Belfast Telegraph

Thriving Belfast now has what it takes to become a global city like Auckland

Economy Watch

By John Lavery

I had the pleasure of a flying visit home to Belfast last month and as is standard on trips home from my soon-to-be former base in New Zealand, I packed a lot in and saw a lot of the city.

I was struck by the vibrancy around town. Despite many downside risks, such as the Stormont situation and uncertainty over Brexit, moods were positive and many seemed to have a spring in their step. A fairly typical Belfast resilience, the longevity of which never ceases to amaze me.

The city centre itself is thriving. Physical investment, in both commercial property and infrastructure, is clear for all to see. Offices that lay vacant during and post the global financial crisis in 2008 are now leased and new commercial developments are underway or planned.

Titanic Quarter is starting to look like the 'artists impressions' of the early 2000s, with major employers such as CitiGroup and Titanic Belfast major anchors.

One piece of news which struck me when home was the incoming Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister's theme of 'global Belfast', building on the City Council's aim to make Belfast an 'open, inclusive and welcoming place to live and do business in - a city that is attractive to visitors and investors alike'.

This has since been supported by the launch of a new city brand, which - love it or hate it - is a key tool for cities in making their global presence known.

This is something which is all too familiar to me having spent the last four years working for Auckland's Economic Development and Promotional agency (ATEED), which is aiming to do just the same for Auckland.

Auckland is already described as New Zealand's global city. It is its most populous city, with over 1.6 million people, the commercial hub, home to a major international airport and port, and a diverse population with over 200 ethnicities.

Whilst it operates on a global level, with embedded international connections and a clear focus on the Asia-Pacific region, it is seeking, with ATEED a key actor, to further develop and leverage international linkages to enable trade, investment and visitation.

In the context of my work with ATEED in Auckland, I began to think how well Belfast as a city is placed, with its much smaller relative population and status, when compared to Auckland and other global cities, to achieve the city's global ambitions.

To set the context it is necessary to understand the importance of cities and their role in the world today.

The Brookings Institution, a leading US think tank, has led a programme of research around the role of cities and metropolitan areas in today's world.

They highlight that "the classic notion of a global city" has been upended and that the global economy is no longer "driven by a select few major financial centres like New York, London, and Tokyo".

Today, instead, members of a vast and complex "network of cities participate in international flows of goods, services, people, capital, and ideas, and thus make distinctive contributions to global growth and opportunity".

Belfast's role as the civic and commercial capital of Northern Ireland and the second largest city on the island of Ireland, give it a political and business prominence.

A strong industrial past, vibrant services sector and visitor economy, skilled labour force, strong academic and research institutions and a track record of attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), mean it has the attributes required to be a member of this global network of cities.

This combination of factors mean that Belfast is well placed to be the 'challenger' and develop towards being a 'global city'.

The city's global ambition, whilst bold and aspirational, is refreshing and just what Belfast needs in a difficult political environment.

The Lord Mayor gets this -across other global cities the role of mayors as catalytic leaders, setting a vision and leading the city towards that, are proving to be a key factor.

First impressions, from afar at least, would suggest she is up for the challenge and energised for the task.

  • John Lavery is a former manager of economic intelligence and planning with Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development (ATEED).In next week's Economy Watch, we hear from Danske Bank economist Conor Lambe

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