‘King’s Hall health park is one of a kind in UK and Europe’
Emma Deighan speaks to David Burrows, chief executive of Benmore Group
David Burrows, chief executive of Benmore Group, is well-positioned to be the driving force behind the UK's, if not Europe's, biggest health care village planned for south Belfast.
The chief of the investment property firm grew up within walking distance of The King's Hall site, which will be the home of a new £100m health and wellbeing park that will house GP practices, retirement homes and nursing folds as well as leisure facilities that include a hotel, gym and retail outlets.
He's also the son of a midwife and his father was a cancer consultant, while his sister is a dietitian and he's an avid supporter of the NHS which this complex is geared towards.
"I grew up just off Balmoral Avenue, where my parents still live, so I know the site really well and went to the Balmoral Show every year. It's nice to have that connection to it," says the former Methodist College student.
"And healthcare has always been in my family so I have those links. I think the care that the NHS provides is excellent. It gets a lot of criticism but, realistically, what we can avail of is great."
David studied estate management in England and worked in Birmingham and London before returning home in 1994 when he joined Osborne King.
"I think I would view that as the best decision I've ever made," he says. "To operate in your own country and own home is great and when you've lived in a big city like London you gain appreciation of the amenity you have on your doorstep."
And the amenity he and his team are working to provide is set to revolutionise our healthcare provisions. But David is quick to point out that because Benmore is a private developer, this grand development, which will provide over 500 jobs, is not for private healthcare. The main focus is rehousing already established GPs to take the weight off hospitals.
"The project will also complement the Government's Transforming Your Care policy, making Benmore effectively a private facilitator creating the capital infrastructure that will speed up the realisation of these plans," says David.
Asked if it's the way forward for the NHS - to have private developers take the work off their hands - David responds: "I think there is a balance and there is a lot to be done, and I don't think that one sector can do that effectively but what it does do is speed up change and I think that a private company like us can help speed that up."
When the King's Hall site went up for sale, Benmore Group - which is behind projects including Westwood Retail Park in west Belfast, The Orchard in east Belfast and Adelaide Exchange - went in for the kill with the health park in mind.
"Its unusual for a 16-acre site to become available in this kind of location. It's proximate nature to hospitals and two GP clinics, and its great transport links, all present a unique opportunity."
At present the firm is in talks with two GP practices to move into the iconic King's Hall building. It is also in discussions with hoteliers and evaluating which name would work best at the scheme and David foresees the 156-room hotel attracting both business guests as well as health tourists.
King's Hall Health and Wellbeing Park will also address "outdated" housing choices for the over-55s. "I think we are currently under-serving that population. Once retired and when the kids move away, this generation wants better options of places and life.
"The Health and Wellbeing Park is truly innovative," continued David. "We're confident there's nothing like it in the UK, and we don't think there is anything like it in Europe."
Another goal for the scheme is to address residential care for the elderly. "They're isolated but in here they would be integrated into this community and research shows that when elderly people live in an interactive space, it can delay the onset of dementia."
David says, upon completion, the scheme will "create a buzz and give the people working in healthcare, the patients, their carers and their families a better environment".
The King's Hall will be the focus of two GP practices which will relocate from their current south Belfast addresses, as well as the site for diagnosis and ultrasound provisions. It will be restored to its former glory and the candy pink overcoat will become a distant memory.
"We will be putting more floor space into it too and our vision is to put the roof back in and effectively open it up again. It's a listed building and I think everyone in NI has a connection to it in some way so we would like to integrate some of that history back in."
David's association with the King's Hall building dates back to his youth, when he attended a pop concert, and many people will recall some of the world's greatest music icons singing there, including The Beatles, as well as stars of the sports world.
When David isn't working, he can be found cycling around the city or travelling to the Alps with his bike in tow. A father to two teenagers, his daughter is in her first year at Queen's University, Belfast, studying human biology while his son is in lower sixth year at school.
Construction work is due to begin on site in 2019, with completion of the main King's Hall project expected in 2020. And the recent influx of redundancies in the building trade poses no concerns for David: "That sector does seem to be going through changes but there is still a large number of contractors here and when it comes to tender, I don't think we will have a problem," he says.