Belfast gets £1bn City Deal - How Would You Spend It?

Belfast Receives £1bn in New City Deal


Where would you spend £1bn in Belfast

Where would you spend £1bn in Belfast

What have a billion pounds and buses got in common? You wait for ages and then two come along at once. Following on from £1bn promised to NI earlier this year, the UK Chancellor announced yesterday that Belfast is to get a £1bn City Deal of its own. This follows other major cities in the UK. In July, Edinburgh signed a similar deal that is expected to create 21,000 jobs over 15 years. If you had control of £1bn, how would you spend it in Belfast… we took a completely fresh look at Belfast and outline five suggestions:


1. Crumlin Road – Promoting Belfast’s Unique History

Crumlin Gaol is a success – the number 1 thing to do in Belfast according to tripadvisor. Its owners are also making waves with the re-opened Portaferry Aquarium too. After decades of neglect the Crumlin Road Court House is to be transformed into a new hotel. So, what else needs done?

Belfast is famous world-wide for the Troubles and increasingly the Titanic. Whilst the Titanic is the ‘go-to-brand’ of the moment, approximately half of the 680,000 visitors to the Titanic Centre allegedly don’t go on into Belfast. Whilst the global-award-winning visitor centre brings in numbers (top visitor attraction in NI) and reviews (#3 of Things to Do in Belfast, tripadvisor). Has it partially succumbed to tick-box tourism? Like many other notable global visitor attractions… bus people in, bus them out. Tick.

During public consultations, I repeatedly hear villages seeking to attract and retain visitors. Not just snap a selfie and drive through. I heard a tale of one major tourism attraction in NI that switched from seeking international bus tours to targeting ‘domestic’ tourists. The rationale being that domestic tourists were more likely to be families who would take food in the restaurant, buy a memento in the shop and visit other places as part of their day out. Also, they’d be more likely to stay overnight in the area and/or bring visitors. This was considered better for the attraction and the local economy. See, stay and spend.

25 years ago, we had a German exchange student staying with us. All he wanted to do was ‘to see the gangsters’. We didn’t know how to facilitate that. Never mind the ethical minefield should his wish be attainable. But we did the next best thing and showed him round the murals (City Tours are the #2 thing to do in Belfast according to tripadvisor).

Read any review of a visit to Belfast, especially day or weekend city breaks and the person will often note the murals as a must see and something that will stay with them for a long time. Whether you agree or not with them, like them or dislike them. They are unique, loud, outside and represent aspects of the Troubles. Black Taxi Tours and others can add context and bring stories to life better than any information board or website.

Before the Troubles Belfast was famous for its Linen mills and Tobacco industry. NI doesn’t have a museum to the Troubles or its Belfast specific history. A formal museum wouldn’t be needed but what if…. What if, Ewarts Mill on the Crumlin Road could be converted (like the Titanic Centre) to show the history of Belfast’s formidable core industries. The bottom floors could open to the latest creative industries and niche exporters – with regular tours, markets, workshops and events (e.g. Conway Mill). Belfast old and new.

People could use it as a base to visit North & West Belfast were much of the Troubles within Belfast were concentrated. They could see Peace Walls, murals and follow community led walking tours (e.g. following trend in responsive and responsible tourism). Stopping in and supporting local business. Rather than passing in a large tour bus.

Invest in the Gaol, the Courthouse, the streets, mills and murals. Grassroots, ground-level tourism. Tie it all in to the things visitors like most in Belfast. People would visit the area, learn about the history, eat in local shops, see local business and stay at the hotel (or other venues e.g. local AirBnBs). It would allow a full range of packages from 1hr visit to the museum or gaol, to 3hr walking tour or full day and over-night stay. People coming to, learning about, staying in and spending money in the area. Belfast gains in every way.



2. Indoor Sporting Event Centre – European Centre of Excellence

Belfast doesn’t have an elite level stadium. The National Stadium and Kingspan are excellent venues. Perfect for the level of competition and spectator expectations. If and when Casement gets sorted, it will have less than 35,000. Many unseated. However, a major European Football or Rugby final (or semi-final) is unlikely ever to take place in Belfast. There are so many 50,000 plus all-seater state-of-the-art stadiums in these islands, never mind Europe. Dublin has two, London has four with two more to come (Tottenham and Chelsea FC, whose new stadiums are expected to cost between £800m and £1bn. Each).

