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Ambitious Belfast mustn't ignore those less well-off

 

Economy Watch by Andrew Webb, managing director Webb Advisory

The changing face of Belfast is clear for all to see. It has even been counted. The recently completed Deloitte Crane Survey notes that there were 11 development schemes completed across the city in 2016, and 19 schemes currently under construction.

Belfast is hungry for more development, as it should be. To that end, a sizeable delegation from Belfast's business community recently joined Belfast City Council and others in setting out the city's wares at the world's largest property conference, MIPIM.

The annual event has been attended by Belfast representatives for the last number of years and represents a significant coming together of local business and council to show it as an ambitious, open city.

Reports on Belfast's time at MIPIM suggest we are generating significant investor interest in new developments across the city. Time will tell if these develop into fully fledged opportunities, but it is increasingly clear that property developers are looking at us with interest.

How Brexit and political uncertainty impact on that will be one to watch but, for now, all looks positive.

Of the 19 developments currently under construction in the city, six are hotels and six are student accommodation - a reflection of the increasing visitor numbers we are seeing and the imminent arrival of the new Ulster University campus. Not only will these buildings change the physical landscape but, once complete, we should notice a different 'user' of our city through even more tourists and students.

Of course, the pace of development happening currently brings challenges and raises questions about the type of city (and therefore economy) we want. Nowhere is this tension more evident than in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter where major development plans are raising concerns that the city's identity could be lost in a sea of shiny new buildings that look just like any other city.

It is important for economic performance and culture, arts and leisure that Belfast maintains its identity. Tensions in 'place making' as it is often referred to do not just relate to buildings. There is also an ongoing issue around 'gentrification' and 'inclusive growth'. That brings me to a niggle I have been having in relation to Belfast's economic inactivity levels and the disconnect that I fear lies between the city's ambition for physical development and our significant levels of deprivation and economic activity.

Belfast City Council has articulated a vision for the city to 2035 through its Belfast Agenda. There is much to commend in this ambition for the capital, and certainly the aims are laudable - a city where everyone in Belfast benefits from a thriving and prosperous economy and one where everyone fulfils their potential.

However, if Belfast hits the ambitious numbers it wants to achieve, I fear the current levels of economic inactivity will be unaltered. I will explain this but first let me set some context for current levels of economic inactivity.

The Labour Force Survey tells us there are close to 120,000 economically inactive people in Belfast, compared to 157,000 economically active. Belfast's working age economic inactivity rate has been stubbornly stuck at or around 30% since 2010.

The city is currently home to one in every five of Northern Ireland's economically inactive people. Obviously, there are different reasons for economic inactivity, including being a student or looking after the home, but an analysis of the statistics will show that it is long-term sickness that is driving our inactivity levels, and that levels of inactivity across 16 to 34-year-olds is touching on being higher than ever. Added to this, according to the last Census, there are several areas within the city where more than 20% of residents have never worked.

There is no denying then that economic inactivity is a serious issue for Northern Ireland and Belfast. Returning to Belfast's Agenda, and the ambitions it outlines, it makes me wonder how the current economically inactive residents will fare.

The agenda presents a vision of Belfast in 2035 that has 50,000 more jobs. That's a big ambition and we will do well to achieve it.

The agenda also presents a vision of 70,000 more residents. See the issue? Even accepting for a fair proportion of children among the hoped-for 70,000 new residents, 50,000 more jobs and 70,000 extra residents can't sum to a material improvement in our current economically inactive levels.

I'm excited by the ambition the city is displaying, and look forward to seeing the various developments come through to completion. I hope that when they do, the outcome is a city where 'everyone benefits from a thriving and prosperous economy' and that appropriate policy ambition is applied to solving the economic inactivity crisis as is being applied to redeveloping the city.

  • In next week's Economy Watch, we hear from Danske Bank economist Conor Lambe

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