Posted on Friday 10 May 2019 by Ulster Business

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With more than two dozen buildings under way, three regionally significant developments given sign-off from Stormont, and almost a billion pounds of future masterplan schemes, John Mulgrew looks at what’s keeping the cranes up and the challenges ahead

It’s typical. You wait for one regionally significant planning application to be approved, and three turn up.

We’d been sitting around for the last two years, scratching our heads over the future of those developments which were sitting on the desks of senior civil servants, in lieu of any elected ministers.

And the green light for the £500m Belfast Power station, the £208m Transport Hub and £15m cruise ship terminal at Belfast Harbour will be the latest in a long line, and growing number, of large-scale developments in the city and beyond.

“Recent years have witnessed a welcome and long overdue resurgence in development across Belfast. From traditional development such as new, high-end office space to the multi-million investment in student accommodation to the massive growth in our hotel market, Belfast has seen a period of growth which has not only begun to transform the city’s economic fortunes and skyline, but also drastically enhance the opportunities for contractors of all sizes to deliver these works, employing thousands of people cumulatively as a result, David Fry, executive assistant director, Construction Employers Federation told Ulster Business.

“With the gradual evolution of the build-to-rent model for housing and other major schemes such as City Quays 3, Sirocco and Tribeca Belfast now starting to advance, there is unquestionably going to be a continuation of investment and opportunities for contractors over the coming years,” he said.

Take Ciaran and Stephen Devine’s Belfast Power station. It’s now a green-lit £500m gas-fired development on the Harbour estate, and at peak times could produce as much as half of Northern Ireland’s electricity.

That could mean 700 construction jobs being supported throughout the build – something which could get under way later this year, and be up-and-running by 2022.

Ciaran Devine has said the approval comes at a “critical time for Northern Ireland’s electricity industry, and the power station will play a central role in ensuring we have enough electricity to meet demand over the coming years”.

“The project also represents a significant shift towards low-carbon electricity generation in Northern Ireland. This is good news as we continue towards decarbonisation and it will ensure competitive costs, benefiting customers.” Belfast Power is working alongside Siemens Energy to design and operate the plant.

The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has also given approval to a new £15m cruise ship terminal at Belfast Harbour, aimed at boosting the city’s connectivity with ships and attractiveness as a destination.

Translink’s £208m Belfast Transport Hub will be another much-needed boost to the construction sector here. Boss Chris Conway says 400 jobs could be created during the build, as well as additional longer term investment and job opportunities.

“The scheme which will take around five years to complete is a further milestone in the transformation of public transport in Northern Ireland. It is hugely important as the main transport gateway, with rail, coach and bus connections to all parts of Northern Ireland and beyond.

“As a catalyst for the regeneration of the local area, the plans will play a key role in positioning Belfast as a modern, confident and progressive city supporting the City Council’s Belfast Agenda.

“We have seen strong passenger growth in recent years with a record 81 million passenger journeys last year, the highest in 20 years. This modern, innovative Transport Hub will allow us to build on this success, to meet growing customer demand, increase transport connectivity and enhance the customer experience as even more people choose to use public transport.”

Aside from these schemes, there’s almost a billion pounds earmarked for both Tribeca Belfast, formerly Royal Exchange, and Belfast Waterside – formerly Sirocco.

The former is centred around the redevelopment of much of the north of Belfast city centre, and is a move away from the previous retail-led scheme, to one focused on office space and apartments. Belfast Waterside will see the former Sirocco site transformed into a mixed-use development.

There’s also City Quays 3 – which will become the largest office building as part of Belfast Harbour’s masterplan.

The 16-storey scheme was given the sign-off by Stormont, with Farrans due to start work on the huge scheme, which will sit close to City Quays 1 and 2, and the AC Marriott hotel.

Elsewhere, PwC’s new home, Merchant Square is well under way, and Erskine House – which will house HMRC – is almost complete.

In the last few weeks, Co Tyrone developer McAleer & Rushe unveiled its plans for Norwich House, which could see an office and 174-bedroom hotel built.

But as the cranes shoot up and the bricks rise from the ground, there are barriers to this level of expansion in a city not designed for it.

One of the concerns was highlighted in last month’s Ulster Business – the future and modernisation of the water and sewage system across Belfast and beyond. There are concerns that no new connections could be made after 2021, without around £800m of investment in the city alone.

“For this (overall construction) investment to be realised at the speed that is envisaged in Belfast City Council’s draft Local Development Plan then a number of factors which slow that speed need to be addressed,” David Fry says.

“Chief among these, as we have said on the record many times in recent months, is the fact that, at current levels of investment, no new connections to Belfast’s existing wastewater treatment network will be possible within two years. This is unquestionably the biggest infrastructure challenge that we face and at its absolute core is the year-on-year policy of our collective political class to duck the big decisions.

“We and colleagues across the business community have consistently said that NI Water’s governance model is sub-optimal, that their financial settlement is inadequate and that many people have expectations in terms of what they can deliver for the funding that is available to them which are unrealistic.

“This needs to be resolved because, without it, then many of the lofty ambitions within Belfast’s, or any other local council’s development plan for that matter, are simply impossible”.


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