3 October 2005
At the height of the Troubles, a common joke among businesspeople landing at Belfast International Airport was that the time difference between London and Belfast was 100 years. Since the terrorist ceasefires of the mid-1990s, the regeneration of the province, and Belfast in particular, has been nothing short of remarkable. Belfast can now justifiably take its place among the top regional cities in the UK.
In the last 10 years Belfast city centre has transformed itself from a ghost town, which was practically deserted outside normal business hours, to a confident, modern city. The sight of construction cranes across the skyline would strike a chord with anyone who witnessed the rebuilding of Berlin after the fall of the wall.
In fact, the last major explosion took place in Belfast city centre in late November 2004. Ironically, it attracted crowds of sightseers. This was the demolition of the former Churchill Building, which heralded the commencement of works on the new Victoria Square development. This is an exciting and eagerly-awaited £300m retail and leisure investment by Dutch company AM Development UK; it will be anchored by House of Fraser and is set to include a mixture of shops, restaurants and apartments. It is due to open in 2007. Other retail-led development schemes are proposed for the city centre, as indicated by the recent issue of development briefs by Social Development Minister David Hanson MP to the locally-based William Ewart Properties for the northeast quarter of the city centre, and to the Australian-owned Westfield Shoppingtowns (owner of the successful Castlecourt Shopping Centre) for the northwest quarter of the city centre.
One consequence of the Troubles is that the Northern Ireland economy has relied heavily on the public sector for employment and investment opportunities. Indeed, the new £50m Invest Northern Ireland headquarters building is nearing completion. But the economy is diversifying and looking again to its neglected waterfront for inspiration. At the start of the 20th century, Belfast's engineering and shipbuilding skills were second to none. The subsequent decline in these traditional industries left vast tracks of harbourlands desolate. Now these areas are being transformed, with a target date of March 2007 having been set by the UK Government for the regeneration of Laganside, which to date has included the extremely popular Odyssey Arena, the Gasworks Business Park, BT's Riverside Tower and many new office blocks housing the likes of Prudential, Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, Halifax and Northbrook Technology, as well as world-class hotel chains such as Hilton and Radisson.
Belfast is even starting to take pride in the fact that it was the birthplace of the ill-fated Titanic with the creation of the new 185-acre, mixed-use development known as the Titanic Quarter, which will raise the image of the prior shipyard where the White Star Liners RMS Titanic and its sister ship Olympic were built. Proposals for this area include offices, apartments, restaurants and cafés, while incorporating such cultural heritage sights as the Titanic and Olympic slipways. The development of the Titanic Quarter is being led by a company called Titanic Quarter, which is co-owned by Dublin-based Harcourt Developments and the Belfast Harbour Commissioners.
Northern Ireland's first science park has already opened at Titanic Quarter; it comprises the award-winning Innovation Centre, which provides research and development facilities and is occupied by the likes of Microsoft and Queen's University communication and information technology faculty.
The range of retail opportunities for consumers in Northern Ireland has expanded rapidly since the mid-1990s. Outside Belfast, Junction One, Northern Ireland's first outlet shopping centre with more than 50 individual outlets, opened close to Antrim in May 2004.
In June 2005, Environment Minister Lord Rooker announced his intention to grant planning permission for a major development at Sprucefield Park, near Lisburn, which is expected to include the John Lewis department store as anchor. This decision came despite a considerable number of objections - in particular, concerns were raised by traders in both Belfast and Lisburn city centres. Various judicial reviews of the minister's decision have been lodged by concerned parties. It will be interesting to see the impact of the final decision on the retail market.
Marks & Spencer is already open on an adjoining site and phase one of the Sprucefield Park development opened in late 2003, to be anchored by Sainsbury's and B&Q.
Despite the Troubles, the quality of life for many people in Northern Ireland has been one of the province's best-kept secrets. Workers in Northern Ireland are among the best-educated and most skilled in the marketplace, and adding to Northern Ireland's attraction to investors is the fact that this is among the fastest-growing regions in the UK and the incentives and support offered by government agencies are said to be generous.
A visitor to Northern Ireland arriving at either of Belfast's international airports today will no longer feel as though they are stepping back in time. A further vote of confidence is shown by the decision of the British Council of Shopping Centres (BCSC) to hold its annual conference in Belfast from 31 October to 2 November 2005. Richard Ennis, director of business banking at Ulster Bank, says: "As one of the main sponsors to the BCSC event, Ulster Bank is delighted with the huge interest it is generating. This conference, on its first visit to Belfast, represents the largest of its type to be held in Northern Ireland and it brings together the full range of professional teams across the entire UK retail sector. It also represents a unique opportunity for the local marketplace to demonstrate the growing strength of the retail offering in the province."
You can be certain that it will be nigh-on impossible to find a seat in any restaurant in the city when the 1,800 or so influential participants - including retailers, developers, landlords, agents and service providers - arrive to do business.
Hopes for the province's future now rest on the successful implementation of the peace process under the Good Friday Agreement. As was only to be expected, the movement towards lasting peace has been slow but steady, although last Monday (26 September) the announcement that the IRA had put all of its weapons beyond use is cause for guarded cheer. Now that the people of Northern Ireland are starting to feel the benefits of a growing economy, it looks as if the country is finally on its way to a peaceful and prosperous future.
Nemonie Fulton is an associate in the commercial proprty team at Cleaver Fulton Ranklin