Flexible working is here to stay so it's time to take a look at the bigger picture
Six months since the first case of coronavirus in the north, it seems like a concerted effort is now being made to get people back into offices and city centres.
The absence of Belfast’s office commuters has been flagged up as an economic problem for trade in the city centre, but is there a bigger picture here? And has there ever been a better time to ask what we want our city centres to be in the future?
Presumably once a safe vaccination becomes readily available, a certain number of workers will return to offices, but things will never be the same.
Flexible working is here to stay. The Covid-19 pandemic has simply advanced the trend by years. It means smaller office footprints and more people working from home.
So what’s the problem? Boris Johnson’s government has made its desire clear and even our own Economy Minister Diane Dodds reportedly wrote to the head of the civil service last month, stating her concerns over the low capacity of its Belfast offices.
We’ve never been famous for our long-term strategic economic thinking in these parts, but maybe a global pandemic could be a good place to start.
Pre-covid, around 100,000 people were travelling to Belfast every day, many of them for work and most of them in cars, packing the lanes of the M1 and M2. I was one of them, now I’m not.
Like thousands of others, I might not be buying sandwiches in the city centre, but I'm spending more in my own village in Co Tyrone.
Hours stuck behind a steering wheel are hours of wasted productivity. Never mind the social and environmental cost.
Traffic data analyser Inrix estimated commuters in Belfast lost 112 hours to congestion in 2019. Inrix put the cost of congestion for the UK at £6.9 billion last year, or around £894 per driver.
Independent research carried out in Belfast last year also found dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide (N02), which is closely linked with vehicle emissions.
Flowing traffic, less pollution, more productivity and families spending more time together appears to be less important than filling up the office buildings again.
Taking the car out of the city also allows more space for safe cycle lanes, pedestrian zones and more opportunities to reimagine a very different city centre.
In terms of the government sites in the city centre - we may be bang in the middle of one of the most severe economic downturns in history, but the wheels of government still seem to be turning.
So maybe it’s time to ask if those offices are the best way to spend public funds.
SO WHAT IS A CITY CENTRE FOR?
Two years ago Belfast City Council produced its first local development plan in almost four decades, highlighting a massive oversupply in ‘employment sites’.
Research carried out by Ulster University acknowledged that Belfast will have double the floorspace it needs for economic growth over the next 15 years. It assessed that the city will need 550,000 sqm of floorspace, including 330,000sqm in the city centre over 2020-2035.
It concluded that there will be a 612,000sqm oversupply during that period.
The report did not factor in existing capacity, i.e. the many offices now virtually empty because of the pandemic.
Belfast’s inner population fell by around a third between 1971 and 2011, as families headed for the suburbs (and fled the violence), creating a ‘doughnut effect’ for residential habitation in the city.
Planning officials in Belfast have identified this as a problem, and want to fill that hole with more residential and leisure development, at least they say they do.
The hotel side of things appears to have progressed more than the residential, and most of the residential development has been given over to student accommodation schemes.
But if the era of large open plan offices is truly gone and we’re looking at a mixture of reduced floorspace and home working, then it’s time now to start seriously thinking about how we can create more living space in city centres, and not just for students and those with deep pockets.
The city council’s Belfast Agenda aims to grow the population of the city by 66,000 additional people to over 400,000 by 2035. It estimates that it will require 31,600 new homes by 2035.
If the will and strategic thinking is there, many of those new builds can be in the centre of that doughnut.
A LIVING CITY
Vienna has been the standard bearer for matching population explosions with integrated residential developments. Despite its population growing by 350,000 since 1989, it has topped Mercer’s 'Quality of Living' ranking for ten years running.
Vienna hasn’t just developed thousands of social and affordable housing units, it has created a social policy to develop municipal and co-operative housing for both low and medium income families to avoid segregation.
The question then is, can somewhere like Belfast city centre be taken from a space that empties out at 6pm every day, and turned into a thriving place to live (and spend).
If the streets of Belfast aren’t going to be filled with office workers during the day for the foreseeable, can we start replacing some of them with residents to buy the coffee and the food.
The city council’s draft local development plan includes a provision that new residential developments with five or more units features 20% affordable housing. The definition includes social rented housing and/or intermediate housing.
On Wednesday night, Belfast City Council’s planning committee granted outline planning permission for the £500 million Tribeca scheme. Spanning some nine acres between Royal Avenue and the Cathedral Quarter, the revised scheme includes just 367 residential units (a previous proposal included just 211). The wrangling over the inclusion and location of social housing also shows the challenge at hand.
Much of the scheme has been given over to office and retail. The question has to be asked if the demand will be there once it is eventually completed in the years to come.
The issues raised in cultural and heritage circles over the loss of public space and built heritage also poses again the question, what kind of city do we want?
Working from home doesn’t suit everyone and a certain number of people will desire a return to the office at some stage.
But flexible working is the future and the future is here now. That future needs to include smaller and more scattered office hubs for both government and private enterprise, not just in Belfast, but in our regional towns.
Let’s not forgot, just because those thousands of office workers aren’t spending their money in Belfast any more, doesn’t mean they aren’t spending it in Bangor, Banbridge or Ballygawley.
Let’s think about the big picture.
Ryan McAleer is a business journalist at the Irish News.