City centre population in Belfast is a necessity, but it will take time

It was telling to see the City of London last week announce new plans to convert empty offices in the capital’s central core into new housing in what reports called a “bid to revive the area after the Covid crisis”.

Thursday, 6th May 2021, 6:00 am
Colin Mounstephen, Director at Deloitte’s Belfast office

The City of London Corporation, which is responsible for the famed ‘Square Mile’ said it is aiming for 1,500 new homes by 2030 – not a massive number but a significant shift in policy at least partly brought about by plans by employers to allow more flexible working.

Of course, London hasn’t been the only empty city centre over the past year and the pandemic has accelerated a lot of conversations that were already happening with regards to the purpose of city centres in a world where retail and offices alone aren’t enough anymore. It’s a topic I was pleased to debate at a recent Re-Energising Belfast event hosted by Belfast Chamber and Carson McDowell.

For a city of its size, Belfast should have a city centre population of several thousand and it’s one of Belfast City Council’s top priorities to bring more people to live in the city. However, Deloitte’s annual Crane Survey showed that while there has been a huge rise in hotel capacity and 3,000 new student rooms in the last five years (both positive steps in building the population) the number of significant residential projects coming through can be counted on one hand. It has been slow going. Belfast is of course much smaller than London and other major cities like Manchester and Birmingham, but it’s useful to ask what we can learn from cities of comparable size like Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Newcastle or Edinburgh in encouraging more people to live in the city centre.

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Post-pandemic, residential development in the city centre has gone from being an opportunity to a necessity for the success and resilience of the city. It has long been accepted that diversification of the centre’s offer is important, but it’s now apparent that we need a larger city population that can adequately support our hospitality and retail sectors and to achieve wider climate goals by reducing commuter travel.

For several years there has been an increased strategic focus on the whole city core, reflecting the need to move away from retail-only centres and good progress has been made in developing and diversifying Belfast’s city centre. New buildings at Ulster University and Queen’s University have been built; student accommodation has increased significantly; and visitors have several more hotels to choose from when we are able to welcome them back to the region. Even in a disrupted year like 2020 there was over one million sq. ft. of new office development underway or completed in the city.

So, how do we address the stubbornly sluggish pace of city centre residential development?

Firstly, the public sector needs to continue to show leadership and work with the private sector to achieve any development at scale. New residential projects have to be viable for investors and developers and that might mean the Council and Executive working with them on issues such as rates, on planning and availability of sites.

Secondly, we have to remember it’s not just about the developments in isolation. The cities regularly cited as the most liveable in the world are ones where the overall city centre experience is good.

Typically, the factors contributing to those high rankings are attractive public realm and green areas, access to nature, being able to walk and bike around the centre easily because there are fewer cars, and a diverse retail offering – all of which contributes to a neighbourhood feel. Developing the evening economy in Belfast will also be crucial to achieving this sort of feel and culture in the city.

Thirdly, we have to learn from the Covid experience of what people value when deciding where to live. We all now place greater value on our health and wellbeing so that will need to be reflected in the physical design of homes. Should more developments have balconies, roof gardens and internal working spaces?

Fourthly, we need to think of city centre residential areas not just in terms of new sites. Other cities have transformed former industrial, office and commercial buildings successfully into residential accommodation and this repurposing of existing buildings can play a big role in Belfast. Retrofitting and redeveloping older buildings will help the city both to reach climate goals and retain Belfast’s unique heritage and character.

I think we can use our slow start as a competitive advantage taking on board how our priorities has altered due to Covid and by looking at what has worked and what hasn’t for other cities, particularly those of similar size.

Growing the city centre population could be the defining theme of the city centre for the next decade. There is a good pipeline of projects and willingness by many stakeholders to put their energy and creativity into making it happen. Experience from elsewhere suggests it will take time. It is important we persevere and get it right.