They'd build over the top of us if they got the chance. They don't see a community, they see Real Estate. But who benefits from Empty Offices?

Market Resident


>> 94%

Of the Community belive that commercial overdevelopment is a threat to the future of the area.

>> Human Rights Indicator

The Market Community Demands a reduction in this figure from 94% to 0%.

>> Action

That all relevant statutory agencies take all necessary steps to ensure the integrity and sustainability of the Market Community through the creation of a Community Sustainability Zone, rezoning and/or purchasing land within its boundaries to this end.



Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family 

– Article 25.1 UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence 

– Article 8 European Convention on Human Rights (1953)

The right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family … and to the continuous improvement of living conditions 

– Article 11.1 UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)

The right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity 

– Strand 6.1, Good Friday Agreement

The municipal authorities, with citizen participation, deliver a system of town planning and administration which sustains a balance between urban development and the environment 

– Article 19.2 European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City (2002)

Some of the most authentic voices in Belfast – have been under threat for decades, due not only to a legacy of bad planning but to the continuing reality of bad planning policy and practice today.

All available land in and around these communities is looked at solely through the lens of property speculation – i.e. how to generate maximum profits from the space available in the shortest time. This short term, purely profit driven thinking has had a detrimental impact on both citizens and cityscape alike. Belfast needs a complete reorientation in its approach to planning and land use, and to begin looking at the broader social and use values of land for wider social needs and the long term benefit of all citizens. This is why the Overdevelopment Human Rights Indicator is so important – it is the material and spatial context which has conditioned all the other social issues within the community, from road safety to mental health – and it is the first and easiest step for statutory agencies to take in helping with the broader process of community renewal.

Figure 1: The LHS Belfast Office Report 2017 clearly shows that the Market lies at the heart of the City’s most valuable commercial areas, sandwiched between Lanyon and the Gasworks and bounded either side by the Linen Quarter and the Lagan River.

Badly Planning Belfast:

the Historic Context

The planning expert Sir Charles Brett – former chair of the Housing Executive, International Fund for Ireland, and a founding member
and President of the Ulster Architectural and Heritage Society – lamented in 2001 that

Most unhappily, in the 1970s the planners permitted the new multi-storey Europa Hotel to be sited so as to block off the vista of the hills up Hamilton Street and Franklin Street. Instead of drawing a lesson from this, they have more recently allowed the BT Tower to block off views down Howard Street, Donegall Square South, and May Street. This is a shame, and a misfortune not to be repeated. 28

The sites mentioned – May Street, Hamilton Street etc. – are all key thoroughfares in the Market community, long encumbered by the bad planning legacy Brett outlines. Assessing the reasons for this planning legacy, Brett identified “five principal causes for the very sharp decline since the 1960s in the visual character of Belfast”, among which

The first has been the greed of the property developers, and their resolute refusal to take into account aesthetic considerations, coupled with the failure both of architects and planners to stand up and be counted in favour of quality rather than crude profit. .. The fifth has been the poor performance of the city's planners: how far this has been the cause, and how far the consequence, of the very low esteem in which planners are held in Northern Ireland, by politicians and public alike, is a matter of opinion.29

This created a situation where “the inner
city has been irregularly sprinkled with inappropriate buildings, often high-rise, and far too often out of scale and sympathy with their neighbours.”30 To his chagrin, Brett would go on to note that the Market was at the heart of this civic vandalism as it continued apace into the 21st Century:

Now, a whole new generation of high-rise buildings is going up, many of them in the Laganside area, the most conspicuous being the new Hilton Hotel and British Telecom buildings: neither of them is a building with the slightest pretension to architectural merit or charm, and both completely overshadow not only the only recent public building of any merit in the inner city, the new Waterfront Hall, but also the Royal Courts of Justice, St George's Markets, and the not-long-rebuilt low-rise Markets area of social housing