Belfast has invested £100m+ in its leisure programme. But what about a large indoor sports venue. There is only one 12 court size hall in NI (Lisburn Racquets Club) and it is regularly filled in the evening and weekends. Ireland has the National Indoor Arena at the National Sports Campus. Scotland has the Oriam (Scotland’s Sports High Performance Centre). Both opening in 2016 at a cost of approximately £33m. [NB Sports halls are measured in terms of badminton courts i.e. a 3-court hall would be able to accommodate 3 badminton courts]

There are few, if any, halls in the UK that could accommodate 12 courts with spectator seating. Especially with the required heights, run-offs and media facilities etc required to run international competitions. In addition to the main hall, training hall(s), training rooms, physio/medical rooms, coaching and education class areas, tv analysis rooms, media rooms etc would also be needed. The halls would be perfect for testing performance analysis and for live-streaming events. NI companies Performa Sports and STATSports, the worlds leading GPS player tracking company could advise.

Increasingly clubs and governing bodies need to make money from admissions and live-streaming their events on TV. Enabling larger audiences helps sports gain valuable exposure. Combining large class-rooms side by side to halls with analysis would be ideal for the full spectrum of coaching courses. Externally the facility could have a 3G pitch and/or athletics track to augment its offering. Future proofing would be addressed through flexible spaces, smart design and surplus storage space, 

The hard-wood court floor could be covered by a roll-on 2G carpet (e.g. Meadowbank Sports Arena, Magherafelt). This would allow the hall to be subdivided and/or used for tennis; hockey; indoor athletics, football, GAA and tag-rugby (training). Private hire indoor 5-a-side could be a significant regular revenue raiser.  The training hall or main hall could also be used for international volleyball, basketball, netball and martial arts.

It could be the only place in the UK that could meet the highest international competition event standards in multiple sports. Belfast has had many European and world level champions in martial arts (e.g. Judo, Kick-Boxing). This facility would allow them train and compete at the highest level in Belfast. A top-tier venue could enable a premier UK, Irish or European sports team or similar franchise to locate in Belfast. Similar to the establishment of the Belfast Giants.

Belfast excels at boxing on the international stage, punching well above its weight. You could base a boxing centre of excellence there. A 25 pool could also be a possibility. This could aid recovery, physiotherapy and be used for water-polo (another sport Belfast excels at). In sporting terms, the facility could host, train and develop hundreds of coaches and elite athletes, as well as thousands of competitors.

Any proposed development would need to be matched by an investment in quality coaching and training. High quality coaching will not only benefit local teams and volunteers, but also attract aspiring world class athletes who are increasingly mobile. In addition, the Sports Institute for Northern Ireland’s future at Jordanstown is uncertain. It would be well placed to operate from such a facility.

The Indoor Event Centre - which could be situated in Belfast Harbour Estate, North Shore or elsewhere - could also operate occasionally as a conference venue on its own and/or as compliment to the Titanic Conference Centre. With the Titanic Visitor Centre, Conference Centre and SSE Arena complex, it could enable sufficient critical mass for the Tier 1 global conferences e.g. Mobile World Conference or Web Summit. Both events would be closely aligned to the work at Catalyst (formerly NI Science Park) and nearby Universities.

A venue that would be the top indoor elite competition venue in the UK and host top level international indoor sports. A venue that would bring the latest in performance, analysis, competition, recovery, rehab and coaching. A venue that could be open to schools, clubs and squads all year round and host coaches. All this and the ability to offer conferences, and complement existing city sports, leisure and recreational infrastructure. It would put Belfast on the global sporting map, and also help more athletes and more coaches compete at the top level. Coaches and athletes that in turn would raise the profile of Belfast the world over.



3. Active Cycling Infrastructure & Culture – City on the Move

Connswater and Comber Greenways have highlighted the Field of Dreams philosophy that if you build it, they will come. Belfast Bikes have been a stand-out success despite the unprecedented levels of abuse. The strategic reallocation of stations to South Belfast should increase usage statistics further still. There are bike lanes in Belfast but there isn’t an ingrained culture of biking yet in Belfast. A culture for bikers and non-bikers.

Belfast will not have an underground and is unlikely to have a tram service (e.g. Luas) in the foreseeable future. Rail is a grebelfsat way to travel but for many people this is not appropriate and their travel options are primarily car (including taxi) and bus for anything over a mile. The Belfast Rapid Transport system may solve some issues but Belfast remains heavily congested in key routes at key times. One incident can have severe knock on effects across the city. Parking provision, taxis and bus lanes are a separate issue. But for now, cycling and walking may provide a partial solution.

Two of the main barriers to bringing bikes into town are security and showers. Where can you leave your bike safely and be certain that it will be there, day after day, on your return? If you are cycling a reasonable distance into work, do you have access to a showering facility in work? Could Belfast provide secure storage units across at key nodes across Belfast? Could Belfast provide 50% match funding for business to put in showers and secure bike storage?

