Belfast’s turbulent history needs little introduction. It is a story as familiar as the Middle East Peace Process, and no less traumatic. It exacted an impossible toll on its residents and touched a diaspora from North America to the Antipodes. But unlike some seemingly intractable conflicts, this story has a happier ending. Notwithstanding the recent deadlock at Stormont, and the vexed question of customs boundaries post Brexit, Belfast has drawn on its rich cultural history to re-invent. Re-invention, not simply for its own sake. But re-invention to attract investment, deliver prosperity and draw on a strategic position as a bridge between the dynamism of the Republic of Ireland and the mass of population contained in the British Isles.
Illuminating success first requires an acknowledgement of obstacles. Belfast trails the pack in terms of its performance across a number of key indicators when compared with the other principal urban areas of the UK. Consider business and innovation. Its new business openings rank 59th out of 63 suggesting limited new commercial activity. At 1.23%, it has a high business churn rate and its business stock per 10,000 of the population places it at 42nd place. Looking to specific employment metrics, 5% of the population are claimants of support from the state, while the youth claimant count is stubbornly high. Combine this with the fact Belfast has the second highest percentage of its working age population with no formal qualifications, it is not difficult to understand why some investors have taken a first look but shied from a second.
This analysis, though, neglects improvement over the last two decades which scores Belfast favourably as compared with some of its peers. There has been a respectable 10% increase in Belfast business stock in the decade to 2018, and the overall employment rate has increased 2% in the same period. Similarly there has been a 9% increase in average weekly workplace earnings between 2009 and 2019, bucking a trend of stagnation observed in many other parts of the UK. This owes, at least in part, to the fact 40% of Belfast’s population has National Vocational Qualifications at Level 4 or above, indicating the application of sophisticated skills in a complex professional context. Belfast has quietly been levelling up by attracting talent, with the latest census suggesting around 11% of its population were born overseas. This is also manifest in the 18% of the population who are aged 18-29, placing it in the top quartile of the UK.
These positive attributes have been successfully marketed by the city to ensure Belfast is commercially competitive, not only in the UK but in Europe. It is quick to point to the high Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita at nearly £45,000, and its designation amongst the top five European mid-sized cities of the future. Of particular note is its creative cluster driven by Titanic Studios, JAM Media and Inlifesize. Fans of the HBO phenomenon Game of Thrones may be unaware the franchise originates in Belfast, still less digital industries contribute nearly 5.5% of Gross Value Add (GVA) to the region’s economy, meaning it has the second highest proportion of any area of the UK. The city has gradually been developing initiatives, such as Smart Belfast, which now mean it is considered a top ten city for connectivity, attracting the attention of property investors.
A poster child for the Belfast of the future is Giant’s Park. At 341 acres and located on the North Foreshore, it is the largest development site ever marketed in the city. Strategically placed adjacent to both Belfast Harbour and the main motorway network, it was reclaimed from Belfast Lough. 30 acres of this is designated for waste management and recycling facilities to foster the development of a Cleantech business sector. With fully serviced sites of between 2,000 and 120,000 square feet, in 2018, a £20 million investment into an anaerobic digestion facility was announced. With the movement toward a greener economy increasingly salient, it is one of the few sites of its scale and amenity anywhere in the UK. With Northern Ireland potentially set to enjoy a privileged relationship with both the UK and the European Union, it is gaining increased interest from major multinationals.
Giant’s Park is also providing a natural location for Belfast’s emerging role in television and film. The £20m Belfast Harbour Studios were opened in 2017 over a site of nearly seven acres. This consisted of two film studios of 33,000 square feet, two workshops of over 11,000 square feet and an office and production building of nearly 40,000 square feet. This investment has already been legitimised through the Superman prequel KRYPTON, commissioned in 2017. More interestingly, in February 2020, the Belfast Harbour Commissioners submitted a planning application to enable the expansion of the scheme through a £45m investment to deliver six further studios amounting to nearly 350,000 square feet. With extant provision and ambitious plans for the future of this sector, Propeterra analysts believe this could be an important cluster for European film and television in the midterm.
Cleantech and televisual industry were supplemented by a £27 million investment into a data centre to develop the digital economy in 2017. Combined, this represented a tangible expression of local government support for modern sectors, rather than a tokenistic, last minute embrace. The next stage of development at Giant’s Park, though, is no less exciting. Belfast City Council has agreed plans for the development of the residual land through £93m of investment into four new distinct zones or hubs. These will include a welcome hub, a leisure and sports innovation zone, an adventure and a theme park. Due for completion by 2026, this will help support a wide variety of employment and commercial usages, likely to sustain Belfast’s competitiveness in a European context.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, the eyes of the world have been on Northern Ireland’s capital. Most willed its success as one of the most improbable resolutions of modern history. Flippant decisions in Westminster have since complicated matters but have failed to derail fundamental progress. And although, political instability and coronavirus will likely conspire to constrain economic activity, the longer-term trajectory is undeniable. Belfast will always have a unique position bridging the UK with Europe. What’s more, it is highly educated, has a low cost of living and has invested in vital green and digital sectors of the future. For some, property investment in Belfast may seem a long game, but as history relates, fortune favours the brave.