#TheReset – Simon Hamilton on what will Belfast be for?

Simon Hamilton is an ex DUP MLA & Finance Minister. He is currently Chief Executive of Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. You can follow him on Twitter

Back at the beginning of 2020, I wrote a piece that appeared in the local press in which I predicted that “better times were ahead” for Belfast. The rationale for my optimistic outlook was that, with a deal struck on Brexit, a Conservative Government at Westminster with a whopping majority and the restoration of the Stormont Executive, business had what it had sorely missed for some years – a sense of stability.

How wrong I was. Less than 2 months later, the Belfast economy was in lockdown, with businesses closed completely or with staff swiftly sent home to work remotely. The economic effect of the restrictions imposed to help stop the spread of COVID-19 have reached far and wide, but the city has borne the brunt. At the height of lockdown, a Belfast Chamber survey found that just 6% of the city’s businesses remained physically open, whilst Google mobility data showed a decrease of 74% in retail and recreation activity in Belfast between early April and mid-May.

Thankfully, things have started to improve with most businesses now open again and the city is certainly busier than it was, but Belfast’s recovery is slow. Year on year footfall in the city centre is still significantly down and the casualties are beginning to mount. Stores such as Eason’s and DW Sports have closed their doors and others like Marks and Spencer and Debenhams have announced big job losses. With each passing day, it feels like the road to recovery is getting a little rockier.

The new Executive didn’t have much time to get its feet under the table before the pandemic struck. Before even being able to set out its collective, long term vision for the region, it has had to swiftly spend close to £2 billion to tackle COVID-19 and plan its response to a sharp recession that wasn’t on the cards when Ministers were appointed back in January. Ordinarily, one would automatically expect that, whatever interventions or incentives the Executive would reach for as part of a recovery plan, they would rely on Belfast to perform strongly with cities, the world over, seen as crucial to any economy.

But that accepted wisdom is being challenged by COVID-19 in a way that no other crisis – not the financial crash, not Brexit, not climate change – in the last two decades has tested it.

Cities have come to be seen as the epicentres of the coronavirus. It began of course in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in central China, and population density in places like New York and London was blamed for the spread of COVID-19. The abandonment of city centre offices with, according to Belfast Chamber analysis, only 5% of office workers back at their desk full time, hasn’t, thus far, caused businesses significantly difficulties with anecdotal evidence of productivity either unaffected or even up and indeed, in some cases, local firms have been able to win business from competitors in countries with far less reliable telecommunications. The resultant reduction in commuting saw once jam-packed roads virtually empty and pollution levels lower considerably. With the contrast between thriving towns and even neighbourhoods less than a mile away from Belfast city centre, it is a troubling time for the city’s economy and conjures up so many questions including fundamental ones. As one person put it to me during a conversation a few months ago, how the city responds to the coronavirus pandemic is answered by the question “what will Belfast be for?”.

Such a question would have been unimaginable even a few short months ago. At the end of February, Belfast Chamber hosted our BelFastForward conference. After hearing about how New York and Vienna had successfully regenerated and the encouraging beginnings that we were making in our own city, it’s safe to say that no one left the conference thinking that Belfast had anything other than a very bright future ahead of it. We certainly didn’t have to ask the question “what will Belfast be for”. It was obvious what it is was for. It was the economic driver of the entire region. It accounted for 30% of NI’s jobs, 25p in every £1 of rates revenue and half of all out of state visitor spend. It was so crucial to the whole region’s economy that it led the OECD to conclude in 2008 that NI “will only succeed if the city of Belfast, its capital, major business and employment hub, infrastructure platform and largest settlement, is also able to succeed”.

Cities everywhere are struggling. Belfast’s story is repeated in places like London, Dublin and Glasgow. They too are suffering from an absence of students, international tourists and office-based workers. When the impact is, potentially, so profound, it is understandable why we are all searching for instant answers about what this all means but it still feels much too early to sign the death certificate for the city as the primary economic unit. As American academic Richard Florida recently said, “predictions of the death of cities always follow shocks like this one. But urbanisation has always been a greater force than infectious disease”. And there is some suggestion that this time will be no different.

Cities haven’t been uniformly impacted by COVID-19. The far lower levels of deaths in incredibly densely populated cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul suggest that the speed of government action and the extent of lockdown restrictions matter more than the size of the city. Even London, so hard hit initially, has, more lately, had an infection rate much lower than the rest of the UK.

Besides, Belfast benefits from being more of a ‘Goldilocks’ sized city than the world’s megacities. Belfast is big enough to have many of the amenities of a larger city but small enough to retain a strong sense of community and have some amazing coast and countryside right on our doorstep. Plus, we possess the added advantage of being at such an early stage in our regeneration journey. That permits Belfast to build into our many regeneration schemes the sort of space that citizens will seek in a post-COVID-19 world rather than have to expensively retrofit as other cities will have to. And, even, as I suspect, flexible working is here to stay, Belfast, with spaces like Glandore, the Ormeau Baths and Clockwise, the office market was already adapting to a trend that had been in motion for some time even before the pandemic.

Ultimately, what has sparked the growth of cites remains unaltered and, if anything, enhanced by the restrictions the pandemic has placed on everyday life. We are, fundamentally, social animals. Not being able to see family, friends and work colleagues. Not being able to sit with a coffee in Donegall Square and watch the world go by. Not being able to go for a pint or a meal in the Cathedral Quarter. Not being able to stroll around our favourite shops. We missed all of those things and the human interaction they involve. Well-paying jobs are only part of the equation. The energy, vibrancy, diversity and lifestyle that only a city can bring are equally valuable if not more so in attracting that all-important young talent. As a PwC report put it “quality of life is the heartbeat of a city” and Belfast’s pulse has been beating strong and will do so again soon.

