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Belfast Harbour Estate sale shouldn't be just about how much cash we can get, but what is the best option for our economy


Philip McDonagh is a financial analyst

Philip McDonagh is a financial analyst

Philip McDonagh is a financial analyst

Proposals to sell off some or all of the properties owned by Belfast Port seem to emerge every time the Government is stuck for some cash.

The last time, back in 2008, it was raised by Sir David Varney, whose infamous reports for Gordon Brown on economic development opportunities for Northern Ireland rubbished the idea of corporation tax-raising powers but did consider the possibility of the Executive being allowed to keep the proceeds from the privatisation of public assets, such as the Belfast Port, to support economic development.

The proposal to privatise the port raised some interest in the Executive at the time but was strongly resisted, as it had been on previous occasions, by the Harbour Commissioners who have a duty of care as owners of a Trust Port to maintain and develop the port.

Probably not many people realise that the area covered by the Harbour Estate is believed to account for almost 20% of the area of the city of Belfast.

From a development point of view it is a huge piece of real estate bang in the middle of the city.

Many cities would be delighted to have such an asset. However, its ownership and location also bring important responsibilities to ensure that it is used to deliver the maximum benefit for the Northern Ireland economy.

Of course, much of the Harbour Estate has already been developed, including the area of the port itself ,which is only a small proportion of the total site there.

Some of these other sites are occupied by tenants on long leases and then there are some newer developments, such as the Titanic Quarter and Holywood Exchange, which have been successfully developed in recent years.

The controversy has always been about the non-port lands, which the Harbour Commissioners have always reasonably argued are important to them because the income generated from the leases allows the commissioners to invest in the further development of the port.

Some would argue that they do not need to keep all the lands for this purpose.

So would a sell off of some of the non-port lands, or indeed of the port itself, to a major international port operator bring some greater economic benefit?

Supporters of this proposal would argue that the private sector will always find better and more lucrative ways of developing property, which will in turn provide more economic activity and jobs.

On the other hand the Harbour Commission has demonstrated considerable business acumen over its long history and has delivered not just a very successful port but also a steady transformation of its other properties for the benefit of the city and the region.

Furthermore, Government does not have a great record when it comes to asset sales in Northern Ireland and there is a risk that the property might be sold off too cheaply.

The legal arguments over the status of the commissioners and their duty of care for the assets of a Trust Port appear to be very strong.

The debate should not be around what we can raise from any property sales, but what is best for the Northern Ireland economy.

  • Philip McDonagh is a financial analyst

Belfast Telegraph