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Changing the face of a city

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Belfast, host to next week’s Solace conference, has a new confidence since the Troubles and is a lesson to local government.

Delegates should be impressed as they look out from the windows of Waterfront Hall. Below them is the emerging Titanic Quarter, Europe’s largest waterfront development.

The last time Solace held its conference in Belfast was 11 years ago 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 finally a sense of wellbeing instead of tension.

There are luxury hotels, the new distinctive£320m Victoria Square shopping centre and a refurbished, enlarged and eyecatching Belfast Opera House. But most visibly there is the£5bn Titanic Quarter, which spreads across nearly 75ha of previously derelict dockland.

At the heart of this will be a museum dedicated to the shipyard where the Titanic was built and launched. If everything goes to plan, when finished in 15 years, the quarter will host 7,500 apartments and 900,000 square metres of retail, commercial and leisure businesses, which are predicted to generate more than 25,000 jobs.

Belfast is perhaps unique in the UK at present thanks to its feel of prosperity, even during the global financial crisis. As such it is a suitable setting for the Solace conference with its themes of prosperity, people and place. 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.”

Northern Irish local government, emasculated of power as a result of the Troubles, has had little to shout about in the recent past. But the province’s history means that its councils have gained valuable experience in tackling community divisions, an increasingly relevant issue for local government elsewhere in the UK.

Although the conflict in Northern Ireland’s recent past and, to a lesser extent, its present has been between Protestants and Catholics, the province has also suffered community divisions more familiar to other parts of Britain.

Delegates to next week’s conference will be taken on a ‘Roads to Freedom’ study tour around Belfast still a geographically divided city that will look at grassroots projects tackling not just a tradition of conflict and hatred but also its more modern 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, co-ordinator of the roundtable, says: “The migration issues are different [in Belfast]. 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 nations arrive, including from Poland and the Baltic States and from Portugal and elsewhere.

Often immigrants in need of accommodation viewed vacant properties without understanding the unmarked boundaries between communities. Sometimes they experienced violence and 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 metres away. While intra-community tensions may be more dramatic than elsewhere in the UK, the underlying issues can be similar.

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. Councillors from all the political parties are on its board. Other board members come from groups representing 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.

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 realise some of the work we are doing is also cutting edge.”

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