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From water taxis to coding academies

22nd November 2017
Carl Whyte has five ideas on what a Belfast City Deal could include.

The UK Chancellor has announced the beginning of a consultation on a City Deal for Belfast today. Here’s five ideas for what we could include in the City Deal. All other ideas welcome.

1. Chronic congestion and poor public transport mean that Belfast has some of the UK’s slowest arterial routes. We need an infrastructure fund focused on improving the life of everyone who lives here. This could fund:
  • Immediate connections for North and South Belfast to the new Belfast Rapid Transport system. The new system will connect Dundonald to Dunmurray but leaves out Ormeau and Oldpark. A City Deal should include planning for a second phase of the Belfast Rapid Transport system, to include routes into North Belfast and South Belfast. It’ll mean the entire city is connected and will also reduce congestion on the roads.
  • A proper train connection to Belfast City Airport - the city’s main airport sits right beside a rail line but has no effective train station. If we’re to compete to attract investment post-Brexit, we need more than taxis to take visitors to our City Centre. Such a move would bring the city into the 21st Century and reduce congestion in East Belfast.
  • ‘Live & Work in the City Centre’ initiative - Belfast has a shortage of Grade A office accommodation and a shortage of places to live in the centre. Look upwards on any street and you’ll see floors and floors of empty buildings, all of which could be converted. The fund should include incentives and grant schemes to transform these buildings into offices and homes.
  • Re-open the River Lagan - the bridge from Lower Ormeau to Ormeau Park should be given immediate funding, and the river should be opened up further at Stranmillis, allowing connectivity to the wider Waterways Ireland network. The tourism benefits would be huge and Belfast could even see it’s first ever water taxi.
2. Education & Training.

Belfast is the further & higher educational hub for Northern Ireland and includes more colleges and universities than any other city on the island of Ireland except Dublin. The City Deal should be used to set up an International Centre of Cyber Security to attract national and international expertise to Belfast, and to support the creation of spin-off companies who can export products and services across the globe.

A National Digital Technology Academy should be created to help train and support young people, both through their schools, and outside of school, in skills across coding, multimedia and digital technology. Sadly our curriculum has not kept pace with changing technology. While it probably will catch up, we need something to fill that skills gap in the meantime.

3. A Housing Fund.

Belfast needs to see the construction of more homes, both in the social and private sectors. And housing construction has an almost immediate and huge impact in construction jobs locally. Brexit has seen construction costs rise and makes finance for social housing harder to secure - that is why resources from the City Deal should be directed to the building of new homes.

4. A new organisation to fight Belfast Poverty & Unemployment.

Parts of Belfast are bereft of investment, jobs and even local pride. Unemployment, underemployment and low-paid employment are chronic in the city and there seems to be no effective plan to improve people’s standard of living or wellbeing. While government departments channel most money, their structures aren’t designed to deliver change in these areas. A social-economy based organisation, with private-sector input, should be tasked with delivering an identifiable reduction in income inequality and poverty, and an increase in employment in designated areas of need. This could take place through direct intervention, training and employment schemes, grant support for SMEs and other initiatives.

5. Belfast, Derry & Lisburn City Deal.

Finally, it is vital the City Deal should not be restricted to the Belfast City Council area. Being radical in our ambition means thinking beyond council boundaries. It would be unthinkable for the plans to end at Belfast City Council boundary, so it should include Lisburn City so that people who live there can also benefit. There have been strong complaints today from Derry about its exclusion from the City Deal plan - Northern Ireland’s second city cannot be ignored - and if simple geography is the only reason why it cannot be included then our ambitions must go further than that.

What better signal of civic leadership from Belfast than to expand the City Deal opportunity to Lisburn and Derry? The proximity and connectivity of our cities should be used for everyone’s benefit instead of exacerbating economic and social division.

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