City centre lights are on, but no one is home

According to the latest NIJobs Report, there was a surge in demand for IT workers in the first quarter of this year
Belfast has created more employment in the city through growth of sectors like fintech, IT, and health & life sciences, and these workers want to live in the city centre along with many of our graduating students

As reported in the business pages of this newspaper last week, just nine residential units were built in Belfast city centre last year.

On the other hand, over the last few years our city centre has welcomed new offices, hotels and student accommodation along with the new Ulster University Belfast campus. With plans progressing for Belfast Grand Central Station, Weavers Cross and City Deal investments, we have much to be optimistic about.

If Belfast can deliver all these exciting investments for future transport, tourism and academia, why can’t we deliver housing?

Our city’s population is in decline, the least dense population of any UK city. However, we have created more employment in the city through the growth of sectors like fintech, IT, and health & life sciences. These workers want to live in the city centre along with many of our graduating students. We must provide the homes to keep and attract talent.

A major challenge of city centre living development is the fine line between meeting the needs of the existing communities and satisfying the demand for diverse housing types such as intermediate (housing with discounted rent or sale price), build-to-rent, and private sales. This now has to happen as the new Local Development Plan (LDP) requires all housing schemes of five units or more to provide a minimum of 20% of the houses as affordable.

The policy is sound but implementation at scale just isn’t possible with the current arrangements. Historically, social housing designed to be high-density city centre apartments have faced design, allocation, and management issues. This has created concern by potential residents and housing associations leading to lukewarm responses to new developments. Work needs done to consider modern designs and management with the housing associations to ensure the homes designed can be delivered and effectively managed.

Furthermore, the lack of coordination between Belfast City Council, housing associations, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Department for Communities regarding allocation lists and funding has created uncertainty for developers seeking to provide affordable housing.

Funding needs to be allocated for intermediate housing to provide the mechanisms to deliver the affordable homes envisaged. Until that happens, we will remain in stalemate with many undeveloped sites in the city centre depriving our citizens of needed homes and starving our city centre economy. Some sites may well have planning permission for housing, but the challenges herein explain why some of those will not be built.

Belfast Chamber
Belfast Chamber chief executive Clare Guinness

Difficult conversations about how to implement mixed-tenure housing in the city centre are now crucial. We need to be flexible in how affordable housing is delivered on a site-by-site basis until affordable home funding and allocation issues are addressed.

If city stakeholders worked collaboratively, imaginatively, and decisively, we could create the environment to transform our city centre’s fortunes, unlocking investment, increasing employment, reducing dereliction, and creating the thriving city centre we all want to see.

  • Clare Guinness is chief executive of Belfast Chamber