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Belfast Harbour 'may delay' some schemes hit by Covid-19 but continuing £116m investment

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Freight passing though Belfast Harbour.

Freight passing though Belfast Harbour.

Freight passing though Belfast Harbour.

Belfast Harbour may delay some of its projects impacted by Covid-19 and its once burgeoning cruise business is now on ice but says it’s continuing with £116m of investment in major office space and other developments.

The Harbour saw a fall in its turnover in 2019, down 4% to £65.9m, while pre-tax profits fell from £38.6m to £31.6m. Much of that fall was due to the ending of an off-shore wind deal with Orsted.

But it says it has been “much less affected” by the impact of coronavirus. The Harbour’s business involving hotel, tourism, cruise ships and cargo has been hit by the virus.

In terms of trade, volumes were around 25% at the start of Covid-19, but according to chairman David Dobbin, that has now softened to around 9-10%.

But additional ferry services will soon now be restored across both Stena Line and P&O, it says.

However, chief executive Joe O’Neill says there will be “no cruise business this year” with levels not likely to return for two or three years.

The Harbour says it is still looking at a co-developer for its buy-to-let City Quays 4 project, but has gone through some setback.

Work is still under way on its major City Quays 3 office building, but the completion date may not be pushed back until the start of 2022.

The last remaining space in the already finished City Quays 2 building has now been filled.

The Harbour has also planned to build a new additional film studio complex at its North Foreshore site, which is now in planning. But Mr O’Neill says the Harbour will take a “market-based approach to the phasing of that development”.

The Harbour says some firms which are tenants have been impacted by the slowdown post-lockdown but that others have weathered the storm.

According to Mr Dobbin, one financial firm is now seeking to expand its back office activity as the city.

Looking at trade, around 24 million tonnes of cargo passing through the port. Ferry passenger numbers exceeded 1.5 million for the third year in a row, there were a record number of freight vehicles – up 4% to 542,000.

“The full implications of the pandemic on trade and our local economy are significant and still unfolding,” Mr Dobbin said. “So far trade through Belfast Port has proved remarkably resilient. Early figures for the March to May period show trade volumes down 20-25% on normal but in recent weeks throughput is running around 10% down on last year. The worst impacts have been in our cruise, tourist and leisure activities which have all but ceased during the crisis.

“The scale of the challenge to get the economy back to pre-crisis levels and to recover our tourist and leisure trade is immense. However, Belfast Harbour’s sound financial position and ambitious investment plans will allow us to play a key role in helping drive the local recovery, working with our customers and key partners to get the economy back on track. I want to assure everyone that we are open for business, our major construction contracts are continuing and we actively pursuing business opportunities.”

And Mr O’Neill said: “Key to the delivery of our ambitious plans is close collaboration with our customers such as Stena Line and our partnerships including those with Belfast City Council, Titanic Quarter Limited, our two Universities, Catalyst, Northern Ireland Screen, Odyssey Trust, Tourism NI, Visit Belfast and the Department of Infrastructure.

“As society and the economy recover from the disruption and uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, this partnership approach will be more important than ever to creating a vibrant economy with long-term opportunities for good jobs and a better way of life for our citizens.”

Ulster Business