I do not assert that high-rise buildings are always and everywhere wrong. They are :fine for Manhattan; they are wrong for an inner city packed with good examples of Victorian and Edwardian street architecture. We should have learned our lesson from Paris: once the Tour Montparnasse had gone up, the authorities realised what a ghastly mistake had been made, and resolved not to repeat it. Thenceforward, high-rise buildings were exiled over the horizon to the new quarter at La Defense, or to the outer suburbs. Belfast might quite easily have done the same; high-rise buildings would have done no great harm amongst the cranes, gantries, power-station chimneys and grain silos of the harbour. Unfortunately, apart from old buildings restored and the Waterfront Hall, many of the new buildings now going up in the Laganside area combine clumsy massing with inappropriate materials and shoddy detailing: they are designed to maximise lettable fl.oar space and nothing else ... in general, though it has succeeded admirably in stimulating investment and development, it has not succeeded in stimulating high quality design or architecture.31

The concerns outlined by Brett also correspond with the height criteria laid down by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which notes that height is relative to context as “a 14-storey building may not be considered a tall building in a high-rise city such as Chicago or Hong Kong, but in a provincial European city or a suburb this may be distinctly taller than the urban norm.”32 

Economic Interfaces:

Speculation and Social Apartheid

Nor has developer led regeneration encouraged any form of social renewal in the inner city communities directly adjacent to all this investment as “the effects of regeneration have been socially and spatially uneven, and sites of modernity sit uncomfortably close to communities that are still affected by poverty, division and violence,”33 leading to a situation where in November 2018, in the words of the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty,

“in Belfast I was struck by the extent to which communities in the city are still segregated by physical barriers.”34 This is unsurprising. As noted in the introduction, communities have been actively excluded from sharing in the wider peace bounty, and one study has noted that from the 1970’s

The planning system in NI was very much 'steered' in the direction of securing (literally) the maximum degree of segregation possible between contentious areas of the city and ensuring the delivery of 'defensive planning'. In this respect, from the perspective of achieving its objectives, the planning system actually worked very well. So well in fact that the patterns that were established in the early 1970s are continuing to this day.35

Belfast is not alone in seeing the highly unequal returns from the type of developer led regeneration that has been pursued over the last thirty years. A recent study by the Alliance Manchester Business School has shown that developer led regeneration in Manchester has “produced and continues to produce highly uneven development… a city centre that is being re-made, in many ways, for developer­profit and the aspirational renter, with a gross mismatch between the wider social priorities of Greater Manchester’s population”.36 This
is not exceptional. Oliver Wainwright has observed that

- Across the country and especially in superheated London, where stratospheric land values beget accordingly bloated - developments authorities are allowing planning policies to be continually flouted, affordable housing quotas to be waived, height limits breached, the interests of residents endlessly trampled. Places are becoming ever meaner and more divided, as public assets are relentlessly sold off, entire council estates flattened to make room for silos of luxury safe-deposit boxes in the sky. We are replacing homes with investment units, to be sold overseas and never inhabited, substituting community for vacancy. The more we build, the more our cities are emptied, producing dead swathes of zombie town where the lights might never even be switched on ... The bigger the scheme, the fatter the bounty, leading to a situation not far from legalised - bribery or extortion, depending on which side of the bargain you are on. Vastly inflated density and a few extra storeys on a tower can be politically justiti.ed as being in the public interest, if it means a handful of trees will be planted on the street.37

Speculation: the proposed skyscrapers on Stewart Street

Simon Jenkins has also recently lamented that:

Ever since the tum of the millennium, skyscrapers have acquired "iconic" status as harbingers of wealth, even if much of that wealth is funk money from foreign dictatorships. They are loved by virility-obsessed mayors ... The virtue of skyscrapers to investors is precisely why they are so damaging to city vitality. They are locked, gated, anonymous and family­hostile. No one cares if they are empty or blight the surrounding communities.38

A 2017 report by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat echoed these concerns, noting that skyscrapers have as much to do with status than with anything else:

In addition to providing office space to house businesses, skyscrapers were also valuable because of the other benefits they provided, which, in tum, helped to generate a height premium, where tenants on higher floors pay more per square meter than those on the lower floors ... the height premium is likely due to several factors. First is the improved views and vistas on the top floors, in addition to less pollution and noise from the street. But perhaps equally as important is the signalling function that height provides. By being on the top floors and outbidding others for the right, businesses can signal their economic strength in order to convey information to the rest of the world. Firms that offer better products and services might want to occupy higher floors to signal their better business acumen, or, more broadly, to signal their general profitability and economic strength. The shape and design of the building can also play a vital role in the amount of revenue it generates for the owner. Tall buildings can signal to the world the "fi.tness" of the builder, owner, or major tenant (especially if the building is named after the owner or main occupant or has a large logo at the top). The design can generate information and provide status to owner and occupant alike.39

