Dublin wealth manager Elkstone announces £20m student scheme at Belfast flashpoint

A DUBLIN-based wealth management group has committed to a £20 million investment project in south Belfast, less than two weeks after it was the scene of a major flashpoint between loyalists and police.

Elkstone Partners has bought 30-44 Bradbury Place next to Shaftesbury Square, with an international capital backed plan to develop 156 student units and almost 4,000 sq ft of retail space.

The first Northern Ireland acquisition by Elkstone’s real estate division, the Dublin group said it is now seeking further investment opportunities around the north.

It comes two weeks after a Saudi Arabian fund completed the north’s biggest ever office deal, paying £87m for the completed Merchant Square development in Belfast city centre.

Elkstone’s commitment followed reports of some investors pulling back from other projects in the north in recent days, in the wake of serious street disturbances.

Robert Mulligan of the Portland Property Group in Belfast revealed a London-based bank had cited “political instability” as justification for pulling its backing for an investment in Northern Ireland.

Mr Mulligan, who is also co-founder of London-based development and investment firm Farleigh Property, expressed frustration after three months of negotiations.

“It’s essential for us to be able to scale the business that we have a funding partner to work with,” he said.

“We’re seeing good opportunities here, we’re seeing a really good demand and lift in the values.

“But what we’re not seeing funding options rising in tandem with that number.”

The developer said while there is growing interest from overseas investors, they appear to be targeting completed assets with income, rather than raw development.

“They coming in and taking on finished product, which is great. But it’s how you actually get the finished product on site and funded, to get it to that stage.”

He said Northern Ireland needs both planning and funding reform to meet the demand for housing.

Meanwhile, new analysis from CBRE on the commercial property front revealed £126m was invested in Northern Ireland during the first quarter of 2021.

It compared with the £136m invested throughout the whole of 2020.

But more than 95 per cent of that £126m was spent across just three deals: The £87m Merchant Square acquisition; the £24.8m purchase of Balloo Retail Park in Bangor by Supermarket Income REIT; and the sale of Kilroot Business Park in Carrickfergus to Wallop Estates for £9.35m.

Gavin Elliott, director at CBRE NI, said: “While real estate on the whole is not immune from wider economic and market forces, as an asset class it continues to offer relatively stable income and capital appreciation, which is attractive to investors at this time, especially given the current low interest rate environment.

“Given that we have already secured almost as much as the 2020 investment total in Q1 alone, we are expecting that transaction volumes will have doubled or tripled by the end of 2021.”

Meanwhile, Elkstone Partners’ chief commercial officer Ciarán McIntyre said the 156 student units at Bradbury Place would be ready for the Autumn of 2022.

“Bradbury Place is an extremely exciting project to mark our entrance to the Northern Ireland market with a significant investment of international capital,” he said.

“Our focus is to proactively assist our clients in selecting investment prospects that are directly tailored to their individual needs, and we will be seeking further investment opportunities in the north.”

The student scheme itself isn’t new. Scottish company Rojem Properties originally sought permission to demolish the buildings next to Lavery’s and construct 271 units in six and 11 storey blocks.

That bid was ultimately rejected by planners, but the present scaled down version was eventually approved in 2019.

Elkstone isn’t new to student housing. The Dublin group has previously been involved in the planning, construction and operation of more than 2000 student beds across the UK and Ireland.

“Purpose-built student accommodation has been a key strand of our real estate investment strategy for a number of years,” added Mr McIntyre.

“And with clear demand for such accommodation in Belfast we are certainly keen to explore further opportunities.”