Posted on Friday 20 July 2018 by John Mulgrew
Breakfasteer: Suzanne Wylie, chief executive, Belfast City Council
Venue: The Bobbin, Belfast City Hall
Suzanne Wylie managed to squeeze in an early morning cappuccino ahead of what was already looking like another busy day for the boss of a public sector body boasting numbers equivalent to a large international manufacturer.
On an already scorching morning, Belfast City Hall’s very own Bobbin cafe was host to a chat and coffee about the council chief’s plans, the current state of play, and what’s coming down the road.
For Suzanne, while much has changed in terms of the politics, her workplace hasn’t.
She’s essentially a lifer at the council, starting off as an environmental health officer back in 1988.
“I think it was quite a good grounding. You visited all parts of the city, all parts of life. Then I worked my way through different jobs in the organisation.”
Next month Suzanne marks four years in the top role.
“It’s been a real roller-coaster of a job,” she told Ulster Business.
“It’s been a real privileged position to be in. You are effectively, on behalf of 60 councillors, running a city.”
It’s running a city, but given the scale and size of the council and Belfast’s resurgence and growth in tourism and infrastructure, it’s also very much a business.
The council is far from shying away from its pro-business attitude, attending the lavish MIPIM commercial property event in Cannes over the last couple of years.
Suzanne was among the council delegation, which was part-funded and included some of Northern Ireland’s biggest developers.
“We want to make sure there is the right balance between the city centre places to live, the economy, jobs for local people, and the access to those opportunities,” she said.
Now, I should say at this stage, unlike last month, we’re back to coffee and no breakfast. This is a mutual decision, in this case, to be fair.
The fuel needed to get Ulster Business off the ground each morning is still firmly rooted in a couple of Nespresso pods (Kazaar, in case you were wondering) and a healthy helping throughout the day. Right, back to business.
“As a city, we have been held back for too long,” Suzanne said.
“In terms of regeneration, we still have large, brownfield sites – dereliction in our city centre, when we shouldn’t have that at all. If the private sector isn’t able to do that, then I believe the public sector should do more to incentivise that.”
Some of the major works under way include the council’s joint venture with Tyrone developer McAleer & Rushe, to turn the former Belfast Telegraph building into a large mixed-use scheme.
Elsewhere, the former Sirocco site is earmarked for a £400m development, while the first phase of Royal Exchange in the city centre, has been approved.
Next on the cards for Suzanne is trying to land a ‘city deal’, which could give potentially hundreds of millions of pounds from Westminster pumped into Belfast development.
Could that mean another Titanic Belfast, or comparable tourist attraction? According to Suzanne, that’s part of the plan.
“If we get this it will be in agreement with Westminster,” Suzanne said.
“There would be a 10-year capital build programme. We would be planning to do more tourist facilities, including a big new visitor attraction in Belfast on a similar scale to Titanic Belfast.”
Can it all be done without devolution?
“That’s something that the Secretary of State is looking at… if there is a will, there is a way the Secretary of State could do something, but we would much rather have devolution.”
And there are still “legacy” issues to contend with, as far as some of the challenges the council is faced with.
“Every time we go in to summer season, council is involved in trying to get us to a better place in terms of legacy issues,” she says.
“In terms of ensuring we have enough money, to make sure we make the place culturally vibrant, there is always a challenge around that.”
On the area of a significant revamping of the planning system in Belfast, something this editor is certainly familiar with, Suzanne says it’s becoming more joined-up with a long-term vision.
“Getting the whole system working really effectively, there is still a bit of work to do there.”
And after that concise and caffeine-fuelled chat, it’s the start of another day for Suzanne, and back in to the morning sun for this editor.