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Belfast: A city of two halves moves towards post-pandemic economic regeneration

While wealth permeates parts of the northern city, poverty-stricken areas remain

Outside, the rain is biblical. Inside, Belfast’s Grand Central hotel is more heavenly. Glasses clink and plates clatter amid the lunchtime buzz of the five-star property’s sleek ground-floor cafe. Staff dart between the tables ferrying wine and food to well-heeled guests. There is money in this room.

Hastings Hotels group opened the Grand Central in 2018 following a £53 million (€41 million) refurbishment of Windsor Tower, a 23-storey office building that was once badly damaged by an IRA bomb. The group acquired it from the National Asset Management Agency before converting it into Belfast’s finest hotel, all glass and marble and eye-catching design.

The Grand Central, the tallest commercial building on the island, now towers confidently over the city’s historic Linen Quarter district, a lively area of venues and bars such as the baroque Crown Liquor Saloon. The area sits just below the main retail district and also Belfast City Hall, where the city’s Christmas market recently opened.

Although still run-down in a couple of spots, the Linen Quarter generally appears to be on the up. Deloitte is among the blue-chip and tech businesses opening new headquarters nearby.

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Chris McCracken, managing director of the local Linen Quarter business improvement district (BID), believes the centre of the city is “on the cusp of a renaissance”. He estimates that up to £1 billion of capital investment is in the pipeline for the local area. It is a chamber of the economic heart of the new Belfast, striving to emerge from the pandemic.

Yet there remains an old Belfast, less touched by the glint of money. Two miles east of the Linen Quarter, in the shadow of the Harland and Wolff shipyard cranes, lies the working-class loyalist neighbourhood clustered around the Newtownards Road. Here, just down from the Ulster Defence Association murals of Freedom Corner, a Methodist minister is trying to revive the local economy.

Rev Andrew Irvine, a former Belfast city manager before he was ordained in 2018, now runs the Methodist church’s East Belfast Mission (EBM). It provides charitable services in one of the most deprived neighbourhoods of Northern Ireland. The east Belfast area could do with just a sniff of the capital flowing into the Linen Quarter and other more commercial areas of the centre of the city.

In addition to social initiatives such as services for the homeless and meals on wheels, the EBM is focused on economic development. It runs a chain of retail outlets, workshops and a restaurant and it also provides training services for the “economically inactive… people who don’t have a job and don’t want one”, says Irvine. Two-thirds of the working-age population in the area are not in work.

“It’s a lack of self-belief. It has been knocked out of them,” he says, over lunch in the Refresh Café at EBM’s Skainos Centre headquarters. It isn’t quite the Grand Café, but it has a buzz all of its own.

“I fundamentally do not believe in trickle-down economics,” says Irvine. “It doesn’t trickle down to communities like this. But I’m hopeful for the area. People are working to build the community from the ground up. We can’t wait for anyone else to do it. Progress won’t fall like manna from heaven.”

Hotels such as the Grand Central and other central Belfast hospitality businesses operate in an environment characterised by an acute staff shortage. Irvine says organisations such as his could help provide such businesses with workers, with EBM’s focus on training those with few skills.

“We focus on where the demand is. Currently it is the hospitality industry. We work with people who are the hardest to reach, and if we can’t reach them, nobody can. But when we do reach them, we make sure we get these people a qualification and then a job. We also teach them coping skills.”

After six months, 38 per cent of them are still in their jobs, says Irvine. That compares favourably to the average of 25 per cent in other government-mandated employability schemes. Yet EBM, which has 120 staff and has 400 volunteers across all of its services, faces a funding challenge. Some of its employability schemes are part-funded by the European Union. This flow of cash will stop next April as a result of Brexit. The UK government has promised Northern Ireland community groups £30 million in replacement funding, but this is still more than £11 million short of what the EU provided.

‘Led by idiots’

“We invest more than £4 million in the locality each year. About 35 per cent of our income now is unrestricted funds that we generate from our own businesses, while 65 per cent is public money from various sources. But we don’t want to rely on public money for several reasons. One is that the NI public sector is complete chaos. We’re led by idiots and I don’t mind you putting that in the paper. It is dysfunctional here in the extreme,” says Irvine.

He cites political upheaval, a lack of engagement and frequent payment delays from public bodies as evidence: “We won’t go out of business over any of this. But we might end up moving away from providing employment services if we can’t get the funds.”

Back in the centre of the city, in the area around the Linen Quarter, economic progress is easier to discern. The UK economy may be entering a recession but it still grew by more than 4 per cent in 2022, even if Northern Ireland’s growth is lagging by more than half a percentage point, according to a recent report by PwC.

McCracken’s Linen Quarter BID organisation has spent £2.8 million, mostly raised from levies on local businesses, to enhance the area in its first five years of operation. The Linen Quarter grouping, one of three BIDs in Belfast, is up for re-election by local businesses in January, for another five-year term. McCracken is in campaign mode as he braves the rain for an upbeat showaround of the area.

While the pandemic brought some lingering problems to the city centre such as increased anti-social behaviour, he says it also “accelerated the process of city transformation by 10 years”. It quickened the pace of some improvements, such as more cycling lanes, pedestrianisation, planted areas and the redesignation of car parking spaces for other commercial uses.

McCracken says another “silver lining” of the pandemic was that it also spawned a boom in city break guests from the Republic: “When hotels reopened they couldn’t be busier. All the multi-storey car parks were filled with southern reg plates.”

On his walkaround, he points to the new office building around the corner from the Grand Central, where Deloitte is preparing to move 1,000 workers. It is part of the Ewart building, a restored former linen hall development that reopened this year following an £85 million refurbishment by developers McAleer & Rushe. Tech company Kainos also plans a new headquarters just up the road.

