Belfast… a time for change

Comment piece by Peter Minnis
Director, TODD Architects

One of the great things about working outside the province is that it allows you to see other cities and how they are approaching urban regeneration.

We now have studios in London, Dublin and Manchester, all of whom are emerging from the pandemic with a positive attitude and are actively looking to encourage people back to live and work in their cities.

My worry for Belfast is that we are being left behind and also in talking to agents, investors and funders across the British Isles, that we are starting to be viewed as “antidevelopment”.

I listened into the Deloitte Crane Survey 2022 a few weeks back, an annual review of development across Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Belfast. Each of the other three cities was able to point to completion of literally thousands of homes in 2021, with dozens of schemes under construction. In Belfast we completed a sum total of 42 new homes in 2021 and there are presently zero schemes under construction!!

This is the result of a number of contributory factors, perhaps most notably including the challenges we face in securing planning permissions for schemes of any scale or height in the city (the contrast with Manchester, a similar low lying Victorian city, with a rich architectural heritage is extraordinary) and economic viability issues associated with the rental market that has made such an important contribution to addressing housing needs in other provincial cities.

It’s easy to point the finger of blame at the Council’s planners, but they have a restrictive policy framework in which to determine applications and are not helped in having nothing relating to tall buildings, and a conservation area designation covering much of the city centre.

However, if we are to get anywhere near to meeting the City Council’s “Belfast Agenda” of looking to house an additional 66,000 people in the city by 2035, something needs to change dramatically.

There must be well over a dozen major Build to Rent (BtR) developments either with planning or in the planning process and if any are to come forward into construction there must be a much greater appreciation of viability challenges, by both planners and politicians alike.

In looking to bring people back to work in the city, the survey doesn’t paint as bad a comparative picture and indeed in the office market we presently have some brave developers building out schemes in advance of securing tenants.

For some reason we still really struggle to attract major occupiers and significant Foreign Direct Investment…….. despite having the lowest Grade A rents of any city in the UK, an educated workforce and a unique BREXIT position.

There must be almost four million square feet of space either with planning or in design development and if we want to see even part of this come forward, we need a “gamechanger”.

Whilst it has been trotted out many times before, we really do require a significant drop in corporation tax to be brought up the political agenda again, and even a levelling off across the island, as promoted recently by Sinn Fein, would make a significant difference.

Olympic House, Titanic Quarter, Belfast