As the deadline for objections to the latest development plan beckons, we asked the Chair of the ‘Save CQ’ campaign to tell us more about the development plans for the Cathedral Quarter. Rebekah McCabe is also a PhD researcher in urban anthropology, a producer at PLACE, and the founder of urban advocacy platform Township.
Development should be about making places better, creating homes and communities, about building resilience and, where possible, undoing mistakes of the past. What we face now in the Cathedral Quarter is not development, it is short-sighted, profit driven speculation that repeats, rather than learns from, decades of bad urbanism.
For years, the historic centre of Belfast, now known as the Cathedral Quarter, has been slowly succumbing to a particular kind of urban decay.
Some vacancy and dereliction is, of course, a normal part of the urban life cycle, as traders and residents come and go. Extensive dereliction of the kind seen around North Street, however, is the product of a particularly exploitative model of regeneration. It starts with an area being designated as development land, inviting investors (people who see cities not as places but as market derivatives) to buy up tracts of land, consolidating whole districts into a single asset. It is a model that produces vacancy in service of its own needs, to the detriment of everyone else.
Inevitably, land slated for development will go into a kind of managed decline. Public investment stops in its tracks – why invest in an area that’s about to be redeveloped? Paving, street lighting, signage and other aspects of the public realm all progressively worsen. Leases expire and tenants leave, reluctant to invest in premises that will soon be bulldozed. The streets get quieter and less safe. Empty buildings quickly deteriorate. Sometimes, fire speeds things up. Even the beautiful ones start to look like blight. Public opinion shifts from concern to contempt, as any development becomes desirable over crumbling piles of brick.
This is what has happened in the Cathedral Quarter, beginning in the late 1990s, through several failed attempts for private redevelopment. As an urban process, it is a slow catastrophe, imperceptible until too late. It occludes all other options for development and hinders small scale improvements – building is purchased/building is restored/building is in active use – that lead to an aggregation of independent trade, retail, cultural use and residential presence; activities that over time bring new life back in to a city centre. It inhibits demand, either killing the activities that would occupy those areas, or dispersing them across the city. Only the most tenacious survive.
If you take a walk around North Street, Rosemary Street, and Donegall Street, you’ll find a lot of small-scale activity of this kind – independent retail, art galleries, offices, studios – uses that have adapted existing buildings to their needs. Despite years of disinvestment, the area boasts occupancy rates marginally lower than areas of the city centre that have been spruced up with millions in public money.
These are the kind of activities that cities thrive on, that create a sense of place and community and that are intrinsically resilient to big economic shocks (one business on North Street has been trading in the area for more than a century). They can, evidently, withstand conditions of economic drought. What they cannot withstand is what Jane Jacobs referred to as ‘cataclysmic money’ – regeneration capital that comes in to a city like a ‘torrential, eroding flood’.
The risk now faced by the Cathedral Quarter is not merely the loss of built heritage, or the displacement of a few small retailers. It is about the loss of a future we should be seeking for our city – where we’ll need community, creativity, openness, connection, and resilience more than ever. What has been proposed for the area – offices, shops, privatised streets, & almost no housing – does nothing to bring us closer to that future.
In a campaign, it can be tempting to reduce the message down to something essential – a one liner that provokes people to action. With Save CQ, we’re trying to inject some nuance into how we talk about cities, especially around making processes of urban change more understandable to people.
As a group, the campaign team is diverse. We’re architects, planners, artists, urban designers, business people, community workers, writers, teachers, social scientists; people with varied but extensive expertise about cities, about what makes them fail and what makes them thrive, that go beyond simple assumptions about money and growth.
This particular development feels especially high stakes because it’s one of the first major plans to be decided by new, local, planning powers. Its outcome will set a precedent for how development will happen in Belfast for decades. City Council have been actively working on a vision for the city (the Belfast Agenda) and creating a planning policy context to enable it to be achieved (the local development plan). Those documents, though still in draft form, are incredibly significant. They have their weaknesses of course, but they go much further than anything we’ve seen before in identifying an aspiration for the city in terms of quality of life, reconnecting neighbourhoods, and bringing the population back to pre-Troubles levels.
The choice is not between bad development and no development. That’s a thinly veiled threat that developers use to justify making poor choices based on maximising their own profits. We have statutory instruments – laws and policy – to achieve good development if exercised correctly. With this campaign, we’re attempting to expose the process of development to as much scrutiny as possible, to support and embolden the planners in City Hall to use their significant powers in the interest of the people of Belfast – the real investors in the city – rather than the short-sighted monetary interests of developers.
The redevelopment of the area is still in the pre-planning stage. This means that the Council and public have been notified that planning permission will be sought, but the plan has not been finalised. As members of the public, we were invited last March to consult on the outline scheme. We formed Save CQ in response to that consultation, and galvanised public opposition. 2,262 people sent letters of objection in a single week, which is unprecedented. What changes the developers will make in response to those concerns remain to be seen.
A couple of weeks ago, the developers announced that they are proceeding to seek full permission for phase 1b – the site bounded by Lower Garfield Street, North Street, Rosemary Street, and Royal Avenue. There are, as you might expect, significant weaknesses with what they are proposing. We’ve summarised them below.
We issued a statement last Thursday, along with a template letter of objection to email to the developers. Already, objections have been pouring in by the hundreds.
To support the campaign, respond to the developer’s public consultation by sending a letter of objection. This is part of the statutory process for pre-planning consultation. As with the first round of objections, all of these emails will need to be included in the planning application when it finally goes in to council, and the developers are required to show how they have given consideration to public concerns.
The deadline is Tuesday 18th July at 5pm.
Finally, we’re asking people to come with us for the long haul – this isn’t going to be settled definitively any time soon. There will be more action required over the next several months, and we’ll be here to guide you through.