What kind of Belfast City will we return to after the pandemic?
WHAT kind of city will we have to go back to after the pandemic has ended. And that leads to another question: will the pandemic actually have an end point? Will there be a time when we all look back and say, ‘well that's it done with now, let’s move on’?
I'm no scientist and don’t know what will herald the post-Covid era. That's a question others like virologists, epidemiologists and scientists are best placed to answer. All I feel qualified to do at the moment is to cast an eye forward to have a look at where all this leaves us as an economic city and region.
Nothing about the current situation is perfect. Nothing about the current situation is even desirable. There are some days when even the most optimistic among us, and I count myself among the most positive looking people around, find it hard to see the light amidst the gathering clouds.
The first lockdown was a very difficult period which did much damage to the economy, to consumer confidence and to the economic outlook for Northern Ireland. We aren’t in a second lockdown at the moment, and we may never get to that point. But the current restrictions, and their elevation from a few select postcodes to all of the region feel like a semi lockdown, with all the economic downsides that will entail.
And yet among the deluge of negative news and commentary some strands of hope and I am determined to cling on to them, shout them out loud and squeeze them to the maximum. So here goes.
The recent decision of Belfast City Council to give outline planning permission for the so called Tribeca development signals that there are still developers out there who are prepared to invest in the future of our city.
Outline permission is a long way from putting spades into the ground but, as we have seen with the Merchant Square development which has just been handed over by Oakland Developments to PwC, quality buildings can still attract corporate tenants, so Castlebrooke, the developer behind the Tribeca proposals, can point to a very recent example of demand meeting supply, if the supply is of high enough quality.
Equally positive was the passion and clarity with which those who opposed the overall Tribeca development expressed their view. Every city needs dreamers, artists, those who see the value in heritage and culture.
The Cathedral Quarter Trust is not opposed to development for the sake of it; they want to see that part of our city move forward in a way which is commercially viable and yet protects and enhances the intrinsic artistic character of the Cathedral Quarter.
Other cities have successfully merged commercial and cultural interests. We don’t need to look any further than Lisbon, or Prague for successful examples, there is no reason why Belfast cannot do the same.
There are entrepreneurs out there who are prepared to take risks and to be imaginative even in the face of the pandemic and the restrictions which threaten their long term sustainability. In St Anne's Square this week I saw a new restaurant, currently mid fit out, which has three external permanent pods, each of which represents an investment of £10,000 and fits up to six people each.
Will it work? Maybe - I think it can work and I hope it does. Meanwhile the MAC Theatre and gallery space has opened with limited hours and days and in a way which significantly restricts the numbers who can visit at any one time. But they have done it, and so far it is working well.
Some of Northern Ireland’s most well established restaurants adapted quickly and expertly to the enforced closure. Outlets like Harry’s Shack, Mourne Seafood Bar and many many others have invested heavily in external seating and associated infrastructure which will help make customers feel safe and will hopefully see them continuing to eat out safely and in numbers which make sense for the restaurants to open in the first place.
Each weekend the footfall in city centres is growing, even when the restrictions among the general public are on the rise again. We want to support the retailers and the city. The Executive has announced a High Street Taskforce which has not yet met, and doesn’t appear to have a fixed terms of reference so far. However, the people who represent our retailers and our cities and towns are energetic, positive and when they have a platform to voice their views they will do so impactfully. That’s another reason to be positive.
Last week the First and deputy First Ministers made a powerful joint statement on the necessary steps we must take to combat the further spread of Covid-19. Even the act of making the joint address, live on TV, helped send out the right message, but the actions of some politicians suggest the collegiate message hasn’t quite hit home yet.
We could be down in the dumps, and it tempting to throw hands in the air and wallow in despair. But that won’t help us through the pandemic an into a more positive era.
We need to look at the bright side, search for the positives and aim for a better future. It’s hard sometimes, more now than ever. But that’s where I choose to position myself. I hope you do too.
Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast