Stormont pours cold water on Belfast Council hopes for new powers to regenerate the city

Stock image of Belfast City Hall seen through grand gates at front with tourism information display in front of gates
Stock image of Belfast City Hall -Credit:Belfast Live

A local councillor has said a Stormont response to a request from Belfast Council asking for devolved powers to help regenerate derelict areas in the city was “disappointing.”

Green Councillor Brian Smyth at a recent City Hall committee meeting was reacting to a letter by the Stormont Department for Communities, which poured cold water on hopes for the devolution of powers any time soon.

The Stormont department said the new Minister for Communities, DUP MLA Gordon Lyons, had “no plans currently to devolve any additional powers to local councils” as it would require a review across several departments.

Read more: Belfast City Hall looks at spending £2,000 on books for child refugees

The department said it was also waiting on a “scoping work” by the local authority and public sector organisation SOLACE on what is actually meant by the term “regeneration powers".

Last February the council agreed it would write to the new Minister for Communities, DUP MLA Gordon Lyons, to request that work was undertaken with all relevant stakeholders to achieve the conferring of regeneration powers to councils with appropriate budgets - all within this Assembly mandate.

The council received a response last month from Mr. P. Anderson, Director, on behalf of the Minister. It stated: “As Council will be aware, several attempts have been made to put the necessary legislation in place, but on each occasion have not progressed due to a lack of consensus, on the broader issue of local government reform, or on the content of the legislation itself.

“The last attempt saw the Regeneration Bill introduced in the Northern Ireland Assembly on the December 8 2014 (Bill 43/11-16). This was withdrawn in November 2015.

“Due to the significant period which has passed since the introduction of the last Regeneration Bill (2014), and the experience of recent initiatives in response to Covid-19 e.g. the Covid-19 Recovery Revitalisation and Small Settlements Programmes in partnership with the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), the cross-departmental nature of regeneration activities has been clearly demonstrated.

“The minister has indicated that he has no plans currently to devolve any additional powers to local councils as this would require a fundamental review of the current position across several departments and would potentially require Executive referral.

“The issue of further work being required to revisit the potential transfer of regeneration powers to councils was most recently raised at the partnership panel meeting in August 2022, at which it was agreed that local government and central government officials would engage to discuss what a future transformation of regeneration powers could look like.

“In October 2022, the PSG/SOLACE Engagement Forum co-chairs agreed that SOLACE would undertake scoping work to understand what is meant by regeneration powers. The department awaits the outcome of that work.”

At the most recent meeting of the Belfast Council City Growth and Regeneration meeting, Councillor Brian Smyth said: “I think it is a disappointing response. This council and city’s ambitions are being held back by a lack of physical regeneration powers. It is a conversation that needs to be ongoing.

“There are many former councillors from here who are now MLAs up in Stormont, and I would ask (fellow councillors) to speak to them. If we are serious about meeting the ambitions of the Belfast Agenda, if we are serious about progressing this city socially, economically and in a climate sense, this council desperately needs physical regeneration powers.”

He added: “There are derelict buildings all across this city and it is holding us back. If the council could have some of these powers it could move much quicker. Stormont is dysfunctional, and this has been held back since 2014.

“With (the likes of) Covid, it has been one thing after another. But meanwhile the dereliction in this city is a blight on the landscape, and this council could be doing so much more.”

For all the latest news, visit the Belfast Live homepage here and sign up to our daily newsletter here.