But whatever this means for cities, the question “what will Belfast be for” is still very relevant and one we can’t and shouldn’t ignore. Just because COVID-19 may not prove to be a mortal threat to the city, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace some of the change it has brought.

One of the abiding lessons that the last number of months has taught me is how the city’s economy really is an ecosystem. Each very different sector has, as a member recently described to me, a ‘critical dependency’ on each other. It might be hard to conceive of two more different business models than the bar in the Cathedral Quarter and the tech firm writing code for a New York based bank. But both rely on each other. The bar needs the tech sector worker to come in for a pint with colleagues after work on a Friday, whilst it is the buzz and atmosphere and lifestyle generated by our retail, hospitality, leisure and tourism sectors that help attract the talent the tech businesses needs to succeed. In embracing the more positive aspects of change created by the pandemic, we should ensure that it is built on the bedrock of a strong economy and successful sectors like fintech and cyber security and medical technology that our city so excels at and for which future demand will be high.

Naturally, that will require what might be described as a more conventional response from the Executive to the current crisis to help rekindle our economy. One of the most welcome announcements in reaction to the catastrophic impact the coronavirus is having on our economy was focused on the city with the decision to match fund the Government’s contribution to the Belfast Region City Deal taking the total public sector investment to £700 million, recognising that our capital city will be at the heart of our region’s economic future. Accelerating the implementation of the City Deal would be an excellent start. The finance is in place. The infrastructure, regeneration and tourism projects it includes are potentially transformational. It is a recipe for real success, but Belfast Chamber believes that the need to build Belfast back better presents us with a once in a generation opportunity to do even more.

It might seem odd for the Chief Executive of the city’s biggest business organisation to say this, but the answer to the question – “what will Belfast be for” – goes far beyond the economy. Belfast Chamber believes that we should make the social and urban regeneration of Belfast as well as its economic renewal our shared ambition. Our focus should be on making Belfast an even better place to live, work and play – that ‘holy trinity’ of any successful city. Belfast’s future cannot be based just upon retail any more than it can be based solely on offices. It has to become a place where we do more than work. It has to be about those experiences that you can only have in a city the size of Belfast. That mix of independent retailers and flagship stores, brilliant cafes, pubs and restaurants as well as arts, culture and leisure, standing alongside our offices.

But above all, Belfast must become a place that more people call home.

The absence of any significant residential population in the city centre is one of the less spoken about legacies of our Troubles. As drastically as the city has changed since those dark days, city centre living is a trend where we haven’t kept pace with other UK cities. Although Belfast’s city centre population grew by 31% between 2001 and 2011, that does not compare favourably to those in Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester who saw the number of people living in the heart of their cities increase by 181%, 163%, 150% and 149% respectively between 2002 and 2015. With around 5,000 people living in central Belfast, our city centre has approximately 7 times fewer inhabitants than Manchester.

Stimulating more city centre living is by far the most sustainable way to achieve the Belfast Agenda target of growing the city’s population by 66,000 by 2035 and would provide a much-needed boost for the city centre’s retail and hospitality sectors in addition to breathing life into Belfast and making it a 24/7 city. It would equally act as a catalyst for and need to be accompanied by a reshaping of the city, with the creation of more open and green space, the serious softening of the ‘ring of steel’ around the city centre formed by the inner ring road and the Westlink and the taking forward the work started already by Infrastructure Minister on making the city less reliant on the private car and more pedestrian, cyclist and public transport friendly. Over the course of the past six months, we have witnessed the creation of new cycle lanes and pavements cafes popping up across the city. These initiatives have been temporary or born our of necessity but it is clear that, regardless of COVID-19, these and other measures will be essential to making Belfast a much more liveable city that isn’t just all about being an economic driver for the whole of Northern Ireland, but is also a place that people will choose to live in and visit time and time again because of all that it will have to offer.

Tying all of this together is absolutely key. It will involve multiple partners across the public and private sectors and creating a vision is one thing but delivering it is quite another. That’s why Belfast Chamber thinks the time is right to consider the extent of the levers and powers that Belfast as a city has to realise a regeneration project of the magnitude we need.

Our competitor cities have far greater powers and are increasing these further. They enjoy control over regeneration, transport and housing – the basic necessities of urban life. Successful cities have also channelled powers through development corporations and taxation levers through enterprise zones. These are tools that are effective in stimulating regeneration and attracting investment to areas of need. In contrast, Belfast lacks the powers and hasn’t yet utilised the levers to deliver change where it is needed and if this gap isn’t addressed, then we could fall further behind as cities elsewhere also start turning their attention to recovery.

Rather than retreat from the city, perhaps now is the time to not only dream big but to put in place the vehicle that can deliver that dream of a revitalised city that has the capacity to fulfil its obvious potential.

Belfast will rise again. Business in the city has endured much down through the years and always exhibited a tremendous resilience and ability to bounce back. We have all the assets we need to succeed – the talent; the world leading sectors and universities; the retail, hospitality, leisure and cultural offering. Let’s use this opportunity to make the most of them and ensure that Belfast not only recovers but is built back better.

This post is part of our #TheReset series in association with Ulster Bank

If you would like to get involved in #TheReset, either as an individual or as part of an organisation, please do get in touch by emailing us at [email protected] or [email protected] with an idea for inclusion in a range of articles or events over September and October.

The Reset In partnership with the Ulster Bank

Belfast City Hall” by D-Stanley is licensed under CC BY