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Belfast Harbour ready to play its part in getting NI’s economy back on track

Joe O’Neill

Joe O’Neill is Chief Executive of Belfast Harbour


Belfast Harbour

Belfast Harbour

Belfast Harbour

Covid-19 has made this a year like no other for both families and businesses and Belfast Harbour has not been immune to the disruption it has caused. The pandemic has tested the resilience of the port industry and that of our customers and their supply chains.

I believe that the sector has collectively risen to these challenges and it has been fantastic to see the determination of the wider port and transport community to successfully adjust and adapt.

Before the lock-down took effect in March, Belfast Harbour was reviewing a very strong year for trade. Tonnage handled through the port was above 24 million for the second year running, with very positive figures for containers, roll-on roll-off traffic and exports of a number of key products, including aggregates.

Based on these strong trading figures we reported a sound financial performance for the year, with turnover at £65.9m and operating profits at £30.6m, in line with our expectations.

We didn’t know at the start of the year just how important this strong financial footing would be, but it has enabled us to react quickly and step forward to play our part in helping to get the local economy back on track.

For over 400 years, Belfast Harbour has been the engine room of the local economy, playing a key role in keeping daily life in Northern Ireland moving and our critical role in keeping essential goods and supply chains flowing smoothly during the coronavirus crisis provides clear evidence that is still the beating heart of the City. The Port has continued to operate safely and effectively throughout the crisis and has remained open for business every day.

It was vital that we did remain open for business. More than two thirds of what comes in and out of Northern Ireland by sea comes through Belfast Harbour – from the food in our weekly shop, to the materials for household improvements, to the wide variety of products sold by our businesses and shipped around the world.

Trade dropped significantly during the early months of the lockdown but has now recovered in most sectors and we expect it will be down somewhere between 10% and 20% for the year. The worst impacts have been to our cruise, tourist and leisure activities which all but ceased operation with only one cruise ship calling in Belfast this year when we were expecting to receive 130. We are confident this business will return, but it may take some time.

Our Trust Port status requires us to reinvest all profits back into developing the port and harbour estate for the benefit of customers and wider economy. In the past 10 years we have invested over £290m in port infrastructure and wider estate regeneration and we have currently committed £115m in investment to strategically significant marine and estate projects in the next few years.

During 2019, just under £50m was invested in the port’s facilities, including upgrades the container terminal at Victoria Terminal 3, the ramp and facilities at the Belfast -Liverpool ferry terminal and the modernisation of our crane facilities, including a commitment to purchase two new £6.6m ship-to-shore cranes, which have now been delivered.

Our major construction contract for what will be the City’s largest Grade A office building , City Quays 3, is on schedule for completion at the end-2021 and construction is underway at Olympic House, our co-development project with Titanic Quarter Limited. Both projects will be important assets in the pursuit of Foreign Direct Investment opportunities as part of the post Covid recovery.

Discussions with prospective tenants lead us to believe there will be continued demand for office space despite the pandemic. Many current City Quays tenants already work a ‘hybrid’ workspace model which has an office at its core supported by varying levels of home working. They continue to see value in having high quality offices where their people can collaborate, share ideas and interact safely.

Filming at Belfast Harbour Studios also started up again over the summer and we received planning permission for our extension to the studio complex. While productions have been disrupted we still expect the demand for high quality original film and television content, driven by streaming services like Netflix, Disney +, Amazon Prime and Apple, will lead to increased demand for studio space.

Belfast Harbour’s long-term strategy to 2035 – A Port for Everyone –remains our blueprint for future growth. Our ambition is that Belfast becomes the best regional port in the world, augmenting our role as a gateway to the world for our importers and exporters, and a key hub for economic growth. This will include further developing Belfast Harbour as a key economic hub for the region by investing in marine infrastructure, smart technologies and green initiatives.

The strategy was developed with a number of risks and challenges in mind. We’ve added Covid-19 into the mix, alongside the other big issue of the moment - the impact of Brexit on trade into and from Northern Ireland.

As discussions continue between the UK government and Europe over the outworking of the NI Protocol, we remain ready to play our part in the implementation of new arrangements.

Belfast Harbour’s immediate goal is to work with other Top 100 companies to help get Northern Ireland’s economy back on track. 2021 will be challenging, but our sound finances, ambitious investment plans and our commitment to work with others for mutual success, provides a good platform from which to start.

Belfast Telegraph