Behind the Grand Central lies Blackstaff Square, a formerly run-down enclave that McCracken’s team has livened up by building the Flaxx outdoor performance space. The BID area then rolls out on to Great Victoria Street, whose landmarks include the Europa Hotel, also owned by Hastings.

McCracken acknowledges that this street is a little sketchy on its southern side, away from the Europa. But a proposed extension of the Linen Quarter Bid’s boundaries south down Great Victoria Street towards Shaftesbury Square will give it a mandate to preach its regeneration gospel further.

“There could easily be £1 billion investment in BID area in 10 years,” says McCracken. He cites the new £200 million Belfast transport hub that is under construction, due to open in 2025. Around this hub, a massive mixed-use development scheme, Weavers Cross, is planned. It could cost £400 million. The BBC is to spend almost £50 million expanding its local studios. A new bridge over the Lagan is planned. Meanwhile, slightly north of the district, £100 million is due to be spent on a new major visitor attraction, Belfast Stories, to rival the Titanic Quarter. Student accommodation blocks are also popping up all over the city – the student population of Belfast is now nearing 50,000 after Ulster University moved its Jordanstown campus to a new £350 million facility in the city centre.

“All of these sites here are going to be snapped up,” says McCracken, pointing towards a slew of undeveloped plots closer to the more derelict southern end of Great Victoria Street, into which the Linen Quarter BID will extend after its re-election vote in January.

Later, after the rain has subsided, the retail area around Royal Avenue and north off Donegall Square is deserted. Primark’s flagship store, recently refurbished after being gutted by fire, stands proud over the area. Like Dublin, however, Belfast appears to have a homelessness problem in its commercial heart. People in sleeping bags populate every second doorway.

Down at the nearby waterfront area, the city’s burgeoning conference business is back in growth mode after the pandemic. Oonagh O’Reilly, sales and marketing director of the purpose-build ICC Belfast venue, says the number of conferences booked this year is up “20 per cent” on 2019 levels. A further 10 per cent growth is expected next year, she says.

Hotel rooms

ICC, which incorporates a 2,200-seat auditorium and 20 other meeting rooms, used to be known as the Belfast Waterfront. “But nobody abroad knew what that was,” says O’Reilly. “So we said we can either get a huge budget and educate people as to what Belfast Waterfront is, or we can just call ourselves an International Convention Centre.”

It now competes with venues in other regional UK cities, as well as Convention Centre Dublin and those of some other European destinations, for the sort of major professional gatherings also capable of filling much of the hotel rooms in the city.

“Before Covid hit, our star was on the rise. You could see the opportunity in front of you and then, boom, it was pulled from under us,” says O’Reilly.

She says Northern Ireland’s business tourism sector needs even more resources now to market itself globally, to take advantage of the upsurge in corporate travel. ICC also has an entertainment business, comprising about 30 per cent of its revenues. Entertainment ticket sales are up 18 per cent this year on 2019, O’Reilly says. One of its most popular performances last Christmas was the “adult panto” show, Cinder on Tinder.

Further east, over the Lagan, the Hastings group also owns the Stormont Hotel, across the road from Northern Ireland’s currently absent parliament. Howard Hastings, the group’s chairman, is fairly sanguine about the recovery of the hospitality sector in Belfast. He says business is “almost” back at 2019 levels.

The use of 800 or so of the city’s more than 4,000 hotel rooms for refugees is helping to keep rates buoyant. “If demand only recovers a little bit, that fills everything,” says Hastings.

About 125 cruise liners docked in Belfast in 2022 but he says the city expects over 180 next year. That will bring a fillip for the sector’s wider hospitality and retail sectors, he says, although hotels won’t get much of a bounce from it as cruise liners “bring their own beds”.

Coach tour business has been slower to come back, he says, but “projections are good”. The weakness of sterling is also making the city a more affordable, and therefore attractive, destination for US tourists and visitors from the euro zone. Hastings also agrees with McCracken that the pandemic massively accelerated the development of the North as a short-break destination for guests from the South.

“The surveys show that southerners found value here, and they also found people here friendlier than they thought. I’m not sure what they expected. Maybe we’ve given ourselves a bad name up to now. But Covid did more to make this region attractive to southerners than 50 years of marketing from Tourism NI. And I say that as someone who used to chair the organisation.”

Hastings, like the majority of business people in the city, would like the region’s leaders to make the best of the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit agreement. It essentially gives the North a foot in the single market while it also continues as part of the UK’s economic area, although for some there is enough friction on that front to rattle unionists.

“I was talking to my potato supplier. They had a good crop this year, but they are having great difficulty getting next year’s seed crop in from Scotland to NI because of [the import terms of the protocol]. Companies that are disadvantaged by the protocol are moaning vociferously about it. Equally, though, there are other companies that use it to their benefit, are trading very well and keeping their heads down.”

Back on the Newtownards Road in loyalist East Belfast, Irvine isn’t waiting around for crumbs from the rest of the city’s table and is getting on with the business of developing economic initiatives. EBM, somewhat notoriously, runs a programme teaching the Irish language to loyalists in the area.

It has been hugely successful, with up to 400 students currently enrolled. This has prompted EBM to start another venture: it has bought a minibus to give Irish language tours of one of the most staunchly Protestant areas of the North. How’s that for innovation?

“I’m interested in the whole concept of community wealth building,” says Irvine. “The growth has got to come from within. Social economy businesses like us need to move away from dependence on public money. But unless we are still getting to the economically inactive people, getting them to engage with mainstream stuff, then there’s just no hope.”