Belfast Telegraph

Merchant boss Bill Wolsey raps politicians' 'petty' squabbles as Belfast development plan revealed

By Rebecca Black

Leading hotelier Bill Wolsey has urged our politicians to put petty rows behind them.

The owner of the five-star Merchant was speaking at the launch of the Belfast Future City strategy yesterday.

Business and community leaders from across Northern Ireland heard Belfast City Council chief executive Suzanne Wylie describe the framework that will see £1bn invested over 15 years as a "great leap forward".

Mr Wolsey welcomed the strategy, and he received a spontaneous round of applause after he urged politicians to resolve their differences.

His call came 24 hours after the leaders of the four main churches issued a statement saying the ongoing impasse was hitting the vulnerable hardest.

"I am from Belfast, I love Belfast and I have a debt to repay to Belfast," Mr Wolsey told the conference. "All of this (the plan) depends on political stability.

"Everyone in this room understands and knows how dangerous it is when there is a vacuum.

"People in this country have given their vote time and time again for political parties.

"We want politicians to get on and improve the lives of all the people who live here. It is now time for politicians to put behind petty rows and repay that debt."

The Belfast Future City strategy envisages the BBC moving its headquarters to Royal Avenue, the construction of another major department store in the city centre, the building of the York Street interchange, and a new transport hub at Great Victoria Street.

The strategy follows on from the Future Belfast Report by internationally regarded town planner Joe Berridge last year.

Ms Wylie said Belfast had many things to offer but was under-performing economically and had too many people living in disadvantage.

But she claimed the city was on " the cusp of a great leap forward" and said: "We're creating an agenda to take us forward until 2030."

Ms Wylie told how the proposal was based on a number of core principles, including increasing the residential population in the city centre, managing the retail offering, creating more jobs, maximising tourism opportunities and creating more green and shared spaces.

She also announced a new £18.7m city centre fund to support private sector investment schemes, and a new social investment fund to support community initiatives.

Deputy Lord Mayor Guy Spence said since the new council and its extended powers had come into existence in the spring, it had wanted to expand on its leadership of the city.

And Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, said that Belfast desperately needed the new development strategy.

"The city centre has a 20% vacancy rate, which is nearly double the UK average, and urgent action is needed to address this challenge," he added

"Amongst the plan's eight core objectives, we are pleased it clearly identifies the need for more independent retailers in the city centre, alongside a new car parking strategy, a unified 'city app' and greater connectivity with neighbourhoods across the city."

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