We need to use our city before we lose it

Andrew Webb
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I’ve spent as much time as possible in our city centre office over the last while. The lure of the pre-Christmas buzz in the city centre’s shops, restaurants, and pubs trumped the working from home option for me.

I got a sense that there wasn’t the same level of city centre footfall this year, something that confirms the challenge that Belfast City Centre faces to achieve its potential.

I did hear one of our highest profile retailers, Chris Suitor, hit out at the ‘dire’ Christmas lights this year. He noted how retailers rely on what happens in December to boost their year and to carry them through the inevitable leaner period of January to March.

A lack of imagination and effort was levelled at our city managers with regards to lights and other events, with reference given to the success of previous years when a massive effort was made to ‘animate’ the city centre after devastation brought about by the Primark building fire. 

I’m on board with the idea that city centre managers could possibly do more. I write ‘city managers’ because this is not just a council matter. Many of our businesses are in Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and pay an extra levy on rates for what should be additional services.

I am on record as wondering if these BIDs have served their purpose, but they are formed by a vote amongst ratepayers and do all have strong mandates to deliver on their business plans. Perhaps a fresh conversation is needed to make sure the businesses that pay the levies are getting impactful additional services.

Belfast’s issues extend well beyond a perceived lack of effort or imagination around Christmas lighting.

The city centre has still not recovered to pre-Covid levels of performance and broader issues such as stalled regeneration schemes, poor public realm, limited city centre living, decline of certain high street retailers, lack of targeted regeneration funding programmes, severance with surrounding communities, and a range of social issues have been cited to councillors as factors that are holding the city back.

On the bright side, there’s a plan. The Future City Centre (FCC) Programme was revised, refreshed, and adopted by councillors late last year.  

The FCC Programme seeks to deliver ‘a vibrant, unique, and thriving place where people spend time, live, work, visit, and invest.’ Delivering this vision involves much activity to provide hope.

On the regeneration side, increasing city centre living, addressing vacancy levels, preserving our built heritage, and delivering on major schemes are key call outs.

Other themes are: Business and investment; Animation and Distinctive offering; Clean, Green, Inclusive and Safe; and Vulnerability, a theme that recognises challenges around homelessness, rough sleeping, and drugs.

Making the city an attractive destination is high on the agenda of the FCC Programme. 2024’s Year of Culture and a whole host of other initiatives around the night-time economy and food and drink tourism should offer many reasons to visit.

The overarching challenge does however remain – footfall in the city centre remains below 2019 levels. Council’s measurement on footfall suggests footfall numbers in 2023 are around half a million per month or so below 2019. This really matters.

The city centre is the regional centre for commerce, culture, tourism, recreation, entertainment, learning, and employment, contributing £47 million in non-domestic district rates (which represents 27% of all Belfast City Council's rates income).

City centre jobs represent about a third of all Belfast jobs and almost one in ten of all jobs in Northern Ireland. With many still working from home, there is an obvious downside to Belfast’s retailers who would have enjoyed passing trade.

As we know from many high street bank branch closures – when we don’t use it, we lose it, and then we cry about it. Let’s not make the same mistake with our city centre.

There is a plan to make the place thrive. That plan needs us to get involved and use the city centre more.