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Andrew Irvine: 'As a city, we must find a solution to homeless issue'

The Big Interview

Published 04/04/2016

Andrew Irvine with the then Social Development Minister Alex Attwood in 2011
Andrew Irvine with the then Social Development Minister Alex Attwood in 2011
Andrew Irvine

Belfast City Centre manager Andrew Irvine (48) talks to Claire McNeilly about tackling street drinking, keeping the city safe and how Northern Ireland is currently bucking the national trend on retail crime.

Q. What does Belfast City Centre manager actually do?

A. Belfast City Centre Management is an arm's-length company. A third of our funding comes from Belfast City Council but we're not part of it. BCCM takes in everywhere geographically from the Belfast Telegraph building at the top of Royal Avenue in the north to Shaftsbury Square in the south. Our western boundary is Millfield and the Lagan is our eastern boundary. Our business plan has 23 projects live at the moment across three different themes - economic performance, managing the public space and making the city safer. We do a lot of work around research on things likes footfall and sales performance.

Q. What does the Public Space function of your role entail?

A. The big ones are the festive lighting programme. City council do the festive lights for City Hall but we do the rest. The other one is the city centre dressing banners that you see whenever an event like Giro d'Italia is in town. Also, we inspect 64 Belfast streets every week - checking for loose paving stones, broken street lights, and getting them fixed.

Q. What does the Safer City element involve?

A. The city centre beat police team is one of the big ones. For the last 11 years we've raised £60,000 a year of private sector money for an initative with Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce (although my team do all the work on it) that delivers two police officers into the city centre every day. Funding these officers means we have our own dedicated team. The businesses have their mobile numbers and if they have any issues the officers go to see them. Eleven years at £60,000 a year; we've raised a considerable sum of money to make that happen.

The other one is our restorative justice scheme for retail criminals. If someone is caught shoplifting in the city the retailer will offer them a choice of getting prosecuted (criminal record) or volunteering to join the city centre management retail crimewatch scheme, which was set up by us internally in 2007. They agree to their photograph being taken and shared with 200-plus retailers and they are excluded from those stores between six months and a year. We've had 3,000 shoplifters through that scheme. Our experience is that it's hugely effective for those who are caught for the first time. It really is the short, sharp shock that stops them from doing it again. We've now got to a stage that while retail crime has been rising in every other UK city, it has been declining here every year. We're bucking the national trend.

I operate the night-time volunteer steering group. I brought street pastors to Northern Ireland; I'm one myself. We operate from 11pm until 4am. On Friday and Saturday we're out there with the SOS bus and the Welcome Organisation and other volunteers taking care of people on the streets.

On a Friday or Saturday there could be up to 130 volunteers on the streets. The Community Rescue Service is one of the groups involved. They started patrolling the Lagan at nights after Joby Murphy drowned. On one occasion they found a drunk guy who'd gone for a swim. CRS got him out of the river and handed him over to the street pastors. We took him to the SOS bus for medical attention - so that individual went through three volunteering groups in the space of 20 minutes.

Q. What are the major challenges facing Belfast at present?

A. We need to get a message to the population outside Belfast that Belfast is easily accessible. Belfast can't survive on Belfast residents alone. We also have a particular issue with around 40 people with highly complex needs who are choosing to sleep on our streets. One of our big challenges is to communicate to the public that these people aren't being left to freeze and starve. Of the 40 individuals who are out there regularly, at least one a week is being case managed by a multi-disciplinary social work team. The Housing Executive is funding the Welcome Organisation to be out there from 6am until midnight seven days a week to try to get those individuals to engage with the help on offer, which includes three hot meals every day, day facilities and night-time accommodation. The job is to get those individuals to engage with that help.

Q. Five people have died on Belfast's streets already this year. What is your take on the current homeless issue in the city centre?

A. Most of these people have somewhere to go with a roof over their head, so they are not roofless. From my own experience on the streets at night, each of these individuals has a myriad of highly complex needs. The vast majority have addiction issues - alcohol or drugs. There's a real prevalence of mental health issues in that community. Some of these clients don't want to be alone in a hostel so they default back to being with their friends on the street. As a city, we must find a solution.

Q. Have you had complaints from businesses about people sleeping in their doorways?

A. They're not complaining about the individuals who are sleeping, they're complaining about the soup runs and the sandwich runs and the sleeping bags. The businesses are very educated about this and keen to be part of the solution, but they know that if you give someone a sleeping bag and feed them in a doorway, whenever the Welcome Organisation come along and says we want you to get in a vehicle, we're going to give you food and clean clothes and we have some people who can help with your addiction, they are less likely to accept that help if they're already in a sleeping bag and well fed.

Belfast's Lord Mayor spoke to the people doing the sandwich run and said it wasn't in the best interest of the individuals. When you feed them in a doorway and make them feel comfortable in a doorway, they're less inclined to accept the more long-term help that's available. The businesses know that, and it's the businesses which are left to pick up the sandwich wrappers and the sleeping bags - which can be full of needles. So you've got a member of retail staff arriving to open a store at 7.30am faced with not just a sleeping bag, but human faeces, urine, needles and all sorts of stuff.

Q. There now seems to be a problem with homeless people drinking alcohol in Royal Avenue in broad daylight. Does that concern you?

A. That's actually illegal, and it's one reason why businesses fund the city centre beat police. They're our only resource to deal with someone sitting in the street during the day drinking a bottle of vodka. The trouble is that they have no power to seize that alcohol. A police officer only has power to take alcohol from people under 18. The by-law only allows for people to be reported to the court for drinking alcohol. The sentences, if it gets to court, aren't prohibitive.

