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Andrew Webb: Will Belfast's next chief have the right tools to regenerate the city?

Belfast City Council's chief executive Suzanne Wylie, who is leaving City Hall for a new role in Jersey
Andrew Webb

I NOTED with interest the report from Belfast Chamber over the past week that addresses the question of who is best placed to take the decisions that deliver the growth that will see the city become an even better place to live, work, visit and invest in.

It was a particularly timely piece of work given the announcement that Belfast City Council’s chief executive Suzanne Wylie is standing down to take up a new role in Jersey. Change is in the air.

Indeed, after five years, my own time as chair of Belfast City Centre Management (BCCM) is coming to an end. It has been this role that has afforded me a front row seat in watching how Belfast city centre performs.

What a term as chair it has been. The Primark fire, then the pandemic have inflicted hammer blows on the city centre’s performance, but the Ulster University campus move and significant inward investment successes in areas such as cyber security show the potential for a revitalised city.

In the coming months, there will be a new chief in City Hall and so, the question posed in Belfast Chamber’s report ‘Empowering Belfast’, is especially relevant. When I took up the role of chair of BCCM five years ago it was obvious to me that a there was a crowded and splintered roster of organisations promoting city centre development/vibrancy etc and that was creating a confused picture around who did what.

I did what I think any organisation in receipt of public funds should do regularly and sought to answer two simple questions: What do we do for the betterment of the city centre and are we still relevant?

That review confirmed that, with the advent of Business Improvement Districts and with Belfast City Council taking a more pro-active role in the city centre through its ‘Belfast Agenda’, Belfast City Centre Management had to evolve to remain relevant. BCCM’s evolution continues, but that is a story for another time.

This article is about, in the words of Belfast Chamber, the “need to replace our splintered system of government with better, more empowered structures that can knit together the enablers of growth like regeneration and infrastructure.”

With our local councils now benefiting from devolved planning authority, coupled with additional economic development powers, they have an enhanced role in shaping our cities and towns, and the places in them.

However, councils in Northern Ireland have a narrower range of powers compared to other models of local governance within the UK. There is a clear need to consider how appropriate this is, especially in light of Belfast’s ambition to grow the city centre population significantly. Surely the full suite of tools are needed in one place.

Another point to consider in how the city’s various strands of governance drive the city forward is the role of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). For those that maybe aren’t aware, a BID is a defined area within which businesses are required to pay an additional tax in order to fund projects within the district's boundaries, if there is a successful vote to do so.

Just over five years ago, there was some excitement when the first Business Improvement District secured a mandate in the city centre. Now there are BIDs across the city, in Belfast One (which has just secured a second term), Linen Quarter and Cathedral Quarter.

It is only fair that, after five years and a vastly different context that the question is posed about whether a BID is an optimal vehicle through which to regenerate the city. If the ambition is for a more residential flavour to the city, should there be such a weighting towards Business in Improvement Districts.

Is it now time to consider, as others are doing, expanding beyond business and into Community Improvement Districts (CID)?

As Bill Grimsey, chair of the Grimsey Reviews of ‘The Future of the High Street’ notes, the 21st century town is about an activity-based community gathering place. Town centres can no longer rely on retailing as they have done in the past. They will only succeed in the future if they get the right balance between retailing, leisure, hospitality, health, social care, services and residential.

As such, the Grimsey review and a House of Commons report on ‘The High Street in 2030’ each suggest that consideration is given to BIDs being replaced by CIDs. Wide community collaboration is essential to high street and town centre regeneration and, in many local areas, place partnerships will be a key vehicle for this.

We know that the city centre has been suffering as peoples’ shopping and leisure habits change. The impact accelerated due to Covid. When things change, the way we do things should change.

BIDs, by definition, are a vehicle to try and improve business. I suggest that focus is too narrow and it is time for a broader view on the long term regeneration of the city.

Coupling that with finally granting regeneration powers to the City Council could be a potent cocktail that empowers the city to drive forward at pace.

Andrew Webb is chief economist at Grant Thornton

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