The construction of new university buildings and student accommodation were the key drivers of development activity in Belfast in 2022, 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 seventh year, the annual Belfast Crane Survey showed that in total 23 major schemes were under construction or completed in Belfast in 2022, the same as in 2021.
Nine significant projects broke ground in 2022, two more than the year before, with the new starts spread across residential, student accommodation, retail/leisure and office projects.
Nine major developments were completed in the city during the year, including four Grade A office developments totalling 571,000 sq ft. Only two new office schemes were started in 2022, the lowest number since 2016, reflecting the substantial volume of office space released into the market over recent years and an increase in flexible working arrangements.
Deloitte noted in its report that the most significant activity during the year took place in the education sector, at and around Northern Ireland’s two universities, Ulster University and Queen’s University, Belfast.
The £370m Ulster University campus on York Street completed during the year, adding over 800,000 sq ft of new education space. The south of the city also saw the 120,000 sq ft Queen’s University Student Centre open in time for the 2022/23 academic year.
To meet the demand created by the influx of additional students in the city centre, student accommodation projects encompassing 1,800 student beds are currently under construction, with two new starts in 2022 representing over 400 units.
There were two new residential projects which commenced in 2022, the first new residential schemes to start in the city centre since 2019, providing expectation of growth in a sector that has been among the slowest since Deloitte started the Belfast crane survey.
There was also progress in the leisure sector, with 120,000 sq ft of city centre leisure space created through the redevelopment of the former Debenhams department store space in Castle Court, while work also started on the redevelopment of the former BHS store site late in the year.
No new hotel schemes were started in 2022, but work continued on the Queen Street Aparthotel during the year and it is expected to be completed in 2023.
Councillor Ryan Murphy, Chair of Belfast City Council’s City Growth and Regeneration Committee, said: “This year’s Deloitte Crane Survey is encouraging. Belfast is a city on the rise, with ambition to grow, and the space to realise that ambition sustainably.
“It’s fantastic to see such growth in quality student accommodation – our two world class universities are doing an excellent job in shaping our talent and skills pipeline for employers and investors here.
“One of our key Belfast Agenda ambitions is to increase the city’s population by 66,000 by 2035. Belfast offers a high quality of life, has a growing student population and we’re delivering a £1bn Belfast Region City Deal programme of investment, so that’s certainly achievable.”
Simon Bedford, partner in real estate at Deloitte, said: “The Belfast construction market remained relatively robust in 2022, but where we have seen office development dominate many of the previous Belfast Crane Surveys, it is really interesting to see a real diversity in the projects which were started, completed or progressed throughout the year.
“The impact of the Ulster University campus fully opening will be fascinating to watch – especially with the potential development sites on and around Royal Avenue and the continued demand for new accommodation for students of both Ulster and Queen’s University. The strategic aim for increasing the residential population of the city centre continues to be a challenge and tactical steps being taken alongside the increasing city centre student population will hopefully move Belfast closer to unlocking this potential.”
Colin Mounstephen, director at Deloitte in Belfast, added: “The universities and associated student population have had a profound impact on local population and development activity in Belfast. It may have taken longer than anticipated, but the strategic foresight in moving the Ulster University campus into the city centre has released a new regeneration dynamic in Belfast. Queen’s University also has an active capital programme with eight education projects recorded in the Belfast Crane Survey since 2016 totalling over 500,000 sq ft of space.
“In addition, since 2016, almost 6,000 student accommodation rooms have been constructed, or are under construction, across Belfast and are driving the population of the city centre. This is already having a positive impact on the regeneration of parts of the city and has the potential to do even more.
“While the university-led development of the city is transformative, encouraging young people at university to continue living centrally once they move into work is a big opportunity for any university city. A typical market response in other cities has been to deliver more build-to-rent schemes which appeal to young professionals, but this has not yet happened in Belfast. If the schemes currently in planning can prove the concept, the expectation is that the markets for demand and supply will develop.”