Gradually bringing the Belfast Bikes out of town and along arterial routes would also entice cyclists. Cyclists would beat the average commuter travelling time along most main arterial routes. They could go along the bus routes, with buses and taxis (if still permitted) giving sufficient way. The expansion of greenways and tow-paths, especially if lit, could add greatly to forming a clearly denoted cycle and activity map across Belfast. The combination of an expanded Belfast Bikes, better security and more travel options would greatly facilitate cycling, and open up opportunities for more business.

Having a cycle friendly city, with most routes off-road, would enable people to freely criss-cross the city as well as a straight commute. It would encourage visitors to safely explore the whole city and see more of Belfast. Making bikes accessible, available, affordable, safe and secure within Belfast would gradually encourage people to consider cycling more seriously as a regular option. In many cases it would be already be quicker and less hassle. Business could become more cycle friendly, and tours could be quickly set up. The Lagan tow-path and greenways are heavily used. Imagine if this became the norm elsewhere in Belfast.

The 42km Westport to Achill Greenway is highly successful rural greenway and tourism destination. An urban greenway cycling and walking network in Belfast could also be a major success for visitors and active lifestyles. The network would not be exclusive to cyclists. Based on other greenways, most users would probably be walkers, dog-walkers and runners. The network would provide plenty of smaller sections and loops to facilitate a range of active lifestyles, including walking and running. Changing a culture would take time. A transformation accelerated by greater visibility of cyclists and walkers, adherence to path etiquette (e.g. not a race track), public relations, enforcement and hopefully reduction in car traffic and congestion.



4. Parks & Events – An Active City

Belfast has amazing parks, forests, hills and glens. In large parts thanks to the stewardship of the Council, National Trust and local groups. Proportionately we’ve probably more Parkruns than any other urban area. Most people don’t realise how stunning the Belfast Hills are or how spectacular Cregagh Glen, Colin Glen or Belvoir Forest are. All these are within 10 minutes of the city centre. There are few cities anywhere in the world that have so much diverse quality green space so close to the city centre (not to mention the Mournes being 40mins away).

Belfast’s parks are well-looked after and a highlight of the city. However, many people still don’t realise the extent of the parks or their history. Belfast parks, especially Belfast Hills should be more closely inter-linked (e.g. greenways or off-road paths) and promoted as a star attraction. All should have water stops, and appropriate seating, toilets, parking, path markings and capacity for scaled events.

One of, if not, the hardest race in the UK to enter is the London Royal Parks Half-Marathon. As the name suggests it circuits the key parks in London (e.g. Hyde Park, St. James's Park) and is highly regarded. Belfast should exploit its parks more for events ranging from 5k to Ultras.

Belfast and Dublin Marathons both started in the early 1980s. Today, Belfast has approximately 3,500 marathon entries whilst Dublin now fills its 20,000 places two months in advance. In 2017, 2,148 runners completed the Belfast Marathon compared to 15,886 finishers for Dublin. Dublin has moved itself to a Sunday and is currently limited to 20,000 places. Eventually a way will be found to raise that and it could feasibly reach 30-40,000 entrants every year. Belfast is usually the week after London with Dublin on the same day as the Frankfurt Marathon. Although 6 months apart they will both always be competing with other events for visitors.

Belfast should utilise its assets, its parks, and its passion for running far more effectively. Belfast should aim to have a city-wide marathon through parks and key places, showing off the city. Not hidden away in an industrial estate or along the side of the motorway. Moved to a Sunday, on a better course and made the key feature of the May Day holiday weekend. In time, developed and promoted right, it should be aiming for 15-20,000 runners. As part of the weekend, there could be the relay on the day before or possibly at the same time (though logistically difficult). Additionally, there could be a series of walks, races, fun-runs and events for all abilities to ensure the weekend is inclusive for all.

The revamped marathon would show people, especially visitors the whole city and allow everyone in the city to take part and support the various events. It would generate a fantastic atmosphere that would be repeated every year. On average, each runner would bring at least one family member, friend or supporter. Especially if part of a wider festival weekend with buzzing atmosphere. That could be a minimum of 10-20,000 extra visitors staying and spending money in Belfast every year. Being on the same date each year would make it much easier for all parties - public, private and voluntary sector to plan ahead.

The Belfast Half-Marathon has become a much-loved race in only five years, but there is still significant scope to expand it. The Great North Run has over 50,000 runners whilst the Women’s Mini-Marathon in Dublin attracts over 45,000 runners. These have taken time to build up, but there is much greater interest nowadays across the board. There are also shortcuts, for example becoming part of an existing branded race series (e.g. ‘Great’ run, ‘Rock n Roll’ Marathon, etc). Races need a fresh approach, significant resources and all parties working together. In return, they would put Belfast on the map. Attracting large numbers of visitors every year and encourage residents to become more active.

