It’s back to basics for Belfast

IT IS a classic cliché in business to get carried away with the big brilliant new idea and then point at each other in a confused state with panicked refrains of ‘I thought you were doing that’ when the most obvious missing ingredient is pointed out.

It’s great entertainment when it comes to a group of wannabe Apprentices, but when it happens in our capital city, it’s hard to see a funny side.

This, I’m afraid, is where we’ve come to in Belfast city centre. It’s a confusing picture, with the Council, NI Executive Departments, Business Improvement Districts, and others all playing a role in running the city.

All of these organizations share a desire to see Belfast prosper, and there is no denying that the city is bursting with potential: the city deal, a bolder vision, inner city living plans, cultural plans, of tourism recovery: everyone thinks of ways to improve the place, and I have no doubt that there is already a team with a strategy working to achieve it.

However, in the excitement of looking at the potential gains these initiatives could bring (and they could be significant), I have to wonder if we’ve lost sight of the basics.

The city center is dirty. I am not alone in thinking this. Nearly two-thirds of respondents in a recent Belfast Chamber poll rated the cleanliness of the city center as very poor or poor. Seven out of ten indicated that it is worse than before the pandemic.

When it comes to safety, only 20% of those surveyed by Belfast Chamber felt that the city center was safe or very safe for staff, customers, visitors etc.

What is particularly worrying is that when respondents were asked if they were satisfied with the response they received if they had engaged with the police or council on anti-social behaviour, etc., 60 per cent were not.

Walking around the city center these days, it’s obvious that a cleanup is required. The streets are dirtier than usual, the graffiti is worse and, as some tourists recently commented to me, ‘there’s an edge to the place again’. Worrying. These things matter.

Much of the city’s ambition is focused on attracting investors, students, tourists and new residents, so perception matters.

A lot of money is spent on what we call ‘place branding’ and ‘place marketing’. A strong place brand helps a place compete in the global marketplace.

All those tourists and new inward investment that Belfast has been attracting for over a decade have been hard-earned through massive efforts to rebuild the city’s reputation and provide them with reasons to come here.

Those visitors and investors could have gone to so many other places, and we won them over.

Believe it or not, the garbage, etc. you can undo all that effort. A 2015 Journal of Marketing Management report found that litter affects people’s perception of place in a negative way, and in this regard, litter can be seen as a form of anti-place marketing.

If litter (and by inference other problems such as graffiti and dirty footpaths) is allowed to accumulate, as has happened in Belfast, this has a negative impact on the attitudes of visitors and residents.

At a minimum, this suggests that it’s irresponsible to look at venue marketing without considering more basic aspects of venue management, like cleaning up litter. At best, it may even suggest that a venue’s marketing budget could be better spent employing more people to clean. Now there is a thought.

It’s time to get back to basics about delivering services throughout the city.

Our towns and city centers have been hit hard during the pandemic and the path back to vitality is uncertain as we grapple with new issues like hybrid working.

As the Executive’s High Street Task Force report and recommendations noted in March of this year, “Our towns and villages need to regain and then retain their vitality, purpose and sense of belonging. The main streets of the future must be safe and attractive gathering points for entire communities, where people can live, work, shop, learn, do business, use public services and enjoy their leisure time… Significant intervention will be required to help our towns and villages. .”

It’s hard to disagree with any of that. While ‘significant intervention’ would be welcome, there’s no indication of what it looks like or where it’s coming from.

We know that despite all of Belfast’s impressive regeneration over the last 20 years, a sizeable city center population is the elusive missing ingredient to complete Belfast’s renaissance.

As our recent inquiry with Belfast Chamber found, if our city achieves the council’s Belfast Agenda target of 11,500 residential units in our city center by 2030, the prize is an additional spend on our economy of £165, 9 million per year.

This would greatly help retail, hospitality and leisure businesses located in the city center. The jackpot is that achieving these population goals could eliminate 4,090 tons of CO2 per year as a result of less travel, the same as planting approximately 205,000 trees per year.

There is no doubt of the opportunity that awaits Belfast. It would be a shame to lose it because we couldn’t clean up our act.

:: Andrew Webb is Chief Economist at Grant Thornton

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