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01.03.2021

Belfast has been building toward its ‘moment’ for 20 years, and Bywater’s Patrick O’Gorman’s glass is most definitely half full.

Here’s the thing. I have some unequivocally good feelings about Belfast right now. No ifs, no maybes. No have we got the best of both worlds or are we stuck in the middle quandaries. No strings attached at all.

The headlines might be agonising over the perceived anomalies in our half-in/half-out situation, but the underlying, longer-term trends just shout: now is your moment, Belfast. Grab it with both hands.

Photos of empty supermarket shelves, for example, make for good doomsday copy in the media. Yet, when Aodhan Connolly, Director of the NI Retail Consortium was asked, “why were supermarkets and businesses caught on the hop?” on BBC Ulster last week, he replied: “… there was less than 18 hours that we had to get ready for the new regulations coming in. (In fact) the average supermarket has between 40,000 and 50,000 product lines and there’s only ever been a couple of hundred that have been missing.”

For Bywater, Belfast is a ‘living lab, bursting with talent, pioneering research and innovation’. It’s the second fastest growing knowledge economy in the UK, according to InvestNI. In 2018 the FT’s financial intelligence strategy unit ranked Belfast second in its ‘Global Cities of the Future’, and in the top 10 for ‘Tech Cities of the Future’.

Those accolades pre-date both the final Brexit deal and the pandemic, but they were predicated on analysis of ‘cities with the most promising prospects for inward investment, economic development and business expansion’. These ‘prospects’ didn’t appear overnight. They were the result of 20 years of progress since the Good Friday Agreement, and there are plenty of cities, mayors, and regeneration units eyeing them up enviously.

In our view, staying in the EU single market for goods should be viewed not as some insoluble problem, but as one more competitive advantage. There are times when the business community has to sidestep the politics and adhere to the old adage, ‘it’s not a problem. It’s an opportunity in disguise’.

Think of it as buying shares at just the right moment.

As property developers who co-invest in only a handful of buildings, we look at a very broad range of factors – immediate, short, medium and long-term – to assess our opportunities and our risk. It’s true that Belfast is still more of a medium to long-term investment, but think of it as buying shares at just the right moment. Not long ago, I listened to a major institutional investor at an industry conference dismissing Belfast. Now they’ve done an about-turn.

At £23 per square foot in the city centre – compared to the likes of Glasgow (£32.50), Manchester (£37.50) and Birmingham (£37) – the average office rent is commercially attractive for developers, but also cheap enough for occupiers such as technology and near-shoring businesses in particular. Five years ago that figure was £15 – making new development barely viable, but at £23 it’s already a different prospect.  At Bywater, where our strategy is to look for a return over time, this new threshold means we can pursue and maintain our principles of quality, sustainability, place-making aspirations and innovation – the staples of regeneration. Here’s some reasons why I believe that figure could grow, and actually hit £30 by 2025.

Post-pandemic, there is bound to be a certain amount of re-thinking around city centres, office spaces and lifestyles. Unlike more developed cities, Belfast still has an element of blank canvas to it. There is a chance to be truly future-facing, and to build that new thinking into its many development spaces. With inspired design and sustainable methods, the city has an opportunity to take a holistic approach to development that works for everyone within Belfast.

And Belfast has the fundamentals in place: high quality-of-life ratings, a fast-growing knowledge economy, and one of the youngest age profiles in Europe. The city has access to a great, educated workforce stemming from outstanding educational institutions and a University (Queen’s) that is the UK’s number one – ahead of Oxford and Cambridge – for the ‘production of intellectual property and creation of commercially successful spin-outs’, according to a study by Octopus Ventures.

As a consequence, Belfast has a rising number of entrepreneurs and ‘the most profitable micro-businesses in the UK’ according to The Enterprise Research Centre. The Times of London reported on 7 February this year, that ‘investor interest is growing, with a significant rise in venture capital and private equity activity’, while the regional development agency has a £50m war-chest for co-investment and close to £1 billion has been committed via Belfast’s City Deal with the UK Government to invest in innovation and digital, boosting tourism, infrastructure and employability and skills.

We’ve already demonstrated our own confidence in Belfast with two development schemes: Smithfield Yard – a mixed-use campus development in the historic centre; and 35DP, an office refurbishment on Donegall Street. It’s a core principle of Bywater Properties that we ‘focus on projects and cities we believe in, where we can make a positive, sustainable impact’.

We genuinely believe in Belfast, and we are committed to leading on further regeneration projects in the city. If we express frustration that the current narrative assumes a foot in both camps is a bad thing, it’s not to underplay historic differences, but to highlight the opportunity it represents for everyone. If Northern Ireland can pull off the trick of maintaining good relations with all three of the UK, the EU and the US then there is reason to believe that the hard work of the last 20 years will bear a lot of fruit in the years to come.

POG