A FORTNIGHT on from the much-fêted Northern Ireland Investment Summit, we can now look back and consider its impact. And for many of us – and I’m writing as one of those who presented at the event – the takeaways were not so much what we heard from stage or during round-tables, but in the discussions between sessions and as we networked with one another.
A key theme in those conversations? Undoubtedly it was looking at the ambitions of Belfast in particular and asking, are we really doing enough to see those come to fruition and at sufficient pace?
I’m thinking here about the plans to massively increase the number of people living in the city.
This remains a key part of the Belfast Agenda, Belfast City Council’s community plan, and its Accelerating City Centre Living strategy, and has been an ambition talked about for many years.
It envisages an additional 66,000 people living in Belfast in around 31,600 new homes by 2035, with 11,500 of those homes in the city centre and Titanic Quarter.
As I told those at a round-table event at the summit, Belfast has a tremendous amount going for it. Just think about how different the city looks and feels now compared to 20 or even 10 years ago.
Recent research carried out by CBRE examined the cities that had the greatest prospects over the coming decade.
Belfast was placed number one in leisure and food and beverage, sixth for hotels and tenth for student accommodation.
We have an incredibly well-educated workforce, burgeoning industries such as life sciences and a strong hotel sector for example.
There is so much happening, but the missing ingredient remains attracting, and creating enough space for people to choose the city as their home in sufficient numbers and at sufficient speed.
Other cities across the UK have been much more successful in this regard. A study by Belfast Chamber and Grant Thornton found that between 2004 and 2019, the city centre population of Manchester grew by 185 per cent. During the same period, the rise in the population of central Belfast was relatively weak with the number of people living in central Belfast increasing by 44 per cent.
It is wonderful to be aspirational about the future of Belfast, but plans are useless if they are not fully implemented.
To realise the ambition of 11,500 new homes in the city centre and Titanic Quarter by 2035 requires around 900 additional units to be delivered each year – a target we do not want to miss but which, at the moment, we are not progressing at the requisite speed to meet.
It’s challenging due to a number of factors such as bureaucracy, the pace of planning and financial viability.
How can it be solved?
Speeding up the planning process is one thing but is there an opportunity to look again at reducing the rate of corporation tax to increase the attractiveness of Northern Ireland to investors yet further? I put the question to MP Michael Gove directly at the conference, but did not receive a reply.
Perhaps we consider the establishment of a new enterprise zone? Previously, these have been focused on encouraging industrial or logistical developments, but could we look at a scheme that perhaps brought forward implied planning rights, or provided rate-free periods or other tax benefits for residential development?
We want to create the conditions that will attract developers to come to Belfast to build the sort of housing developments they want – and that we need.
There are success stories happening. The increase in the number – and quality - of student accommodation schemes over recent years has been welcome and will increasingly have a positive impact on the wider rental market which has traditionally lagged behind other university cities as graduates become more accustomed to paying for higher grade living space. Loft Lines which will provide 778 waterfront homes has started building at Titanic Quarter and will complete in 2025.
Translink’s partnership with MRP for its Weavers Cross development at the new transport hub, which will include office, residential, student housing, retail and leisure space, is also a major boost.
Meanwhile, Queen’s University has announced a £100m project to build 460 student rooms at Laganbank in south Belfast and Dublin Road and Brunswick Street in the city centre. and Belfast City Council is also seeking to procure more residential sites.
We look forward to these progressing at pace. They, and others, must, if we are to do more than just scratch the surface of Belfast’s housing ambitions.
:: Brian Lavery is managing director of CBRE Northern Ireland