As the case studies of several ongoing and proposed speculative developments show, the Market and the surrounding area is rife with half vacant overdevelopments and even more ridiculous proposals for which there is no need, and which not only rely heavily on public subsidy (via NAMA etc.) to complete, but also to sustain with rent via public bodies when finished. Further compounding the problems of speculation is the short lifecycle that these types of overdevelopment have. A 2015 report by the Centre on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat notes that 

Regeneration: the Market Tunnels Project

Fast growing economies are putting ever increasing pressures on city centers [sic], with a continuous demand for new offices, luxury hotels, and trophy residences. While nobody argues that many iconic buildings are likely to grace a city's skyline for centuries, evidence shows that typical tall buildings suffer from a much faster aging processes, not in tenns of structural and material obsolescence, but in tenns of functional obsolescence. 40

This ‘functional obsolescence’ underpins much of Belfast’s development over the last 25 years, as well as many of those currently in the planning system. Like the Market in the 1970’s, Belfast is being redeveloped, but it is being redeveloped for future decay.

Overdevelopment Damages Mental Health

This isn’t just a matter of taste or a ‘Not in My Backyard’ mentality from residents. As well as the massive social and economic dislocation caused by such developments, there is a growing body of specialist literature that demonstrates how such bad design and mass overdevelopment have a serious impact on mental health41. One study notes that

There is a cogent and growing body of evidence demonstrating that severe psychoses (including schizophrenia) are caused by the repetitive onslaught of emotionally negative, yet demanding phenomenological experience. This is not only in the social environment, but in the physical, designed environment also. Indeed, when psychosis is severe, the social environment is usually depleted and social dysfunction is a standard diagnostic criteria of schizophrenia ... The prevalence of psychosis in urban environments is therefore hypothesised to be because there is nowhere else where design is more ubiquitous than in the city, where literally every piece of rubbish carries meaning and potentially triggers action.42

There are welcome signs things may be beginning to change for the better in Belfast. The President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce – a leading developer and qualified master planner and urban designer in his own right – has recently outlined the need “to make the city more family friendly … I think the city centre could really grow into that area, whether it’s more play parks or more children’s markets, festivals or attractions.”43 In September 2018 Belfast City Council stated that they already had an oversupply of land for office space, one Council official stating that “we have probably double the amount of land that we need for economic growth that we need going forward … if it’s not needed for employment use, is it better used for leisure, hotels, residential, which we see as absolutely critical to the city’s development.”44 

Community Planning to Build a Better Belfast:

Our Actions for Government

Communities need to be properly resourced and supported in making the transition from poverty to prosperity. One leading expert
has observed that “Interfaces are not given equivalent regulatory status of the waterfront, Titanic Quarter or Cathedral Quarter with direct capital payments, preferential loans, land assembly and special zonings.”45 We have seen how Laganside could be fully regenerated, with tens of millions of pounds poured in to subsidise business development, while at the same time communities directly adjacent to all this investment were actively locked out and walled off, further disempowering and isolating residents. We need to place the same planning powers and authority in the hands of communities, and their sustainability needs to be given the same imperative as military and commercial interests were and are. One study has outlined the necessary framework to begin this civic renewal:

The same kind of approach that adhered to the consideration of security outcomes needs to be established for promoting equality, integration and cohesion. In other words, internal assessments of the extent to which proposals for regeneration or housing redevelopment impact on social and economic exclusion need to be made, followed by deliberation without side experts and their formulation of plans on the basis of the input that has been provided. As the work of the [Special Committee on Housing/ shows, it is possible for the planning system in NI to work well with outside agencies and direct planning outcomes to achieve political goals. The trick in the future is to apply the same level of diligence to promoting equality and social inclusion as that which was applied to promoting segregation and separation. Moreover, it is imperative that in future such work is carried out in public rather than in secret. Crucially however, what is also required is for the aim of a cohesive and integrated city to be accorded the same political priority as that which applied to security and segregation during the conflict. .. The time is ripe for those same lessons to be applied with respect to bringing those communities beyond the 'cordon sanitaire' into the economic, social and political mainstream of the city of Belfast. Only when this happens, can the aims and the objectives of the 1998 Agreement be realised."46

The ‘Gasworks Northern Fringe’ – a substantial piece of land zoned for social housing, but almost lost to high end commercial speculation.

