Belfast will only rebound if every sector is fully open
It is hard to conceive of a more challenging set of circumstances under which to assume the Presidency of Belfast Chamber.
Belfast, its people and its business community have endured a lot down through the years. I started my first job in this city in the middle of the Troubles. I was a security guard in Marks and Spencer checking customers bags as they came into the store. Thankfully those dark days have gone and with it, our city has been utterly transformed. Who would ever have thought that the Belfast I grew up in with bombs and bullets raging everywhere and a ring of steel around its commercial core would ever become the modern and vibrant city it has become and even be rated by the Financial Times as one of its top ten tech cities of the future. As much progress as we’ve made, it hasn’t, of course, been plain sailing economically. After the financial crash of a decade ago, we had the uncertainty of Brexit, but we actually entered 2020 thinking that we might have some stability before the coronavirus pandemic struck.
I have worked in hospitality for 35 years. I’ve helped to run some of Belfast’s most famous venues. It hasn’t always been easy, but all of the hard work and effort put in by the industry was paying off with Belfast named by Lonely Planet as a must see destination. Quite literally overnight, all of that came to a shuddering halt. Bars, restaurants, cafes, hotels as well as a great many shops were forced to close down. Staff in law firms, accountants, tech companies and banks abandoned their offices and began working from home. The buzz and energy that Belfast is so renowned for just disappeared.
Life is slowly coming back to Belfast’s streets, but the absence of those office-based workers remains the major missing piece of the jigsaw as we seek to safely return to normality. I know that many staff are keen to return to the office and lots of businesses are making preparations, but the Executive advice remains that people should work from home where they can.
What has struck me most throughout the COVID-19 crisis is the symbiotic relationship that exists between all sectors of our city’s economy. 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.
Understanding that interwoven nature of our city’s economy and working together for our common good is a central component of Belfast Chamber’s new 15 point plan entitled Building Belfast Back Better which sets out the steps we believe are needed to help rebuild our city. With that symbiotic relationship in mind, I have written to the Economy Minister Diane Dodds making the case for the Executive to update its advice on office-based working so that we can continue to breathe life back into Belfast and I have similarly written to the Finance Minister Conor Murphy asking that the civil service leads by example with public sector offices starting to reopen too. We are moving into one of the most uncertain periods any of us have ever faced and Belfast needs every aspect of its economy to be open for us to be able to rebound successfully.