People need to want to go to Belfast City Centre, not be forced to…

As the Chief Executive of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, it is Simon Hamilton’s job to fight for the success of Belfast City Centre. In an article for the Belfast Telegraph, he warned that working from home could turn central Belfast into a ghost town. For those of us who grew up during the troubles, this was the default state of the city centre for decades.

But reading between the lines what he is actually asking people to do is going back to sitting in their cars for 3 hours a day just so we can sell them lunch. We are asking somebody in Enniskillen to go back to getting up at 6 am on a dark winter morning so we can sell them some overpriced coffee. We are asking someone in Derry/Londonderry to drop their sleepy kids off at creche at 7 am so we can sell them some more clothes they don’t need. I imagine the general reaction of commuters to the story was that Belfast City Centre can go f*** itself.

The genie is out of the bottle and it is never going back. Homeworking and hybrid working are here to stay. It is better for the environment as there is less traffic, better for staff quality of life and general health. I predict most jobs will be hybrid, you pop into the office 2 or 3 days a week, and work from home the rest of the time. We will have co-working spaces and satellite offices around the main towns in Northern Ireland. The civil service for example is opening up 10 remote-working hubs in town centres across Northern Ireland.

I believe this is a positive trend as it will help to rebalance the NI economy to spread more wealth around. Trade may be down in Belfast City Centre but it is up in the suburbs of Belfast and in our regional towns. Not commuting for 4 hours a day means people in Enniskillen have time to go for lunch or meet a friend for coffee. Not sitting in the Westlink for hours a day means the person from Omagh has more time with their kids.

Not all of this is bad for Belfast City Centre. I think coming into the office will be more of a treat than a drudge. The money companies save on rent and rates then they spend on staff entertainment. Here is a typical scenario. A company decides they don’t need an office at all, they go fully remote. But they meet up once a week in a co-working space or a hotel for in-person meetings. After the meeting, they all go out for lunch or drinks to maintain team building. After lunch, you can do some shopping before heading home.

With the time saved more people will choose to spend time in Belfast City Centre for leisure purposes. The challenge for Belfast is we need to make it a place people want to go, not a place they are forced to go.