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Belfast Harbour’s Joe O’Neill: Brexit, development and beyond

John Mulgrew sits down with Belfast Harbour chief executive Joe O’Neill to chat about 18 months in charge, a £250m investment, tripling its film studio business, further residential developments, Brexit, attracting new foreign investors and diversification

Joe O'Neill

Joe O’Neill’s role at the helm of Belfast Harbour will see him steer an ambitious course which will include a £250m investment, two new buildings, major port improvements and tripling the size of what will become the second largest film studio outside of Pinewood.

With more than 20 years working at the port, he took over as chief executive from Roy Adair last year, and has now unveiled a five year investment plan – aimed at bringing an additional 7,000 people into working at the estate – and an ambitious scheme reaching out to 2035.

“The core port investment is a big part, just under £100m in a range of port assets,” Joe told Ulster Business. “About £40m is in replacing our crane and handling fleet. That is a major investment, a once in a 25-year investment. That will bring in a degree of automation. New cranes will have an automated driving capacity. That brings safety benefits.”

Further investment at the port will include £15m in a new berth and ramp for two new Stena ferries, which will be introduced at the start of next year and 2021.

The £50m City Quays 3 building is now well under way, and the harbour’s largest to date, with around 250,000 sq ft playing host to around 2,000 workers. Joe says it’s been in discussions with a number of foreign direct investment (FDI) firms, but as a speculative development it needs to get out of the ground first.

Next for the commercial property element is City Quays 4 – a build-to-rent scheme with around 250 apartments. Joe says it hopes to submit planning at the start of next year and is also seeking an operator, with work complete by 2021.

“We are doing a lot of market research into that marketplace, and then an operator thereafter. There are quite a few developers. No one has delivered something of scale yet.”

Trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves, City Quays 5 and 6 – part of an initial masterplan – will be under review as to what those buildings will end up being. At this stage, it’s looking like further residential plans are in the pipeline.

“From market demand perspective and alignment with Belfast Agenda, we could probably bring forward further residential schemes,” he says.

He says work is also due to start soon on its joint venture with Titanic Quarter to build the Olympic House office development.

Joe also has now revealed it’s planning to spend £35m on tripling the size of its film studios, which are currently home to Warner Bros. The initial scheme represented a £22m investment.

“We will scale that up, treble scale size and increase the production size to just under 300,000 sq ft. That makes us the second largest studio outside of Pinewood.

“That’s been driven by NI Screen to become the largest media hub outside London. That’s a £35m investment.”

And moving on to the UK’s exit from the EU, Joe says “Brexit has not be cited to us as a reason why people are delaying” investment.

He said the £250m investment had a “Brexit lens” applied to it, but that it didn’t have a significant impact on the overall development plans.

Breaking down what leaving the EU means for an organisation which still counts its port activities as its core business, around 70% is cross-channel, UK trade – moving between ports in Scotland and England.

A further 16% comes from outside the EU, Joe says. “We have a lot of our coal and feed products coming from South America, where there are tried and trusted customs procedures in place.

“That leaves a small amount, about 12 % with other EU nations. Our port supply chain family say they should be able to manage any additional customs clearance complexities.”

Talk of a potential Irish Sea border could have some effect, though, with checks likely to be introduced.

“Yeah. It depends on the checks,” he says. “There is a lot of commentary around what can move freely. We are extensively involved in the various preparatory groups at government and regional level around that.”

Like most, anything that keeps trade as closely aligned to the current arrangements in place is the favourable choice for Joe.

“If there is to be any dip in the performance in the Northern Ireland economy, that would have an impact on our business,” Joe says.

Of course, he wants to see an Executive up and running, but says the harbour’s shorter term plans don’t need a minister in place for development or any sign off.

The harbour’s ambitious growth plans are boiled down to five areas: a growing port, smart port, green port, connected port and developing an economic waterfront for the city.

Longer term, connectivity is key and core to the harbour’s goals – bringing a closer and stronger connection between the estate, and the edge of the city centre, through public transport and cycling in particular.

Joe says public realm and ‘green’ space remains a key element of its development plans, and it’s not just about putting up grey, concrete buildings. He wants to create an “iconic waterfront” as part of the harbour.

And while Joe says the harbour’s bread and butter of goods coming and going, with tonnage sitting at around 24 million tonnes a year, it will see “modest” growth in the coming years.

But he says it’s looking at long term diversification in the types of goods being handled, as products such as oil and coal are declining industries – with a gradual shift towards a growing gas network.

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