Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Titanic Quarter plan gives college that sinking feeling

Artist's impression of the Belfast Metropolitan College Titanic Quarter building

The idea was that a shiny, new campus would arise amid the sidewalk cafes, bijou hotels and cool new apartments of the children of the peace. A third-level college, set in a bright, bustling environment, the symbol and substance of the future beckoning us all.

Anyone who objected, or urged caution, was sniffily dismissed as a stick-in-the-mud incapable of getting with the programme for progress.

Think not on Belfast divided along the old lines, they were told. The glad, new area would be open to all. Old discontents might persist in dank parts of the city not yet transfigured by development. But the Titanic Quarter would be neat and clean and well-advised.

No one could cavil at travelling there for work or education. That prospectus hardly applies now.

At present, the college comprises five major campuses. About five years ago, it was concluded that its city-centre buildings were no longer fit for purpose.

Many staff members challenge this vigorously, seeing nothing irreparably wrong, and a great deal attractively right, about the iconic College Square premises in particular.

It is one of the best-known and, by some, best-loved buildings in Belfast, built more than a hundred years ago to train a skilled workforce for a rapidly expanding economy.

Belfast people took pride in it. It belonged to the city. Today, double-glazing and a new heating system would still go a long way to removing any problems its age presents.

But sentiments of that sort cut no ice with the forward-looking thinkers of the post-conflict north. They reckoned that their time had come at last.

For years, they had been casting eyes across the border in envious admiration of the magnificent Tiger prowling sleekly in the lush environment of global capitalism and they wanted some of that for themselves. What else could be the purpose of peace?

Thus, the deal whereby one of the most robust of the Tiger cubs, Harcourt Developments of Dublin, was charged with the task of delivering the new college, to be leased back to the Department of Learning and Development for 25 years at a rent which guaranteed the financiers a decent profit. Staff and students have been told to be ready to move in come September.

Problem is, the only surviving element of the development intended to provide the college with a suitable ambience would appear to be the college itself.

Back in 2008, then finance ministers Peter Robinson and Brian Cowen, amid much brouhaha, burnished their credentials for further advancement by signing a "landmark" (Robinson) deal to bring thousands of jobs in financial services from London and Dublin to Belfast.

But: "When the markets plunged, it all changed," says the head of overseas development at Invest NI, Bill Montgomery.

The New York-based Citigroup, which had promised 400 new jobs, now seems remarkably coy about its intentions. Bank of Ireland, which announced in 2007 that it would transfer its fund administration unit to the Titanic Centre, bringing 149 top-range jobs, is now contracting rather than expanding.

Meanwhile, Harcourt Developments, far from having to fight off upwardly mobile hordes clamouring for accommodation, has issued writs against people who haven't been able to complete mortgages on properties in the Quarter they had agreed to buy at boom-time prices.

The homes and business and entertainment facilities which were to make the Titanic Quarter what Belfast Metropolitan College bosses promised the staff and the students they'd be moving into, haven't materialised.

The only major tenant still due to move in on schedule (or at all) is the college - to pay rent on a building which will still be owned by the private developer a quarter of a century from now.

The result is that, if the move goes ahead, it will be to a place very different to the location on which the plan was based.

The judgment that the all-new nature of the Titanic Quarter ruled out any need for an equality impact assessment can hardly stand, now that the college will be moving to what's effectively a semi-derelict industrial site in a still-impoverished part of Belfast.

Private finance, don't you just love it? Meanwhile, I see from the south that the Tiger has started eating its young.

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