If a red line can be drawn around the communities to isolate them and exclude them from prosperity, why can’t the same approach be developed to guarantee communities their sustainability and the necessary room to grow and prosper? As the case studies on speculative developments and the Save the Market and Homes Now campaigns demonstrate, the residents’ concerns over of the threat to the area from rapacious speculative development is well founded, as every piece of available land within and around the area is subject to rampant commercial speculation. What make matters worse is that they routinely subsidise such developments via the bailouts and rents the developers behind them routinely receive from the public purse. Community sustainability and development now need to become the civic priority for Belfast. 

As such, our community demands that au relevant statutory agencies take au necessary steps to ensure the integrity and sustainability of the Market through the creation of a Community Sustainability Zone, rezoning and/ or purchasing land within its boundaries to this end. 

Speculative Planning: Case Studies


The Soloist FLOORS: 5


Construction started on the Soloist in February 2008. After the crash, it was bailed out by NAMA and only finished in May
2014 after NAMA provided £14.5 million in taxpayer’s money to complete it and Lanyon Plaza. It remains under occupied and still has thousands of square feet available to rent 10 years after construction commenced.

Source: property/1-lanyon-place-soloist/


Lanyon Plaza FLOORS: 15


Construction started on Lanyon Plaza
in August 2007. 11 years later it remains unfinished, with brickwork still exposed and visible on the upper floors. Along with the Soloist, it received £14.5 million in taxpayer’s money to complete it in May 2014. While the top floors remain unoccupied and unfinished, the developer does not have to pay rates. The Land & Property Service – the government agency tasked with collecting rates – occupies the bottom floors. Taxpayers bailed this speculative development out, and taxpayers continue to fund it through rent. Meanwhile the two lumbering blocks sit in darkness
and cast a shadow over the length of the neighbouring community.
Source: property/Ian yon-plaza/


Expanding Nine Lanyon Place FLOORS: 6


The £30 million building was completed in
the year 2000. After Project Eagle – the sale of NAMA’s Northern property portfolio – it was acquired by Causeway Asset Management/ Kilmona Holdings, who sought to double it in size despite its long standing tenant’s plans
to move. Owner Paddy Kearny stated in 2016
“”Allstate will be moving to its own city centre base in a few years’ time but we have no
fears about re-letting this building then and indeed we are in the process of a submitting a planning application which will almost double its size”. These plans were quickly scuppered by Council planners, its proximity to St George’s Market would completely devastate the character of the area if it had gone ahead.

Despite this failure and the loss of its anchor tenant, the taxpayer was on hand again to come to the rescue as Department of Finance completed “one of Northern Ireland’s largest ever office transactions” in June 2018, which will see several Civil Service departments and other public sector bodies move into the building to the building.
Source: property/9-lanyon-place/


Joy Street/May Street 1 YEAR: 2006 FLOORS: 15

Proposed for the surface carpark at the
top of Joy Street in 2006, this specul ative development sought to literally build over the top of the historic May Street Presbyterian church. Sowce:


Joy Street/May Street 2 YEAR: 2016 FLOORS: 8

Proposed for the surface carpark at the top of Joy Street in 2016, this speculative development still sought to gain the maximum amount of profit from a relatively small piece of land, and was completely out of keeping with the residential character of Joy Street and the surrounding area. Sowce:


Stewart Street Playground. YEAR: 2018 FLOORS:

This recent proposal seeks to snatch not only land zoned for social housing on the Gasworks but also the existing playground and Surestart at Stewart Street in order to build a block of 200+ ‘river view luxury apartments. This proposal illustrates that no land
– even a children’s playground – is not beyond the threat from property speculators. Source:
FrancisMmphy QSI Rapport Architects


Hamilton Street YEAR: 2007 FLOORS: 25

This proposal at Telephone House car park on Hamilton Street is perhaps the most gratuitous example of pre-crash speculation This proposal included a 25-story skyscraper; and two other; relatively smaller but still massive developments at 110,000ft2 and 300,000ft2.

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