Planning is about places, real and particular places; and Belfast - the venue for the 2012 conference of the International Academic Association on Planning, Law and Property Rights (IAPLR) - is a very special place. That is why this report begins with the sub-plot of this conference: Northern Ireland is emerging out of the terrible years of the troubles and inter-sectarian violence, and its people are proudly building rules, practices and bonds - including new planning laws and local government reform - in order to create a society which does not tear itself to pieces.
This sub-plot shed a warm glow over the rather wet and grey centre of Belfast and over the conference itself, shaping its common, plenary, parts. The conference was organised by the School of the Built Environment, University of Ulster and they gave it the locally very appropriate theme 'Rights, responsibilities and equity in land use planning'. The meetings took place in the very smart Europa Hotel (the most bombed hotel in Europe!), a reception was held and dinner served in the magnificent and bombastic City Hall, and a second reception and guided tour were given in the grand and formidable Stormont parliamentary buildings.
To those of us with chilling memories of bomb scares and - worse - explosions, it was not necessary to make that sub-plot explicit; others, however, might have found it more difficult to understand some of the plenary sessions. Peter Roberts (University of Leeds) gave a presentation - 'Big government in hard times' - about the distribution of government powers between central government, local government and communities. Remember that much of the government of Northern Ireland, including town and country planning, had been exercised by London since 1972, because Britain could not trust the public bodies in Northern Ireland to do that impartially. Now, those powers are back with the Northern Ireland Assembly, but not yet with the local authorities.
Jenny Pyper, Deputy Secretary in the NI Department of Social Development, talked about urban regeneration and the spatial dimension of social services. Politicians must learn to take responsibility and to adopt shared agendas, she said. That statement is born out of much suffering and injustice. Richard Barnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, talked of the plans for a new campus, to the north of the city centre, not separated from the local (deprived) community and encouraging access to all. Cathal Boylan, member of the Legislative Assembly and from Sinn Fein, talked to us of the inter-party cooperation on planning and environmental issues and on local government reform. He refers to Northern Ireland, expressly, as 'the north of Ireland', but works with everyone who wants to improve conditions in that province.
Even the guides who showed us round the City Hall and Stormont presented - lively, witty and informative, in the best Irish fashion - the same message: 'we are going forward, constructively and inclusively'. My taxi driver said that it was good that such international conferences could once again be held in Belfast. However, even though Belfast and Northern Ireland are moving forward, local particularity is never far away. Diana Fitzsimons (Turley Associates), who during the opening reception talked us through the ambitious plans for Titanic Quarter, emphasised that the local council was aiming for an area that is not only mixed-use but also mixed-population. Where in other places this would imply a social-economic or ethnic mix, here - and strikingly for the visitors - it meant a mix of Protestants and Catholics, of Loyalists/ Unionists and Republicans/Nationalists. We learned also that history is not only a burden, something to be borne in mind and acted upon continuously; it can also be a source of irony and laughter. We were assured by more than one person that the Titanic was OK when it leftBelfast. Or as someone said: 'it was built by the Irish and sunk by the English'. …