BUILDING BELFAST BACK BETTER

Belfast Chamber President Michael Stewart

It is hard to conceive of a more challenging time to assume the Presidency of Belfast Chamber. Hardly any aspect of life has escaped the effects of COVID-19.  Public health and the health of our economy have borne the brunt. Whilst we are, at long last, starting to see businesses open their doors again after being closed for almost 3 months, tough times lie ahead.  Jobs will be under threat and some businesses may not survive.

But as bleak as things have been, Belfast Chamber still believes that Belfast can and 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 great companies; the entrepreneurial spirt; the world leading sectors and universities; the retail, hospitality, leisure and cultural offering.  The ingredients for not just recovery but long term success are there but after such a sharp decline in our economy, we all need to work together to nurture our city’s economy through these tough times and put in place the foundations for a far better future.

It would be easy to look at the grim situation we face, with the UK economy shrinking by 20.4% in just one month and be pessimistic.  But Belfast Chamber believes in our city, its people and the businesses we represent.  In mapping out a route to recovery, Belfast Chamber encourages our decision makers at Westminster, at Stormont and in City Hall to be bold and seize this opportunity.

That’s why we have published our vision, entitled Building Belfast Back Better, in which Belfast Chamber sets out 15 proposals – separated into short and long term steps – which our public and private sectors can deliver together to help our city to rebound from the effects of the pandemic and be stronger and better placed for the future.

Rebuilding our city’s economy is likely to be a task that won’t be concluded in a few months or even a few years.  Undoing the damage of COVID-19 will be a huge task and take years of effort.  But there are undoubtedly steps that can be taken now and in the immediate period ahead which will have a beneficial impact on Belfast’s economy in the short term and prepare and position our city for longer term recovery.  We can learn lessons from cities across the world who have already reopened and have utilised innovative ideas to boost business and seek to replicate them in Belfast.  We can also push forward with plans to transform our economy and make it fit for the challenges that will lie ahead.

Our ideas for Building Belfast Back Better include:

  • Maintaining a safe and clean city to instil confidence in those visiting and working in Belfast
  • Creating the space to do business by, for example, allowing hospitality businesses to use parking bays to extend their premises and establishing ‘hospitality zones’
  • Making Belfast a Christmas capital with improved lighting and feature pieces and an expanded Christmas market using other locations around the city centre
  • Extending Sunday opening hours to help retailers and hospitality businesses during this difficult recovery period and to better manage the safety of people coming into Belfast
  • Supporting businesses through the recovery by keeping the rates holiday under review, a promotional and marketing campaign for Belfast and a major ‘Marshall’ style investment plan to boost our tourism industry
  • Making Belfast move better with hand sanitising facilities on all buses and trains, and a requirement to wear facemasks to enable the maximum number of people to use public transport, ensuring that public transport can continue to permeate the city centre’s main thoroughfares and the development of real cycle lanes and expanded footways
  • Revitalising our city centre with the creation of a NI version of the Future High Streets Fund to improve the public realm
  • Stimulating city living to help sustainably achieve the Belfast Agenda target of 66,000 more people living in Belfast by 2035 and provide a long-term boost for the city’s retail and hospitality sectors
  • Invest in skills and infrastructure projects like Streets Ahead, the York Street Interchange, the Transport Hub and the city’s water and sewage system as the two enablers of growth
  • Accelerating the Belfast Region City Deal so that the city’s economy can benefit from its £1 billion worth of infrastructure, innovation and tourism projects as soon as possible
  • Improving our connectivity to the wider world with an aviation strategy for Northern Ireland that ensures long term connectivity to Great Britain and a feasibility study into a high-speed rail link between Belfast and Dublin
  • Developing an innovation and regeneration led ‘Freeport’ bid for Belfast and seize the change to truly transform the city and the wider region’s economy
  • Empowering Belfast as a city with additional powers over regeneration, housing, transport and local roads so that it can better compete with other cities and enhance the response to other crises like climate change
  • Digitalising government services to enable greater business continuity and ease of access for businesses
  • Increasing childcare provision as a central element of a proper functioning economy

 

Belfast Chamber does not underestimate the scale of the challenge that lies ahead in rebuilding our city’s economy.  Belfast has faced innumerable challenges in the past – the Troubles, the financial crash and, in more recent times, the Bank Buildings fire. Our city will need every ounce of the resilience exhibited on each of those occasions to overcome the impact of COVID-19. It will also require our city’s business community across every sector of our economy to work hand in hand with every arm of government to develop and deliver a recovery plan. We will also need to work together as a business community like never before.

Belfast Chamber prides itself on being the voice of business in the city.  Over the last few difficult months, we have learnt that collectively we are much stronger and can achieve more working together.  We have also witnessed 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 developing 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.  As we enter into one of the most uncertain periods any of us have ever faced, understanding that interwoven nature of our city’s economy and working together for our common good will be key to Belfast’s bouncing back.

But be in no doubt, whatever the time ahead holds, Belfast’s business community are up for the challenge and Belfast Chamber will play its part in building Belfast back better.

Belfast Chamber’s Building Belfast Back Better policy paper can be accessed at https://belfastchamber.com/policy/?download=file&file=4222