The construction of student accommodation, hotels and new residential schemes were the key drivers of development activity in Belfast in 2023, according to Deloitte’s latest Regional Crane Survey.
The report monitors construction activity in Belfast across a range of sectors including offices, residential, hotels, retail, education and student housing, and is seen as a barometer of developer sentiment and future plans.
Now in its eighth year, the annual Belfast Crane Survey showed that in total 20 major schemes were under construction or completed in Belfast in 2023, slightly down on the total of 23 recorded in 2022.
In contrast to the nine new projects that broke ground in 2022, there were six significant new starts in 2023, spread across residential, office and hotel projects.
Nine major developments were completed in the city during the year, including four student accommodation schemes which added over 1,000 new student rooms to the total across the city. A further 774 rooms are due to be completed in 2024 and based on university forecasts, additional accommodation is expected to be needed in future.
During the year there were five residential projects under construction, which will create almost 1,000 new homes, compared with a total of just 306 new homes built in the city centre since 2016 across six developments. The largest of the new schemes is the Loft Lines development in Titanic Quarter, which accounts for 778 of those homes and combines private tenancy with affordable and social housing.
While three office schemes were completed in 2023, there was only one major new office project started during the year, the lowest number since 2016, reflecting both the move to more flexible working arrangements by employers in the city and the substantial volume of office space that has been released into the market in recent years.
The growing importance of visitors to Belfast city centre was highlighted by new hotel developments, with one completion and two other schemes under construction. Deloitte also noted in its report that there is a healthy pipeline, with planning permission granted for a further nine hotel schemes in Belfast.
The report identifies the River Lagan waterfront as a part of the city that could reach its full potential with further investment and development, acknowledging the Belfast Waterfront Task Group’s proposals for a ten-kilometre waterfront promenade connected with boardwalks and bridges as an initiative that could help drive progress.
Looking ahead, Deloitte said the most significant development will be the opening of Belfast Grand Central Station to passengers at the end of 2024, with works completing in 2025. With new public realm and plans for mixed-use development at Weavers Cross, the new bus and train station will create a new dynamic west of the city centre.
Mel Wilson, director in real estate at Deloitte, said: “While the overall picture is one of more subdued development activity in the city centre, with fewer new starts and a slightly lower number of schemes under construction or completed, there continue to be real signs of confidence in Belfast, with a number of landmark schemes progressing. The most significant is the new Belfast Grand Central Station, which will be an important new gateway for the city and one that will also reinvigorate and improve connectivity between adjacent communities.
“The diverse range of developments that are underway point to a city centre that is evolving in fascinating ways and I am encouraged by the various initiatives taking place to accelerate the changes necessary to meet ambitions for the city, including attracting more visitors and a higher number of people to live in the city centre.”
Colin Mounstephen, director at Deloitte in Belfast, added: “The result of the large volume of student accommodation built in the city combined with modest increases in residential stock and hotel rooms, has been a substantial rise in the number of people living and staying in the city centre.
“As in other cities in the UK and Ireland, a gap has been created by slow returning workers and office vacancies. Increasing the number of people living in Belfast city will be important for its vibrancy, resilience and long-term sustainability, and is also of enormous social importance given the constraints on existing housing stock across the city.
“Belfast’s waterfront remains an under-developed and under-utilised asset. Unlocking housing and commercial development next to the river will be critical to Belfast’s growth ambitions.”
Councillor Clíodhna Nic Bhranair, Chair of Belfast City Council’s City Growth and Regeneration Committee, said: “Just last month, council approved the development of almost 700 apartments across four schemes, including Belfast Harbour’s City Quays, Pilot Street, Tomb Street and May Street.
“The recently launched Belfast Waterfront Promenade framework is guiding regeneration of the amazing natural asset we have between Sailortown and Ormeau Park. Developing our waterfront presents an exciting opportunity to connect the heart of the city and its communities, both sides of the River Lagan – while supporting jobs, tourism, and investment.
“And through the Belfast City & Region Place Partnership, we’re working to market the Belfast region to an international audience, supporting the delivery of the Belfast Region City Deal programme of investment and driving inclusive, sustainable growth. As outlined in our community plan, The Belfast Agenda, we’ve set an objective to welcome 66,000 new residents to Belfast by 2035 – and investment in quality homes, placemaking, connectivity and social infrastructure lies at the heart of that vision.”