12 April 2013

At the risk of sounding sensational, Belfast is at a crossroads. Our traditional city centre having failed to flourish sufficiently in the boom years is in danger of being left behind in the bust, as limited existing development continues to focus regeneration on peripheral locations.

Reach for any modern text on the subject of ‘regeneration’ and you will find infinite commentary on and explanation of the ‘Doughnut Effect’; a phenomenon that affects the shape of some cities when a central vacuum is created by concentrating economic activity around the extremities of the traditional urban core. Sound familiar, yet?

Sadly, it appears that we are continuing to neglect our city centre at a time when investment has never been more acutely required. The extent of the decline in the general retailing market as result of out-of- town planning policy, property rates and the internet has left us quite simply with too many shops. At the last count almost one in four of our city centre retail units now lie vacant and I would suggest that even filling half of these again for their original use is probably impossible.

We need to think about radical alternatives for our vacant spaces: cultural, artistic and community based enterprises are parts of the equation undoubtedly.  As a consequence of the ‘Troubles’ most of the upper floors in buildings in our traditional city centre are unused. With appropriate investment, this accommodation could once again provide residential, student, office and hotel accommodation in common with any other regional city in the United Kingdom.

The limited central population and small scale of Belfast arguably contribute to the problem. Even the welcome regeneration potential offered by the expansion of the University of Ulster’s Belfast campus focuses physical development within another peripheral location; tantalisingly close yet at the same time far enough to remain detached from the core commercial activity offered by the city. The future challenge lies in creating a genuine connection with the surrounding area when students arrive in 2018, as well as sustaining the undoubted momentum generated.

Local government and, in particular, Invest NI in its role as ambassador for Northern Ireland must urgently recognise that business and office occupiers should be encouraged to locate in our traditional urban centres. Positive discrimination may be necessary to ensure that city centre “opportunity” sites and existing buildings are explored ahead of easier business park alternatives. Anyone exposed to the local property market knows that in the current climate this is easier said than done, with funding for speculative projects simply unattainable.

Osborne King estimate that there is currently only c. 150,000 sq ft of genuine Grade A office stock available in Belfast, and with office take-up in 2012 estimated at some 275,000 sq ft it is clear that our current supply will shortly be exhausted. So what happens then? Given the obvious practical delay in the planning and construction process, the only alternative for occupiers will be comprehensively refurbished secondary accommodation. Opportunity exists within this sector and a brave developer with the support of his bank will be equipped to mop-up demand once the supply scales have tipped.

It is logical that city centre regeneration should be retail-led and whether this is via the proposed Royal Exchange development or a more modest strategic approach is a matter of opinion; one certainty is that the Minister’s recent decision to restrict retail development at Sprucefield is good news for Belfast.

If we are to re-invent Belfast’s commercial core, strategic government intervention is required. This must support and encourage private sector development and once again promote the very heart of our city. If we are not prepared to address this issue urgently, then I fear that come 2018 ,the University’s intake of Planning & Property Development students won’t have to far to walk to find their Doughnut! 

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