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Work still required for Belfast to really become a thriving regional capital

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22nd March 2022

Work still required for Belfast to really become a thriving regional capital

MCE managing director, Paul McErlean, writes in his monthly Irish News column...

"When I think about the effects of the pandemic on business, I tend to split it into Covid Year 1 (2020) and Covid Year 2 (2021). We closed the doors of our office after St Patrick’s Day in 2020 and only a week or two later, we put seven of our team on furlough - about one third of our total staff.

In April and May of that year, we took the single biggest monthly hits to revenues we had ever taken - our exposure to the retail and hospitality sectors meaning that business from those sectors just simply stopped. Our morale was low, and business was down and one of our biggest fixed expenses, our nice office in Belfast city centre, was lying empty and costing us money.

When we signed our current lease in 2012, the economy was still feeling the effects of the global financial crisis. There were very few significant office lettings in Belfast that year and at the time, it felt a bit counter intuitive to be doing it. Ten years later, our lease is coming to an end again and we’re faced with a big decision about the future of our business.

In Covid Year 1, when I thought about the end of the lease this year, I was certain I’d never be signing another office lease again. I was thinking I’d be keeping things flexible, using serviced offices, and not tying the business down to a long-term commitment. As we moved into Covid Year 2 having come out of lockdown and gone back into it again, the value of the office workplace was clearer, and my mind was changing about a new lease. In the last couple of months, as we’ve moved clear of the pandemic, we have decided to invest in a new office and sign a new long-term lease.

It’s been an interesting business journey to get to that decision though in the end, it’s been easy enough because service businesses like ours depend on high quality people and those people thrive and grow, at least in part, because of interactions with their colleagues and clients.

While those interactions have been managed well enough by digital means during the pandemic, I don’t think anybody can doubt the value of actual face-to-face interaction particularly in a conducive environment such as a good quality, well-located office.

And that brings me to the location. It’s always been my view that a business like ours must be in Belfast city centre. The pandemic has made the economic life of the city centre very challenging over the last two years and the fact that many workers, particularly in the public sector, have not returned to their offices yet means that the revenues of the restaurants, shops and other ancillary services are still well short of pre-pandemic levels.

Having said that, investment in the city centre has continued, even during the pandemic, when two of the most impressive new offices anywhere in these islands have been completed, one occupied by PwC at Merchant’s Square and the other to be occupied after fit out by Deloitte at The Ewart on Bedford Street.

To get a tour of Merchant Square, as I was lucky enough to get from PwC’s Paul Terrington, is to look at the future of workspace; the word ‘office’ just doesn’t cover what’s been created there. And while I haven’t been inside The Ewart yet, its restoration of one of Belfast’s most beautiful Victorian office buildings, dating back to 1869, already makes it special and something to be very proud of.

While those two investments have been hugely significant for the city centre, an awful lot of work is still required for Belfast to really establish itself as a thriving regional capital and second city of this island.

One piece of very good news for the city came last week though with the appointment of John Walsh as the new chief executive of Belfast City Council. The nature of our governance makes it pretty challenging to get major projects delivered in Belfast. Often, the Departments for Communities, Infrastructure, Justice and Economy all might have a role, alongside the Council and the private sector, in delivering on a project or a strategy.

What is often needed in those circumstances is a smart, sensible and experienced hand to guide and often cajole the various strands in the right direction. The politics must be minded too, there is a delicate political balance in city hall, and it often can play out what is going on at Stormont or elsewhere.

Articulating the vision and then keeping everybody informed and on board is one of John Walsh’s great leadership skills, honed over the last 30 years in Council, most recently as the City Solicitor and one of the Council’s key directors.

John is a proud Belfast man, growing up in the mixed Ormeau Road area; he loves the city and its people, and I’ve seen him have a chat and a laugh with just about everybody in City Hall, from the security people to the mayor.

None of it is ever put on, he is always genuine, and people know that and appreciate it, in my opinion. I’ve also seen and heard him fulfil the role of ambassador for the city – often with many millions of pounds of investment at stake. He has always put the case for Belfast across very effectively and honestly also.

So, while John has a big in-tray, with the city centre being one of his stated priorities, he has the ability and as he said himself on appointment, the opportunity, to push Belfast forward.

I wish him all the best as he starts his role. And if we sign our new lease in the coming months on a new office in Linen Hall Street, as we are likely to do, he’ll have us as a neighbour too!"