By Colin Mounstephen, Deloitte NI
The third annual Belfast Crane Survey produced by Deloitte Real Estate highlights another healthy year for our city, with 35 schemes either completed or under construction through 2018. This compares with 30 schemes under construction or completed in the 2017 survey.
The headlines in terms of completions are shown below.
The scope of the survey is deliberately the city centre. While only a small area it is essentially the shopfront which investors see as they consider Belfast alongside other cities. Alongside issues such as access to skills, the vibrancy and attractiveness of the city centre will help Belfast compete with other cities.
The need for Residential
As well as growth in core sectors such as office, hotel and education, there is an increased focus on bringing more residential developments to the city centre. Belfast is a city which is proactively shaping a longer term balance of uses and experiences, living and learning, retail and office, and arts and culture, to ensure that the city centre thrives.
Other UK and Irish cities have seen significant increases in city centre residential development in recent years. But Belfast has not seen a similar surge. Why not? Are height and density restrictions reducing commercial viability? Has Belfast’s distinctive history cast a shadow over the city centre as a place to live? Is our city centre not green enough or not sufficiently pedestrian or cycle friendly? Or, and I think this is the most likely, is it just happening more slowly? There are some residential developments in the works. There have been substantive student accommodation developments completed in the past few years. Hopefully these downtown living experiences will encourage more people to want to continue to live in the city beyond their student days.
A time for resilience
Currently Brexit with all its potential twists and turns feels inescapable and unending. So much so, that some have forgotten that the NI Executive hasn’t been in place for over two years. However, things will move on, some of these concerns may be realised while others may be replaced by other risks and unknowns. Belfast is and will remain flawed but it will still be standing and there will still be development interest in the city. In any case we know some of our challenges will take a concerted effort over a longer period time – for example the level of economic inactivity and how we stitch together neighbourhoods within the city centre.
In the midst of all this uncertainty having a strategy feels even more important. For the city we have longer term visions embedded in The Belfast Agenda and draft Local Development Plan which followed on from the City Centre Regeneration and Investment Plan.
These offer a bigger picture view and have set the city on a stronger course. That strategic direction, has probably already helped build momentum around the office, education, student accommodation and hotel developments. Alongside these we have had the successful launch of the East–West Glider transport system.
While undoubtedly there will be challenges ahead, and the city will likely see less activity in 2019, the city is somewhat better equipped than five years ago when there had been a dearth of development over some years.
The key foundations have been laid in our streets and spaces. With the City Deal package secured, ongoing development of the university campuses and projects such as the Transport Hub, the BBC investment in the Linen Quarter, and new visitor attraction on the horizon, there are reasons to believe Belfast will continue to demonstrate resilience for years to come.