One of the goals of Township is to change how people think about, and participate with, planning. Primarily, we want to shift from planning as a regulatory tool to thinking about its importance as a tool for resource distribution.
Traditionally, the role of planning in Northern Ireland has been to ensure that development happens, but within certain parameters. That’s planning as a regulatory tool.
Its alternative is planning as a distributive tool. Put simply, that means development of things we want (schools, parks, thriving public spaces, affordable housing, accessible workspaces, jobs, efficient transport, cultural provision, healthcare), where they are most needed and can do the most good, while the things we don’t want (pollution, dereliction, dirty industry, car parks, motorways, sprawl, privatised space) are located where they do the least harm to the least vulnerable people.
To make these judgements confidently, we need to better understand how planning intersects with other forms of resource distribution, and how planning decisions can either exacerbate or mitigate existing inequalities, particularly around issues of gender, class, and ethnicity.
For their part, the planning functions within local government should be figuring out how to work better with non-statutory partners, to get better information on how planning is intertwined with health outcomes, educational attainment, crime and safety, employment, environmental quality, cultural participation, and other social justice indicators.
These topics are on my mind more than ever – I’m currently preparing Township’s response to Belfast City Council’s Agenda and Local Development Plan. These documents represent incredible possibilities for how planning and other statutory services get delivered. They also represent our first real opportunity to enshrine planning as a distributive tool into policy.
The Agenda is Belfast’s community plan. It is a strategic planning tool that deals with service provision, rather than spatial planning. It is a major part of the reform of public administration (RPA), which came into effect in April 2015, and each of the 11 new councils are required to prepare one.
The process is a statutory one, whereby the council sets forth a vision and a set of outcomes for the council area, obtains a consensus from the other planning partners and from the community and, over the life of the plan, they work together to ensure its delivery. Its implications are far-reaching, impacting on everything from tourism to housing.
The Local Development Plan, on the other hand, sets forth the policy parameters of spatial planning for the next 15 or so years. Once adopted, it will replace the old BMAP, and will be based on a series of preferred options, a set of priorities for planning and development in they city.
The plans are largely forward looking, inclusive, and ambitious, but there are weaknesses and omissions. If you work in the community and voluntary sector, have a low income or are precariously employed; if you depend on or simply care about the arts and culture in Belfast, including space for it in the city, these weaknesses and omissions will impact you the most.
The last day for responding to both these documents is Thursday 20 April.
If you share the conviction that our places should meet the needs of the people who live in them, that planning should be a tool for achieving that, and you happen to live in Belfast, please – set aside an hour before Thursday to respond to these consultations.