In its recent look at how Northern Ireland has fared without ministers since the 2015 collapse of the executive, The Institute for Government (IfG) singles out the continuing functioning of councils as ‘one of the unsung success stories’.
But the report highlights that ‘one of the legacies of Northern Ireland’s divided past’ is a governance landscape even more centralised than in other parts of the UK.
In this context – no sitting Assembly, the UK Parliament in a parlous state, and the IfG highlighting that Northern Ireland ‘lacks proper political representation in the Brexit process despite being more acutely affected by the outcome than any other part of the UK’ – how is the region’s largest council faring?
Suzanne Wylie, who became chief executive of Belfast City Council five years ago, is well placed to judge. She has worked at the council for all of her 31-year career in a varied range of roles since joining as a graduate.
Her experiences during the years of the Troubles included ones that would not have happened elsewhere. She tells The MJ: ‘I started off as an environmental health officer and so had to travel all over the city. I was often stopped and had to explain who I was and what I was doing.’
In 2015, Northern Ireland’s 26 councils were consolidated into 11. The council’s boundaries widened, and it took in another 50,000 residents. ‘It took on community planning, a general power of competence similar to the Great Britain power of wellbeing, and it got more economic development powers,’ she explains.
Those new powers were always meant to be phase one of devolution. ‘There was always supposed to be another phase, but that hasn’t happened. Some of the responsibilities that were originally supposed to pass over including regeneration haven’t happened yet.’
Despite this, her priority was ‘that we set out a place-shaping agenda’. Her community plan, the Belfast Agenda, was formed by all of the stakeholders in the city, with ‘36 stakeholders all signed up to a 20-year-plan that takes us up to 2035’.
It sets out ‘some big ambitious targets, for example 46,000 new jobs and also 65,000 more people living in the city, and just over 30,000 new homes.’
She describes it as ‘a holistic strategy…with four separate pillars to it’. She adds: ‘There are two economic regeneration pillars which are growing the economy, and putting the economic infrastructure in place. Then creating the right education and skills through the working and learning pillar, and then there’s the ‘living here’ pillar – which is really about people’s neighbourhoods, but also their health and wellbeing as well. Community capacity is all contained within that.’
But she emphasises the underlying theme is inclusive growth. Under the Belfast Agenda there are ‘lots of other strategies and programmes of work and investments to actually make it happen.’ These include an Inclusive Growth Strategy to tackle the fact that more than 56,000 residents live in poverty, including 28% of children, and that more than 7,000 Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) applicants are in housing stress.
The council will also develop a city growth plan through the Innovation and Inclusive Growth Commission. Several ‘once in a generation’ opportunities have emerged, which, if realised, she says could transform the city. These include Belfast Region city deal, the Belfast Dublin Economic Corridor, the development of an energy transition plan, and strategic developments such as Belfast Waterfront and a new transport hub.
She says the setting up of the commission will ensure that major programmes are integrated and joined up and long term resilience built in ‘so that we are better able to withstand shocks and stresses and make Belfast increasingly attractive to long term investment’. The city is preparing to launch and implement a Resilience Strategy aimed at resolving strategic risks. This includes a focus on climate change, children and young people and connectivity. Last week the council declared a climate emergency. The council will also publish the Belfast Spatial Planning Framework – the Local Development Plan.
In addition, the City Centre Regeneration and Investment Strategy, jointly adopted by the council and the Department for Communities, is a plan to get more private sector investment into the city, and ‘making it really work as the engine and creating more jobs’.
She adds: ‘We will put our money on the table alongside the private sector, to incentivise the right type of investment and development to happen.’ Her record on this is not in doubt. She provided The MJ with details of £2.46bn of hotel, residential and office development within the city centre – either approved, under construction or completed since 2015.
What effect would a no-deal Brexit have on Belfast’s community and economy? ‘Of course, the potential impacts of a no-deal Brexit are well documented,’ she replies. The council has reviewed its critical services and is where possible identifying ways to reduce any exposure to the potential impact of a no-deal EU exit. ‘We are working with various civil service departments here so that we can support any vulnerable people, manage certification for imports and exports, particularly of food and animal products.’ For business support, the council continues to work with key partners including Invest NI, Intertrade Ireland and the Chamber of Commerce, which all have Brexit checklists and practical support packages in place.
But she is remains positive. The city contains some remarkable business assets of global importance. Ten per cent of the world’s foreign exchange market goes through Belfast, and cyber security is one of a number of very significant niche strengths. Tourism is thriving.
Politically, no party is in control of the council. This was a unionist dominated council for many years, and that has shifted considerably.
She adds: ‘My job and that of my team is to support the political process of course, but also to manage the reputation of this organisation. This means supporting the politicians in terms of how they present some of their arguments in the public debating chamber. It can sometimes be a very fine line to tread. We’re always predicting where the political mood is likely to go.’
This chief executive’s sensitive and in-depth understanding of her council and city makes her the ideal person to lead the push for positive change in these most uncertain times.