Belfast Will Rise Again

by Simon Hamilton, Chief Executive of Belfast Chamber

(Article for Business Eye)

It was Winston Churchill who apparently first uttered the phrase “never waste a good crisis”.  The coronavirus pandemic has certainly been an interlinked health and economic crisis.  Whilst the virus is still in our midst and the death toll continues to rise, it can perhaps seem insensitive to talk too much about economic recovery, but so damaging will this be to the health of our economy that we will need to start thinking and thinking big.

The newly restored Executive didn’t have much time to get its feet under the table before the pandemic struck let alone set out its longer term vision for the region.  We do though know that – until the details relating to EU exit are clearer for Northern Ireland – a reduction in the rate of Corporation Tax isn’t at the top of the to do list but a stimulus of this kind, now more than ever, is needed or else Northern Ireland will be forever condemned to continue to trail behind the economic performance of every other region of the UK.  One thing that would ordinarily be obvious, is that whatever incentives the Executive reach for, recovery would be centred on our cities.

Just 5 years ago, the OECD declared this ‘the Metropolitan Century’.  By 2100, 85% of the world’s population would live in cities.  Cities weren’t just where people were moving to en masse.  They were magnets for young people who were attracted by the diversity and lifestyles only cities could give them and especially those with the skills that are so desirable to business.  And as the talent that companies crave gravitated towards cities, corporate headquarters followed, needing to be near the talent they relied on to succeed.  The ‘Triumph of the City’, as Edward Glaeser’s 2011 book called it, was universal, with peace and political stability helping to usher in an era of rebirth in Belfast with the city boasting a transformed skyline and becoming home to a world class tech cluster that was unimaginable just a few years ago.

No crisis in the last two decades – not the financial crash, not Brexit, not climate change – has challenged this accepted wisdom like COVID-19.  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 has apparently helped COVID-19 to spread.

We have seen the streets of Belfast virtually empty overnight with many customer facing businesses in retail and hospitality closed and not trading at all.  The bustle and the buzz that has become synonymous with the modern Belfast has gone.  It is a troubling time for the city’s economy and conjures up so many questions.  As one person put it to me during a recent conversation, 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 weeks 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 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 aforementioned 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”.

Will COVID-19 herald the seemingly unstoppable march of cities like Belfast? I don’t think so.

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, now has an infection rate 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.

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 are missing all of these 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 heart has been beating strong and will do so again soon.

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”.  It is interesting that one of the most welcome announcements by the NI Executive in response 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 a the heart of our region’s economic future.

Back to Churchill’s appeal.  How can we make sure that we don’t waste this crisis?

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 bounce back presents us with a once in a generation opportunity to do even more.  Using the City Deal as our starting point, we should make the economic, social and urban regeneration of Belfast 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 – and we should aim to renew Belfast based on the following 5 key objectives:

  • Building an economy on the bedrock of sectors like fintech, cyber security and medical technology that our city so excels at and for which demand will be high;
  • Stimulating more city centre living as the most sustainable way to achieve the Belfast Agenda target of growing the city’s population by 66,000 by 2035 and provide a boost for our retail and hospitality sectors;
  • Reshaping the city to create and connect to open and green space and take 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;
  • Identifying, accelerating and investing in the infrastructure projects that will enable greater growth; and
  • Ensuring that growth is inclusive with an emphasis on developing skills and getting the economically inactive into work

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, in order to, in the words of Churchill, not waste this crisis, 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 fulfils 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 thrives in the years ahead.