Belfast: anything but ordinary – Suzanne Wylie
From 'ships to chips', Northern Ireland's capital has evolved from an industrial port to one of the fastest-growing business economies in the UK with a growing tech sector and a expertise in a range of financial, legal and analytical services. Suzanne Wylie, chief executive, Belfast City Council explains how investors are racing to capitalise on the highly skilled workforce, competitive operating costs and excellent connectivity.
In a studio whose name recalls one of the worst maritime tragedies in history, christened after the ship once built on site, a craft of a very different nature is today steaming ahead. Filmed locally from its base in Belfast's Titanic Studios is the globally popular TV series Game of Thrones, a synonym for a new era of industry and investment in a region with an undeniably troubled past.
On 1 April this year, the number of councils in Northern Ireland more than halved to make way for a streamlined system of 11 'super councils' with extended boundaries and increased powers, primed and ready to support growth. Nowhere can the optimism and promise be more strongly felt than in Belfast, where, after a decade and a half of peace, a skilled young workforce, excellent transport connections, low property prices and a high quality of life are seeing foreign direct investment soar.
Suzanne Wylie, the freshly appointed chief executive of Belfast City Council and the first woman to hold the role, highlights the attention the capital is receiving, and the positivity felt throughout.
"Belfast is recognised as a completely transformed city," she says. "It has a real buzz about it, a feeling of confidence and optimism that has been very attractive to foreign direct investment. Just in the last nine months, we've had 5,000 FDI jobs announced, and that is causing the balance of our economy to shift away from public-sector dependence towards the private sector, with more high-value jobs."
With 43.9% of the city's population aged under 30, a school system producing some of the best GCSE and A-level results in the UK, and two world-class universities, Belfast offers investors a high-calibre, productive workforce.
There is ample proficiency across a number of fields, including legal, compliance, risk, performance analytics, actuarial and financial services. The technology and creative sectors are also flourishing, from software development and data management on the ICT side, to the digital expertise and ingenuity driving film and new media. Many big names such as Citi, Allen & Overy and Allstate have opened offices in the city.
"From the feedback we're getting, our pipeline of skills is the number-one draw," Wylie says. "Then it's the very competitive operating cost, with companies getting real value and good support packages, whether through finance, training or R&D."
The cost-efficiencies are evident, with an average 40% reduction in typical salaries within financial services in Northern Ireland compared with London, and a 75% reduction in property costs. Another cost-saving development might also be in the offing, as the recent decision to devolve corporation tax rates to the Northern Irish assembly could see rates dropping as low as 12.5% to bring them into line with those in the Republic of Ireland.
Connectivity and proximity to market are also key. "You've got Ireland, the UK and Europe all on your doorstep, as well as very close connections with the US," says Wylie. "Our two airports fly to a combined total of 92 destinations, and receive a hundred flights every day from the UK."
Building upon Belfast's strong maritime heritage, the council is working to build closer ties with other port cities such as Cardiff and Liverpool. Fast, low-latency broadband and point-to-point connectivity with the US are also huge advantages for swift, reliable communications. Meanwhile, commercial links to Ireland are strong, with the Eastern seaboard from Belfast to Dublin a key focus for growth and investment.
"Already 30% of the jobs of Northern Ireland are in Belfast and, with more FDI and more growth of our indigenous business, that's only going to increase. About half of those people commute in and out of the city, and the infrastructure development is improving to ensure this can happen really easily. Establishing the economic corridor between Belfast and Dublin is also really important for us."
Easy accessibility and a wealth of visitor attractions are also fostering a tourism boom. Worth £460 million in 2014, the council hopes to nearly double this by 2020. Attractions such as Titanic Belfast, a further education college, a science park and film studios make the Titanic Quarter a distinct destination, while nightlife centred around independent restaurants and bars keeps visitors entertained across the city. Outdoor attractions, including the world-famous Giant's Causeway and a choice of golf courses are also within easy reach, while a rich supply of hotels and conference venues is making Belfast a prime location for business tourism, too and provide a city experience that is 'anything but ordinary'.
For Wylie, the success Belfast is enjoying is a natural result of the industrious and innovative traits its inhabitants have long demonstrated. "Making and inventing things, pushing boundaries and having the grit and determination to bring them to reality are qualities that are in our DNA," she says. "We are an economy that has truly moved from 'ships to chips'."