Finally, there is the Ultras and special events. Special events could be triathlon, team events (e.g. gaelforce), trail running, mountain biking etc. Developed properly these could attract thousands (as they do elsewhere on this island) and garner Belfast a reputation for being an active event city. Belfast staged the World 24hr Championships in Victoria Park earlier this year. There were a few minor hitches but overall this was a massive success and an enormous credit to the organising team. However, this is the type of event that Belfast should be enthusiastically behind, greatly reducing the risk and burden on promoters. Belfast has all the assets to host major events, and become a renown active event city. Pound for pound, developed well it would be hard to think of a more sustainable investment that would benefit the city socially, economically and health-wise for decades to come.



5. City as a Canvas

How can Belfast be more open, accessible and appealing in the evenings and weekends? One way to try and tackle the problem of empty retail units and low evening economy - especially outside the city centre - is by imaginative public art. Public art as stand-alone ‘exhibits’ and as part of a city-wide strategy. Belfast already has much public art and clever non-sectarian murals that include homages to cartoon characters, famous citizens of the city, music, street scenes and science. There are regular tours but this could be expanded exponentially.

When you go through some villages in Donegal or beyond, you often see houses side by side in variety of colours – blue, white, pink, yellow. It gives the town a little more identity and sense of atmosphere. To the opposite end of the spectrum in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Where skyscrapers are often covered in neon and other lights that form subtle captivating images at night. Apart from lighting an area the illuminations give rise to a sense of creativity, play, safety and fun. They make the city memorable and distinguish it from many other high-rise backdrops. Coloured lights at City Hall have been used to transform the city hall at night and enable it to match notable occasions. Imagine this city wide?

What if entire streets or block of flats were painted bright colours? What if the whole stretch of an arterial route was one long piece of art? One story told through colours, lights, public art and street furniture? What if apartments were unique in size, shape and colour? Hundertwasserhaus in Vienna, is a creative colourful social housing block that attracts thousands of visitors a year. Visitors who visit the local shops and café’s that provide jobs and income for local people.

Give communities and artists freedom to work together to create who knows what. Designate areas specifically for graffiti. Thereby reducing graffiti in unwanted areas. Public art will always be subjective and some areas will want to be left alone. But it could be trailed in places and if proven a success expanded to other areas. Being known throughout the world for being a colourful creative city willing to take risks would be great PR. If this could be tied in with unlocking unused and underused space, by giving it free to artists, you would start to see areas being regenerated. Most major urban renewals start with artists and creatives moving to low cost under-appreciated areas and then slowly building up a creative cool culture and reputation that then attracts others. Before it gets too expensive for artists and they have to move elsewhere.

Belfast has an opportunity to be first. Otherwise it could be viewed as an unoriginal copycat. Public art sculptures, art, music, design, imagination could be unleashed. Add in more trees, greenery and welcome ideas. Making an area look better, brighter and healthier will improve people’s sense of well-being and pride in their area. A cool creative city with a vibe and reputation to match will attract creative talent. In turn, this will lead to more regeneration and a place that more people and businesses will want to locate to. Art led regeneration could dovetail with the political and paramilitary murals and show how far Belfast has come. A brighter Belfast for everyone, visitors and residents.




The £1bn City Deal is only one avenue open to Belfast. Capital funds for infrastructure were provided under both the Budget and Tory-DUP electoral pact deal. Financial Transactions Capital is another low-cost source of funds for the public sector. Many of these projects could be started on a pilot basis and/or run in partnership with other public, private, philanthropic and community sector organisations. Belfast City Council has sufficient scale to secure, manage and leverage significant funds.

Belfast City Council does not necessarily need to lead on these projects (DfC retains urban many regeneration powers in NI), but is best placed to begin the conversation. Private, philanthropic, public, community, clubs and sporting bodies could all be involved in a variety of roles. The burden does not rest on Belfast City Council alone. Belfast is everyone’s city.

Belfast has numerous masterplans, investment and regeneration strategies. It is not short of ideas. Nor experience or examples. The new Belfast Agenda, freshly off the press, adds potential policies and programmes. Future Belfast, Housing Associations, Partnership Boards, Sporting Organisations and Public Bodies - to name but a few - would all have their favourites too. But what if… what if you had the blank cheque what would you do?


McGarry Consulting |  Policy, Research & Analysis Unit  |