SOLACE delegates who have not visited Belfast for a few years will be amazed as they look out from the windows of the Waterfront Hall during this week’s [next week’s] annual conference. Below them is the emerging ‘Titanic Quarter’ – Europe’s largest waterfront development.
The last time SOLACE held its conference in Belfast was 11 years go – a near eternity in terms of the city’s evolution. While the ‘peace dividend’ from the Good Friday Agreement has not benefited all of the province to the extent predicted, there is no question that its capital is well on its way to becoming a truly European city and one where there is a feeling of well-being.
There are excellent luxury hotels; the brand new and distinctive £320m Victoria Square shopping centre; and a refurbished, enlarged and eyecatching Belfast Opera House. But most spectacularly of all, there is the £5bn Titanic Quarter, which spreads across 185 acres of previously derelict dockland. At the heart of this will be a museum – dedicated to the shipyard where the Titanic was built and launched. When finished, the new Titanic Quarter will host 7,500 apartments and 900,000 square metres of retail, commercial and leisure businesses, which are predicted to generate over 25,000 jobs by the time the project is finally completed in around 15 years.
Belfast is perhaps unique in the UK at present in its feel of prosperity, even during the global financial crisis. So a SOLACE conference with the themes of prosperity, people and place could hardly have chosen a more suitable setting. Coincidentally, the current SOLACE President, and Worcestershire chief executive, is Trish Haines – herself a product of Belfast. However, the decision to hold the event in Belfast pre-dated her time as vice-president and now president.
“We have gone out in the last couple of years to Edinburgh and Cardiff – it’s a good principle to take the conference out to different parts of the UK,” says Haines. “But I have seen over the last years enormous change in Northern Ireland, particularly in Belfast. Belfast is a cracking good example of regeneration. I felt that there are a lot of things going on in Belfast that are good examples for other places. That ranges from lessons about how you develop a waterfront or riverside, dealing with an area of older industrial production, such as the shipyards, or how you police an area where there is limited consent. The problems are more stark [in Belfast], but they are similar to those that other chief executives are grappling with and I wanted a conference where people are not just talking.”
Consequently, the conference is geared to delegates from across the UK seeing at first hand the Belfast transformation. David Clark, director general of SOLACE, explains: “This conference is different in that it speaks much more about the place where we are going than previous conferences. It is much less about white men in suits talking. It is a lot more of getting on the bicycles and into the minibuses and seeing the city. One of the themes of this conference is place, so we thought wouldn’t it be sensible to look at the place we are in. And it is also about people, so we want to talk to people in Belfast.
“Hugh Orde [the chief constable of Northern Ireland] is talking about policing in a place where people have been murdering each other. So we have people talking to the themes of the conference. One of the things we don’t do in local government sufficiently is to learn from each other. We want our colleagues to learn from each other here.”
It would be a mistake to assume that because the conflict in Northern Ireland’s recent past – and, to a lesser extent, its present – has been between Protestants and Catholics, that it does not also have to deal with community divisions more familiar to much of Brtiain. Delegates will be taken on a ‘Roads to Freedom’ study tour around Belfast, looking at a still largely divided city geography, but speaking to projects that are tackling on the ground a tradition of conflict and hatred and its more modern, and also unpleasnt, face.
One of those projects is the South Belfast Roundtable on Racism, which brings together politicians and community workers across the old religious divides with a common objective of tackling racism. Denise Wright is the co-ordinator of the Roundtable. “The migration issues are different [in Belfast],” she says. “We had 30 years of no migration and then all of a sudden with the peace process and paramilitary ceasefires we had a quick change in demography.”
Many Chinese people had settled in Belfast over a long period of time, but the end of the Troubles saw people from other nationalities arrive, including from Poland and the Baltic States and black people from Portugal and elsewhere. Often incomers in need of accommodation saw vacant properties, without understanding the unmarked boundaries between communities. Sometimes incomers experienced violence and even arson when they moved into space that one community or another felt it ‘owned’, or by living in the ‘contested’ space between divided communities. Incomers could be shocked to find that even the act of wearing a particular football shirt could be seen as provocative in one street, when it was acceptable 100 years away. While the result may be more dramatic that intra-community tension elsewhere in the UK, the underlying issues can have similarities.
Where there is a stark difference is the acceptance in Northern Ireland that local government is merely one actor in a drama of many other players. The South Belfast Roundtable – as with other groups tackling division and promoting community cohesion – is part of the voluntary sector, but supported by Belfast City Council’s Good Relations unit and with councillors from all the political parties on its board. Other board members come from groups representing the ethnic minority communities.
This partnership approach is well known in Britain – but the shortage of legal responsibilities and powers in local government in Northern Ireland can mean that partnership working is essential to achieve social change. Councils in Northern Ireland are responsible for ‘bins, baths and burials’ in the old shorthand slang. Their responsibilities will be slightly extended when the reorganisation flowing from the Review of Public Administration comes into effect in, or around, 2011. But even with additional responsibilities for local roads, tourism promotion, economic development and some regeneration, local government in Northern Ireland will still be responsible for a mere 8% of public spending, compared to 27% in England.
Yet it is a time of excitement for district councils in Northern Ireland, which are looking forward to mergers and a reduction in their number from 26 to 11, as well as enhanced powers. They are in a mood to listen, as well as to explain. For these councils, the SOLACE conference offers the prospect of learning from Britain. Heather Moorhead, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, says: “To my mind our change process would benefit from being influenced by the cutting-edge thinking and innovation going on in other regions. I also feel that SOLACE’s commitment to learning from the projects we have here is a great boost. Sometimes we feel like the poor cousins playing catch up – until we realize some of the work we are doing is also cutting-edge.”