Business

Don't be fooled by the cranes

Cranes on the Belfast skyline are an encouraging sign - but we mustn’t be lulled into a false sense of security

IT'S taken nearly a decade, but cranes have now returned to the Belfast skyline, signalling the continuance of an upward economic trajectory that is long overdue.

Wider economic uncertainty remains both across the UK and on the global stage, due in no small part to ongoing Brexit negotiations, but as a region Northern Ireland continues to benefit from new projects proceeding and stalled, historic developments coming back online.

Over the past 18 months, 11 development schemes have been completed, with 19 currently under way and due to complete in the next year and a half. More than 500,000 sq ft of office space is due to be completed by 2018 and 1,000 hotel rooms are coming along, with 2,500 student beds.

All this is good news for Northern Ireland, and shows a momentum that it is expected to continue, though it should be noted that the 30 proceeding schemes that are increasing the city's crane count have all been in the pipeline for quite some time, throughout the majority of which Northern Ireland had a functioning executive at Stormont actively banging the province's drum as a viable opportunity for outside investors.

The potential of reduced corporation tax, low cost base, skilled workforce and well educated young population are all flags that need to be waved to encourage investment in the province, and the Assembly members at Stormont are those who should be waving the highest and hardest.

Add to the mix the fact that Northern Ireland benefits from the UK's only land border with Europe, and as a result has the potential to offset the negative effects of Brexit that the rest of the UK might suffer, and we're quite the good news story - if the politicians tell it.

Office take-up, which reflects economic activity, was 1.7m sq ft in Dublin for the first half of 2017 compared to Belfast's 61,000 sq ft. Dublin is less than twice the size of Belfast but benefits from almost 30 times the level of economic activity.

It's not unreasonable to anticipate that, under the right circumstances, with our unique position in the scheme of Brexit, Northern Ireland might be able to bring some of this economic activity north of the border.

While in Northern Ireland there is positivity and opportunity on the horizon, the time to capitalise is now. Let's hope the signs we've seen among Stormont parties of a move towards a functioning executive bear fruit sooner rather than later, and concentration in the Assembly can return to promoting investment in Northern Ireland, thus ensuring that we don't again suffer a decade where the skyline is devoid of cranes.

There's no doubting the cranes are a good sign, but we mustn't be lulled into a false sense of security. Progress is being made and the potential is there – but we need our politicians to play their part in ensuring more new projects are coming online as existing projects near completion.

:: Declan Flynn is managing director of Belfast-based commercial property agency Lisney, which works on behalf of many of Northern Ireland's most significant investors and developers as well as major retailers and businesses.

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