We need more people living in our city centres

Many companies are working to meet the increasing demand for city centre living in Belfast
Susan Mason

I WAS talking with a senior executive in the tech sector recently who was telling me that a key part of their company's recruitment strategy is to use Belfast's new-found attractiveness as a place to live as a means of tempting experienced people back to their home city to live and work.

Much has changed in the last 20, ten and even five years in this respect, and a look around Belfast will quickly tell you that the city does indeed have much to offer. It has many positives when set against places like Dublin and London.

This includes lower property prices, a burgeoning social scene and café culture, and rising salaries in sectors such as IT and quantity surveying.

And attracting people back to work in Belfast will have many benefits, including helping fill some of the skill gaps that exist and helping the city to become even more vibrant and cosmopolitan.

But attracting people back to work in Belfast is just one part of the equation. We also need to attract people to live not just in the city, but specifically in the city centre.

At present, too many people work in the city centre but travel to get there, which has implications in relation to congestion, air quality and the wider environment. Belfast's future requires more people living closer to BT1.

Indeed, Belfast City Council's ‘Belfast Agenda' has set a target to achieve 66,000 people living in the city centre by 2035. This is an important and laudable aim. It needs a lot of investment though to be achievable.

Firstly, it requires over 30,000 new homes to be built. It also needs a considerable amount of investment to take place in infrastructure, particularly our water infrastructure.

This is a point NI Water made recently when it said that £1 billion of investment in strategic drainage is essential to enable the growth of Belfast. Talking about drainage isn't sexy, but having the right infrastructure under the ground enables us to have the right infrastructure (including striking buildings) above it.

We heard last week that Ulster Bank is relocating several hundred people from its Danesfort building to its impressive headquarters right in the centre of Belfast. This will no doubt be welcomed by city centre traders and will likely provide greater opportunity for more of the bank's employees to take public transport, rather the car, to work.

To enable the continuing growth of Belfast, we also need to keep investing in our public transport. The Glider has been well praised of late, and rightly so. But it should be seen as the beginning of a process of really upping our game in how we get people from A to B.

All of the things we have been talking about overlap. If we invest more in our public transport, it will make Belfast an even better place to live and work. And guess what? That will help companies like the tech firm I was talking with to entice more skilled people back to Belfast for employment. That's why we need joined up policy-making and government.

Speaking of government, it's coming up on 1,000 days since our Executive last sat. If we could get that resolved and have the politicians back working together to improve this place, wouldn't that send out a great message to anyone thinking about moving home?

:: Susan Mason is head of Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) in Northern Ireland

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