In the absence of legislation our city safe officer has got all of the city centre off licences on a scheme where they will not sell alcohol to known street drinkers - so they can't buy it in the city centre. That's how we attempt to cut off the supply to those who we know will drink it on the street.

We need police officers and council officers to have the power to seize that alcohol. At the minute our hands are tied because of a lack of legislation. Is it not unfair that the retail community is having to pay a bill for the policing around it?

Q. What about Brexit - how much of an effect would that have on retail in Belfast?

A. It's more difficult for Northern Ireland than it is for the rest of the UK because of our land border with the Republic. There are issues of cross-border trade and cross-border security for us. I'm concerned that if we exit there would be barriers - either financial or physical - to hinder cross-border trade. I'm also concerned about the impact it might have on the decision of residents of the Republic to come and shop in Belfast.

Q. Do you think Royal Avenue has lost its edge as the city's main shopping street?

A. Belfast Streets Ahead and the £28 million investment that went into 14 streets looks wonderful. We're about to break ground on the next phase of it which will cost £30m. I think the city looks well.

Q. What do you make of John Lewis and the ongoing problems over Sprucefield?

A. John Lewis should be in Belfast. And if they're not in Belfast and insist on going into Lisburn they should go to Lisburn city centre. They shouldn't be allowed to develop out-of-town because out-of-town sucks the heart out of town centres. We have planning permission for them in the anchor store in the Royal Exchange development (in Belfast). That footprint was designed to meet John Lewis's needs so we're ready to go. Let's have the public inquiry and get it done.

Q. What is your position on Sunday opening hours? Should they be extended?

A. Retailers are asking for more flexibility on the hours they open, not more hours.

They would say that they don't do particularly well after 4pm so our position, in support of Belfast Chamber, is that we need more flexibility around their hours. Retailers are saying they'd prefer to open from 10am until 4pm and we support that.

Q. How much to you think Victoria Square has helped Belfast's retail offering?

A. It has helped it hugely. It brought a 30% addition to retail floorspace on the day it opened so it just provided much more choice. Having two shopping centres also allowed for a market segmentation that we never had before.

Q. There's a big shop vacancy rate problem in Belfast. What is being done to address that?

A. We need decisions from the public inquiry around Sprucefield because that's core to retail in Belfast city centre. There's also the rates issue.

Q. What is your view on bus lanes?

A. The public don't understand when they're operating and when they're not, so they never drive in them.

The operating hours are also too long.

They should only operate during rush hour and we would favour much more restricted operating hours of the lane.

Our third point is that you shouldn't put bus lanes in and take £13m off Translink.

If you're trying to get people to shift from their car to public transport how can you then reduce the budget of the bus operator? It doesn't make any sense.

Q. Retailers are always complaining about rates. What's the issue there?

A. The commercial landlords in the city have really stretched themselves financially to come up with solutions to bring tenants in. They've given away millions of pounds in reduced rent and in rent-free periods.

What we haven't seen is any real contribution in terms of a reduction in rates from the Government. Our property cost in terms of rate and tax is still higher than it is in Britain and therefore when we get retailers coming over from Britain to look compared to what they're used to paying in English cities we are expensive so that's an issue for us.

Q. Tell us about your career path leading up to now.

A. My first job, when I was 17, was working as a retail assistant for Boots, selling cameras. In 1993 I began working for a commercial property company called BDA Property Projects Ltd in east Belfast for seven years.

During that time I did an HND in business and finance and then studied part-time at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown to turn that qualification into a degree.

I left in 2000 for a job at Business Management Forum, who are conference organisers, for a year.

I then got my first job in Belfast City Council in the building control service. But within nine months, in September 2001, a job came up to manage St George's Market and Smithfield Market.

Q. What does managing a market involve?

A. My job was to develop St George's Market. There were plenty of traders there on a Friday, the only day the market operated.

In 2004 I brought around the Saturday food and craft market and started to look at events. The first gig I booked was Snow Patrol. I was astounded by the queues for that gig. They weren't internationally huge then but very popular locally - I didn't know that because it's not really my type of music.

From that we developed the market as a conference and exhibition venue working with the Waterfront Hall.

If the Waterfront Hall had a big conference in we used St George's Market for the exhibition or the dinner.

On one occasion I had 1,800 ladies from 34 different countries from Soroptimist International all in their evening dresses for a full formal dinner in the market following their conference.

The market became a massive dining room - carpeted, draped in silk.

But now that you have Friday, Saturday and Sunday markets it's more difficult to do that sort of thing.

Q. St George's Market on Saturday is a huge hit. Is it true that it was initially difficult to attract traders?

A. The Friday market traders wouldn't do it because they operate at a different location every day.

I wrote to every food business in Ireland - manufacturers, processors, marketers - and said my ambition was to create a Borough market in Belfast. It's an old wholesale market in Southwark, London, that was established in the 12th century.

Eventually 55 businesses signed up and within a year it was full. There's now 150 traders on a waiting list. In 2007 it was voted the best market in the UK by National Association of British Market Authorities, and again in 2014. I was also behind the Spring and Christmas Continental Markets at Belfast City Hall, which started in 2004.

Q. What do you say to those who think the Christmas Market is too expensive and has lost its appeal with people living in the city?

A. I didn't get that feedback. Any product continually needs innovation. Everything has a life cycle. We need to launch a conversation early this year with Belfast people to see what they think. It's a city council issue but as Belfast City Centre manager I have a deep interest in it, and a personal interest, having founded it.

Q. Tell us something that might surprise people about you.

A. I'm a ministerial student for the Methodist Church. I'm actually a trainee minister at the minute.

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