall, £21,000 should be borne by the Executive, and should come out of a budget of £68,000 set aside for environmental works in the area, despite arguments to the contrary.
Last month on 13th March, the Guardian carried further allegations of interference by the security forces in planning, including the construction of a series of ‘pedestrian’ paths linking cul de sacs at Poleglass, with foundations built to road specifications to facilitate the movement of army vehicles around the housing complex. The Guardian further alleged that a row of houses had been arbitrarily removed from redevelopment proposals for Catholic Ardoyne at the insistence of the security forces. SCOPE has acquired documentation which confirms that this occurred without the knowledge of the Housing Executive after it had submitted the plans to the Divisional Planning Office '~for planning approval. The row of houses in question would have fronted onto the Crumlin Road directly opposite the Protestant Woodvale area. It further emerged that a Security Committee on Housing exists at Stormont, on which the security forces and the Belfast Development Office are represented but not apparently the Housing Executive.
None of this has been categorically denied by the Department of the Environment. The Minister Mr. Mitchell has responded by saying that the Security Forces are consulted much as any other agency of Government, and the ‘pedestrian paths‘ have been explained as necessary access points for ambulances and fire engines. Both of these explanations are unconvincing. The 'pedestrian paths' are blocked at each end by concrete bollards which no ambulance or fire engine could get round. It would of course be naive in the extreme for anyone to imagine that the security forces do not regularly give their views on a wide range of planning proposals as a matter of course, particularly in areas of potential sectarian strife.
Anyone is entitled to comment on or object to planning proposals, and the security forces would be quickly accused of negligence if they ignored such proposals altogether. Similarly local councillors have indicated that residents on either side of the Cupar Street security wall were in favour of its construction. The questions raised, are as Mr. Mitchell must know much more fundamental and serious. The removal of a row of houses from the Ardoyne redevelopment plans indicates that far from merely acting in a consultative capacity, the Security Forces exercise a previously unknown veto on planning proposals, and some degree of executive power in relation to them. These facts have not previously been public knowledge.
Furthermore both the Guardian article and two days later the lrish News (15/3/82) quoted correspondence from the head of the Belfast Development Office, to the Belfast Regional Controller of the Housing Executive which said “We have in recent months sought to remind everyone concerned in DoE and the N.l.H.E. of the need to involve the security forces at an early stage of proposed new works involving new buildings, road realignments etc. We have however, subsequently had several instances where it emerged that plans were afoot – and virtually at a starting date - where the proposals were unacceptable to the Security Forces and we have had to make last minute and potentially costly changes".
The significance of this letter lies in the fact that the only people from whom the Housing Executive require approval for plans is the Division Planning Office. There is no statutory obligation on the Executive to seek approval for their developments from the Security Forces, though clearly the DoE is encouraging this.
Belfast Development Office
The administrative arrangements which facilitate close scrutiny of all planning proposals are illustrated in Figure 1. Reorganisation of Local Government in the early 1970's concentrated the Roads Service and the Planning Service within the DoE. Housing became the responsibility of the Housing Executive but it is widely acknowledged that the DoE closely controls the Executive's policies through the allocation of finance (e.g. the DoE's recent insistence that the Executive's capital programme could only go ahead if rents were raised by 22%).
Central to the whole system is the Belfast Development Office which was established to co-ordinate inter agency development across the city, and which over time, appears to have grasped a large degree of executive and administrative power.
Direct links back to Stormont, access to a wide range of information, a central co- ordinating role in the massive physical restructuring of Belfast, and protection from scrutiny by public representatives, have given the Belfast Development Office a high degree of administrative power which has enabled the DoE to virtually plan Belfast at will, and in particular to push through its urban road plans despite opposition from community groups and tenants organisations.
This has led to some dubious developments such as the construction of housing at Henry Street right beside the motorway link, on land originally zoned for industry.
ln SCOPE November 1980 we described this development as “an example of crude rule of thumb planning which would be hard to beat" and its construction illustrates how expediency (let us build the road and we‘ll put back some houses) rather than the principles of Town and Country Planning can dictate developments in the city.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the current administrative arrangements have to some extent eroded the professional function of Belfast's planners. As it has been put in a thesis at Queen's University "Senior Officers within the Development Office are involved in and advise policy makers on different policies. They also have knowledge of the legal and administrative system and its procedures, which planners lack. Less senior officers, as in other administrative areas, are concerned more with the administration of policy and decisions than with decision and policy making. The planning agency is different in this regard. All planning officers at whatever level are equally competent and qualified as professionals to practice ‘planning’… ln the present system however, the policy making and co-ordinating functions. the very stuff of planning are removed or adulterated by other agencies. The planner is left with a partial role and his talents under-utilised.” *
A number of issues of public interest and public administration arise from the material which has come to light and these have been put to Mr. Mitchell by Belfast City Councillor Will Glendinning. They are as follows:
1. Does the Planning Service of the DoE regularly forward proposals submitted for planning permission, to the Security Forces for their approval? ls this done without the knowledge of the person or agency seeking planning permission? ls it done without reference to the Town Planning Committee of Belfast City Council? Under what authority are the planning regulations thus subverted?
2. What is the function of the Security Committee on Housing? Who is represented on it? What powers does the committee possess, and under what authority does it exercise them?
3. There is no statutory obligation on the Housing Executive to seek approval (as distinct from engaging in consultation with) for developments from the Security Forces. Why is the Belfast Development Office actively encouraging this? Under what authority was a row of houses deleted from the Ardoyne Redevelopment Plans?
4. Why is the Housing Executive being forced to use money from its capital building programme for the construction of security walls required by the Northern Ireland Office and/or the Security Forces? What are the consequences of this for the Executive's position as an independent housing authority for the Province?
In a reply sent to Will Glendinning last month, Mr. Mitchell said, “Reference to a Security Committee for housing is simply the Civil Service phraseology for the group of D.O.E. and N.l.O. Civil Servants who meet with the police on such matters. The question of the financing of the building of walls is a complex one. Often these walls serve a dual purpose. They often have an environmental purpose, but also serve to protect local residents who feel threatened. Finally, I can assure that plans are not altered without the knowledge of the Housing Executive. The Executive is consulted and informed about these matters."
Mr. Mitchell's statement contrasts interestingly with a statement attributed to the Housing Executive's Acting Director of Development Mr. Douglas Smith in the magazine Building Design 19/3/82. Mr. Smith is quoted as saying "There is absolutely no consultation whatsoever. The only stage at which the security forces intervene is when schemes go in for planning permission. Then their requirements are imposed, not discussed." Mr. Smith's observations confirm the documentary evidence which Scope has seen.
Fundamental to the whole affair is the fact that the administrative arrangements within which Belfast's Town Planners work, severely limit the exercise of their professional function. Remove the Security Forces as a factor, and an important public issue — the erosion of the role of the professional town planner -— still remains. The physical planning of Belfast is in the hands of a small elite of professional civil servants, none of whom have necessarily any training relevant to Town Planning or urban problems. In this context all the theories of greater public participation in planning which have gained currency in Britain during the past decade, are irrelevant in Belfast. That is the central issue of public interest to which Belfast's planners have failed to address themselves. The other major issue of public interest to emerge is the nature of the relationship between the D.O.E. and the Housing Executive. As noted above instructions on financial expenditure are frequently handed down to the Executive by the D.O.E., and the allocation of finance is used to exert close of Executive policy. Do we have an independent Housing Authority in Northern Ireland?
*Noel Scott. Corporate Planning: Its Relevance in the N. Ireland Context. Dissertation presented as part of a Masters Degree in Town and Country Planning. Q.U.B.
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