Clare Guinness: Belfast is at an inflection point
IT has been just over a month since I took up my new role with Belfast Chamber – and what a month it has been.
Leading such an historic institution and the city’s largest cross sectoral membership organisation is an incredible privilege and honour. Especially so at a time when I believe we have an opportunity to catapult this place forward and fulfil our true potential. That is, if we grasp it.
I was born in Belfast and I love this city. I am incredibly proud of this place, its people and our businesses.
As the capital, Belfast contributes 30 per cent of all jobs in Northern Ireland and is the main economic driver for the region, so the actions of our city leaders and businesses have wide-ranging impact.
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be involved in progressing Belfast with a number of significant investments coming forward that have the potential to be hugely transformative.
The £400 million Weavers Cross scheme continues at pace, while we have £230m being spent on university research centres as part of the Belfast Region City Deals, not to mention the £100m Belfast Stories tourism project, £175m Loft Lines residential scheme, £100m Queen’s University student accommodation schemes and a new £30m home for tech giant Kainos.
The value of our two universities meanwhile, cannot be understated and presents us with a solid bedrock for future growth.
A report last year by London Economics, valued the UK economic impact of Queen’s University at just over £3 billion a year, supporting more than 4,400 jobs.
In addition, Queen’s spin-out companies supported a further 2,250 jobs with an economic impact of £269m – the likely reason that it is consistently named the UK Entrepreneurial University of the Year.
The opening of the new £450m Ulster University campus has revitalised part of the city centre badly in need of regeneration – but there is more to be done to get the full impact of the new campus with public realm in particular trailing behind.
We need to ensure the students who study here, stay here as young professionals – enticed by a vibrant, connected city with quality housing, hospitality and leisure provision.
That requires significant collaboration and investment across public and private sectors to correct long established inefficiencies and delays in our planning system to help unlock redundant sites. And new ways of working between departments and council to deliver public realm, connectivity and better infrastructure. The obstacles to progress are well documented and discussed, yet the solutions appear out of reach.
Our investments in technology and flourishing high growth sectors from FinTech to advanced manufacturing, health and life sciences, and beyond, are also an incredible foundation to deliver attractive careers creating demand for those much-needed homes.
As the city and regional economy grows, so does the opportunity to create yet more jobs for those in our society that are currently excluded from the workforce.
I agree with the views of CBRE NI managing director Brian Lavery in Business Insight last week in which he queried whether we were doing enough, collectively, to sufficiently attract investment into the city centre to build the new houses we need and to ensure that projects that are planned can progress at pace.
The Belfast Agenda, the community plan first published in 2017, with its vision to have 66,000 residents in the city by 2035, is firmly back in public discussions. It is time for us all to put our weight behind delivery.
Belfast Chamber has a recently published report called Moving Belfast Forward (www.belfastchamber.com/app/uploads/2023/06/Belfast-Chamber-Moving-Belfast-Forward.pdf), available on the Belfast Chamber website with a number of practical suggestions to achieve progress which align with the Belfast Agenda.
City centre regeneration must be housing led to provide accommodation at every level - new social homes, student accommodation, and suitable living for young professionals, families and the elderly.
Schemes must also be commercially viable to stack up and attract the necessary capital. Without a return, the market will stagnate so we need to create the conditions to enable private capital to realise our city centre living ambition.
We all know the potential of Belfast. I cannot wait, along with the members of Belfast Chamber and our stakeholders, to do our part in helping see that potential fulfilled.
:: Clare Guinness is chief executive officer of Belfast Chamber