The North's planning system is over-complex and disjointed, with applications taking far too long to process, according to a new report from the Northern Ireland Audit Office.
Yet Belfast is still managing to put up tall buildings at a rate of knots, certainly compared with the Republic, where political vertigo appears to strike above the fourth floor.
Of the five tallest buildings on the island of Ireland, four are in Belfast, led by the 28-storey Obel tower (Dublin’s Capital Dock holds third place).
Belfast has twice as many buildings over 15 floors as Dublin and many more, taller projects in the pipeline.
Five buildings of about 30 storeys have outline permission or are in master plans for Belfast’s waterfront. Three will set new height records for the whole of Ireland.
The skyline already has several clusters of towers across the city centre, with more planned around a new transport hub to the south and a regeneration scheme to the north. Ulster University has almost completed its central Belfast campus, spurring the development of dozens of student apartment blocks – 8,000 units have been approved. Most are in 15-storey cubes set in a tangle of major urban roads, creating a soul-destroying, monolithic inner-city district.
This, of course, reveals the secret to Belfast’s soaraway success: Northern Ireland is so desperate for development, it often seems anything goes. The Troubles displaced central Belfast’s population so there are few residents to object and the systems meant to protect built heritage appear powerless to prevent dereliction, demolition and fire.
The quality of Belfast’s new tall buildings is extremely variable, both individually and in overall planning terms. Apart from the Titanic Centre, none has truly earned the status of a landmark. Perversely, Belfast is one of the worst urban locations in Ireland for tall buildings as it is an estuarine swamp.
Belfast’s unique circumstances need to be considered in any comparison with Dublin. However, the nimby nature of Sinn Féin and People Before Profit (PBP) representatives in the south is still a striking contrast with their northern colleagues.
Sinn Féin chairs and is the largest party on Belfast City Council's planning committee, where PBP also holds a seat. The committee is considered to function well and has a credible record in scrutinising and amending applications. Sinn Féin has recently scaled down plans for an office block that would have overshadowed city-centre housing, for example. But the party supported the student blocks, despite vociferous objections from residents in another working-class nationalist neighbourhood. The committee has approved exactly the sort of hotel developments Sinn Féin and PBP are objecting to over the Cobblestone pub in Dublin – in fact, Belfast City Council has rarely seen a hotel proposal it does not like.
Councils and Stormont departments can compel developers to provide a proportion of social housing, as in the Republic, but this power is never used. The idea that Sinn Féin would object to apartment buildings simply because the developer wants to make money or charge high prices would cause most people north of the Border to fall about laughing.
Build to rent
The strangest cross-Border difference is over build-to-rent, which is driving high-rise residential development in Belfast – and rightly so. No owner occupier or small landlord should have the liability to maintain a tall building, especially in a swamp.
The city’s first such project, at 16 storeys, was unanimously approved by the planning committee in 2018 and political enthusiasm has only grown since. Only one build-to-rent proposal has so far been refused in Belfast, for oddly sentimental reasons, as it would have meant demolishing the former Ulster Television studios. The ideological objections left-wing parties have raised in Dublin have yet to be heard in Belfast, while practical concerns are rarely heard either. Among recent build-to-rent approvals is a 19-storey block squeezed on to a motorway junction so tightly the developer has been asked to build a playground elsewhere, as children will have nowhere to play, and to provide free bus tickets for three years, as residents will have nowhere to park. Sinn Féin moved approval of this in committee.
The suspicion Sinn Féin obstructs development in Dublin to deliberately worsen the housing crisis is a rather excitable conspiracy theory. Most of the party’s nimbyism can be explained as a venerable tactic of latching on to every local complaint. Perhaps Sinn Féin should be more praised for the energy in Belfast than blamed for the torpor in Dublin – and perhaps people in Dublin fretting over rooflines and republicans should be more aware of developments up the road.