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It’s time to make Belfast more people-centred

Simon Hamilton


Utilising space: Flaxx, a parklet assembled by the Linen Quarter BID in Belfast city centre

Utilising space: Flaxx, a parklet assembled by the Linen Quarter BID in Belfast city centre

Utilising space: Flaxx, a parklet assembled by the Linen Quarter BID in Belfast city centre

During the darkest days of the pandemic, we became all too familiar with images on our TV screens of a deserted Belfast city centre with shops, pubs, cafés and restaurants closed, offices empty and hardly a person on the streets.

Thankfully, those days appear to be very much in our rear-view mirror. It is great to see so many people back in Belfast, enjoying what the city has to offer.

On any given day, if you go to the front of City Hall, you’ll see locals out shopping mixing with tourists from far and wide being guided round the city or hopping on and off sightseeing buses. Life in Belfast is, almost, back to normal.

I say almost, because, in a lot of cases, those offices, whilst no longer empty, are not as full as they were pre-pandemic.

With T-shirts and trainers representing more of a work uniform than the traditional suit and tie in many of Belfast’s burgeoning tech sector businesses, it is hard to tell from a simple walk around the city centre at lunchtime if office workers have returned in large numbers.

It is evident, though, from our regular dialogue with members, that most companies have settled back into a new model of working that, on the whole, does not necessitate employees being at their desks from Monday to Friday.

From speaking to a variety of Belfast Chamber members operating in sectors such as law, accountancy, consulting, banking and fintech, a number of clear conclusions can be drawn.

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Very few firms, if any, are requiring staff to be back in the office five days a week. Most are requiring that teams are in the office at least two or three days a week, with many offering colleagues complete flexibility on which days.

Whilst the number of staff in the office on an average day appears to range from 20% to as high as 80%, the majority of office-based businesses seem to have a quarter to a third of staff at their desks on any given day.

There is also an understandable difference between roles, with some staff in more customer- or client-facing jobs in a lot more than others.

An almost constant trend, though, is people gravitating towards midweek days, such as Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, being the days when most people are in the office.

There are a number of ways to look at this evolving situation. On the one hand, there is obvious concern that continued reduced footfall will impact negatively on already hard-pressed businesses in retail and hospitality; on the other hand, if this is indeed close to the ‘new normal’, then it ought to be the catalyst for the kind of change in our city centre for which Belfast Chamber has been advocating for some time.

Belfast’s office market remains encouragingly active, with new Grade A offices such as City Quays 3, The Ewart, The Paper Exchange and Olympic House nearing completion.

Despite lots of commentary that the office was dead, lettings are happening in these and other locations.

What is especially interesting, though, is that when it comes to fit-outs, many firms are moving towards making their offices much more about encouraging collaboration and innovation rather than just row after row of desks.

Companies have realised that they need to make their offices somewhere that staff want to be — and the same principle should apply to our city. Belfast must become somewhere people want to be, rather than feel they have to be — and that goes for tourists and day-trippers every bit as much as it does for office workers.

In Belfast Chamber’s view, that means accelerating the reimagining of Belfast into a much more people-centred city with a mix of uses and purposes that extend beyond work into nightlife, culture, leisure and, perhaps most importantly, living.

We need more parklets and spaces like Linen Quarter BID’s Flaxx in Brunswick Street and better walking and cycling infrastructure that complement our unique blend of big-brand and independent retailers and excellent hospitality venues and combine to make Belfast the great place it is.

Creating more civic spaces that are as high quality as the offices being built and refurbished across Belfast will be central to our city’s future success and crucial to attracting and retaining the talent that will fuel Belfast’s economy and patronise those retail and hospitality businesses.

Even with the best will in the world, that kind of transformation takes time.

Belfast is investing heavily in large-scale infrastructure projects such as the Ulster University campus, the new Belfast Grand Central Station and the Belfast Stories destination hub, but we absolutely should be accelerating the change in the spaces in between those places that is already moving fast in cities such as Paris and Milan.

In the meantime, we must better look after the civic spaces that we already have.

Belfast is experiencing some well-publicised problems at present.

Concerted and coordinated action on the basics of cleanliness and safety in the short term are just as essential as making Belfast a more people-centred city in the long term.

Simon Hamilton is chief executive of Belfast Chamber