Belfast Telegraph

How to keep Northern Ireland moving forward

It is vital to have a functioning Stormont if we want to attract investment
It is vital to have a functioning Stormont if we want to attract investment

By Conor Devine, Founding Partner, Clearpath and Equity Experts

On April 30, 2010, one of the main headlines in the Belfast Telegraph read 'How to keep Northern Ireland moving forward'.

Important to remember that at that time, devolution was in play and Northern Ireland had a government in place.

It was far from perfect, but for outsiders looking in, Northern Ireland would appear to have ticked many of the boxes, given all the positive things that have happened here in the last 20 years.

Unfortunately we now find ourselves in a situation where we have had no local government for over two years and billions of pounds of investment projects remain firmly on hold.

In May, I was invited to the NI Commercial Property Review in Ulster University. The review is produced by MSCI and UU with support from Belfast City Council, Belfast Harbour, major commercial estate agents and RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors).

We learned that the commercial property market in NI posted a surprisingly dismal total return of 1.7% in 2018, down from 8.0% from the year before. It is important to add that the NI trend in this regard followed the rest of the UK market which continues to be volatile given the huge uncertainty around Brexit.

The data produced was excellent, giving detail around returns on the commercial office market alongside retail and industrial markets.

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The big takeaway from the morning was the continued challenge facing the retail investment market and our high streets, which experienced negative capital growth of some -7.4%, to some extent offset by the performance of the industrial and other property sectors which delivered returns of 7.8% and 9.2% respectively.

We were able to ascertain how the local investment market was performing and what the future might hold for Northern Ireland and its economy. However, we cannot ignore one of the most damaging issues for Northern Ireland right now, which is the fact we have no government in place.

In the last few years we have seen quite a few mostly international manufacturing businesses decide to close up shop locally, preferring to relocate and invest in other parts of the world. Thousands of jobs have been lost and many households are now under huge financial duress as a result, right across the province.

Daily I speak with investors, developers, funders and private equity holders. In these conversations it is absolutely clear that it is essential we find a way to get our local government back up and running if we are to send any kind of positive message to the world.

One of the challenges facing the local real estate development world in Northern Ireland is access to development finance.

If we are to remain competitive with the cities right across Europe and compete for jobs and foreign direct investment, we need to continue to provide the world class facilities that will continue to entice investors and employers to come here.

If you take a run down to Titanic Quarter anytime soon, you will see what I am talking about. It is home to some of the world's biggest companies including Citi Bank who employ 2,600 people and recently bought their own building for some £34m.

This acquisition by Citi demonstrates what can be achieved with ambition, drive, determination and investment, which attracts major international companies who will not only come for 10 to 15 years, but will stay for generations.

Locally, the Harbour Commissioners and Belfast City Council are doing some tremendous work in terms of investing and growing our local property market along with a number of other developers.

But if we could get more people together to buy into this idea and commit, this would help build the real estate we need if we are to continue to attract world-class employers to our shores.

We are seeing some of this already in Belfast with the city council collaborating with some local developers by way of joint ventures, but I do feel we are only scratching the surface.

Key to all of this is having political stability and a return to Stormont.

If any politician happens to be reading this article why not ask yourself - where will we be in 10 years' time?

To keep NI moving forward we require empathy, bravery, leadership and imagination to make decisions that will benefit all of our people, in particular our economy.

Belfast Telegraph