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Belfast can bounce back from setbacks

Simon Hamilton


The fear now is that while Debenhams may be the highest profile failure so far, it sadly won't be the last

The fear now is that while Debenhams may be the highest profile failure so far, it sadly won't be the last

The fear now is that while Debenhams may be the highest profile failure so far, it sadly won't be the last

In the space of less than 24 hours last week, the tangible impact of Covid-19 and the Executive's repeated lockdown restrictions on the retail sector hit home hard.

The news that Debenhams was to close and that the Arcadia Group was to enter administration with a threat to hundreds of jobs in Belfast and thousands more beyond, brought to life before our eyes what many of us had feared and indeed warned about.

Whilst some have pointed out that these retailers had been in trouble for some time, there can be no doubt that being closed for large parts of 2020 has hastened their demise and should not for a single second take away from the shock that it will have been for staff members.

These two hammer blows are also bad news for a Belfast city centre that has borne the brunt of lockdowns.

We have witnessed major high street names that were almost ever present in Belfast, like Easons, fall like dominoes, at the cost of countless jobs.

They have also left empty units in a city that already had one of the highest vacancy rates in the UK before the pandemic struck.

The fear now is that while Debenhams may be the highest profile failure so far, it sadly won't be the last.

It would be easy to wallow in the awful events of the last week and worry that Belfast city centre is in some sort of downward spiral. Not only is that far too pessimistic for my liking, I also firmly don't believe that it reflects reality.

Last week, Belfast Chamber hosted an event entitled Rebuilding Belfast where we showcased the superb Smithfield Yard, Tribeca and Waterside regeneration schemes.

Each of these developments are helping to breathe new life back to parts of our city or former industrial sites.

What these and other redevelopment projects also show is that the private sector is backing Belfast.

They believe in and see the potential of our city to the extent that they are prepared to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in Belfast.

With major infrastructure investments like the new Transport Hub and the City Deal schemes, including another international standard tourism attraction in the form of an aquarium at Titanic Belfast, all in the pipeline, there is much to be positive about in spite of the current crisis.

Many of those schemes are of course still a few years off but one thing that we can look forward to in the short term is the arrival of 15,000 students into the heart of the city at the new Ulster University campus.

This is perhaps the single most transformational thing to happen in our city for many years.

The equivalent of the population of somewhere the size of Armagh will make Belfast their home and provide a massive boost for businesses in the retail and hospitality sectors.

We are already seeing how the university is catalysing redevelopment in the area around it.

Who would have thought a few years ago that Belfast would have over 6,000 beds worth of high end, purpose-built student accommodation right in its centre?

The evolving nature of the city centre that the new campus has started, plus the range of projects and schemes I've previously mentioned, should provide us with the impetus to kick start even more change.

Our city centre needs to become about much more than retail.

The unique mix of small independents and big brands that you can't find anywhere else in the region are still central to what our city centre will be about, but it also about making it a destination where people come for coffee, for lunch and for a good night out, where families want to spend their leisure time and where, perhaps most importantly, people want to live.

I am confident that the private sector will step up and support our city. we also now need government at all levels to accept that our city remains fragile and start addressing those weaknesses as well as seizing the opportunities. That means incentivising more residential development across central Belfast, investing in more urban play parks, making it a more cycling and walking friendly city, better connecting the city centre to surrounding neighbourhoods and progressing a scheme for Royal Avenue to give it a streetscape befitting its name and importance to the city.

Our city has withstood much down through the years - the Troubles, financial crashes and a massive fire.

Covid-19 has presented us with a challenge on a scale that sometimes seems insurmountable.

But we are a resilient city. We can and we will bounce back but that requires all of us - public, private and community sectors - to work closely together to preserve the city we love and help it fulfil its undoubted potential.

  • Simon Hamilton is chief executive of Belfast Chamber

Belfast Telegraph