Ignoring North's economic realities will cost dearly


BELFAST BRIEFING:A PIECE of land that should have been the site of the tallest skyscraper in Belfast is now a makeshift car park?

Like many former multimillion-pound development sites across the North, this location on Belfast’s Great Victoria street is a sad testimony to lofty but foolish ambitions.

Four years ago when a property crash seemed unimaginable, developer Mervyn McAllister unveiled his particular vision of the future for Belfast city centre. The “Aurora” was to be a £90 million landmark for the city that would stand 109 metres high and boast luxury apartments and upmarket stores and shops.

Today the site is little more than a safe haven from Belfast’s eager traffic wardens. It has also passed into the hands of a firm of receivers.

The Aurora site provides a good insight into the North’s shaky economic foundations relative to its potential for recovery. Failed property developers are becoming an increasingly and depressingly common feature of commercial life in Northern Ireland.

But there is a sense that the impact of their failure on Northern Ireland’s general economic health is being politely swept under the carpet – particularly by the very people who should know better.

Some of those with their heads in the sand face an election in coming months and perhaps do not relish drawing attention to yet another problem looming for the local economy.

After all there are already the thorny issues of major public spending cuts, potential public sector job losses and very weak local house prices to contend with. Together they do not exactly create a vote-winning proposition.

Perhaps that is why it is hard to picture a politician volunteering to voice openly in the Assembly that it may be time for Northern Ireland to draw up a strategy to deal with the unfolding crisis in the commercial property sector.

But ignoring such economic realities is going to cost the North dear in the long run.

The Executive is an innocent bystander in the property crisis and its knock-on effect on the economy but it has a part to play in insulating the North and its ratepayers from the fallout. The test is whether anyone is up for the job. Those charged with steering the North out of its economic quagmire are a relatively inexperienced team. Local politicians have shown a great willingness to listen and engage with business leaders and industry chiefs recently but it is hard to see what tangible results this interaction has produced, aside from a lot of proposals and wishlists from both sides.

Perhaps it is time to look south for inspiration and take a leaf out of the financier Dermot Desmond’s book. He has put forward radical plans which he believes might give Ireland a fighting chance when it comes to creating a new economic future.

One of his suggestions is that “non parliamentarians become ministers”. It is a notion that Northern Ireland might consider embracing. The North has certain ministers in place who have no real experience of how to deal with the magnitude of the problems facing the local economy.If Northern Ireland was an individual – where would they turn in the event of illness? Surely to a professional like a doctor, qualified to diagnose and treat the ailment?

The same analogy could apply to the economy. Would it not be better to have the best qualified person in place to ensure a speedy recovery rather than someone who means well but may not have the right policy prescription.

There are brilliant and talented people from all business sectors in the North who might have part of the solution to create a better future for all. Perhaps it is time for a silent revolution when it comes to the local economy.