Business

Belfast must escape from mind-set that Covid-19 disruption is temporary - Deloitte

More than 4,000 student units have been developed in Belfast in the past six years, including 717 units at the LIV student complex next to Ulster University's new campus. Picture by Mal McCann

BELFAST must escape from mind-set that the disruption from Covid-19 is temporary, a new report from Deloitte has said.

Announcing that the city was at the beginning of a longer-term change in its character, the professional services giant revealed a significant slow-down in new office development in Belfast, with just three new projects started last year, totalling 157,000 sq ft.

The details are continued in its latest annual crane survey, which records development activity across the city.

Published today, it shows just seven major schemes in total were started across all sectors in 2021, the lowest since the survey began in 2016.

And while nine grade A office developments were either under construction or completed in 2021, totalling more than one million sq ft, Deloitte said they were “driven by pre-pandemic momentum”, with tenancy arrangements yet to be confirmed for a large proportion of the new space.

The publication of the report comes one day after the chief executive of Belfast Chamber, Simon Hamilton, wrote an open letter to Health Minister Robin Swann, urging him to amend the current work from home guidelines.

Mr Swann has sought legal advice on whether he can act on the Covid-19 restrictions in absence of a functioning executive in the wake of Paul Givan’s resignation as First Minister.

Since January 21, the guidance from the executive states that people should work from home where possible, with employers encouraged to facilitate.

In his letter, Simon Hamilton, himself a former DUP executive minister, claimed: “Many employers have expressed to me their desire to move their teams towards new models of hybrid working.”

He said some businesses are reporting the current scenario is impacting their competitiveness and productivity, adding that companies had “invested millions of pounds in making their premises safe for staff”.

But in its report, Deloitte warned that the city must “escape from the mind-set that the disruption associated with Covid-19 is temporary and will cease as restrictions ease”.

Looking ahead, it said the three new office schemes launched in Belfast during 2021 were much smaller than previous years, totalling at just 157,000 sq ft.

Deloitte itself is moving to the new 210,000 sq ft Bedford Square development. But even with its 90,000 sq ft tenancy, a considerable proportion of the 17-storey building remains vacant.

Across all categories, Deloitte recorded 23 schemes as either being completed or under construction in Belfast last year, the lowest since it started the crane survey in 2016.

“We are at the beginning of a longer-term change in the nature of the city centre as sustainability and liveability increasingly come to the forefront of future planning,” said Colin Mounstephen, director at Deloitte in Belfast.

Yet Deloitte’s report records very little residential development in the city centre since 2016.

Measuring schemes with at least 25 units, the survey found just 42 units were completed in 2021, with no new schemes started.

The major transformation for Belfast city centre appears to be in the student realm.

More than 4,000 new student units have been built in the past six years, most of them close to the new Ulster University Campus.

Last year saw 717 units completed, with another 1,420 under construction.

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