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Students and the city: ‘Belfast needs to put mechanisms in place to keep the talent here’

Published on 27 March 2023

PWC Regional Market Leader for Northern Ireland, Cat McCusker

There are more people living in Belfast than ever before and hotel capacity is rising all the time, as is confidence in investment, exemplified by the council’s ambitious Region City Deal (with its £1bn, 20,000-jobs target).

Indeed, if investors, tourists and talented students are regarded as the bedrock for significant progress then Northern Ireland in general, and Belfast in particular, are on solid ground.

The recently announced Windsor Framework deal between the UK and EU will undoubtedly help Northern Ireland become a crucial trading hub.

The region’s commercial investment market saw a £330m spend across 36 property deals in 2022 — its strongest year since 2015, and up from £290m spent across 30 transactions in 2021.

Cityside Retail and Leisure Park on Belfast’s York Street, for example, was snapped up (for £14.15m), along with Boucher Retail Park the south of the city (for an undisclosed sum).

Other notable deals included Premier Inn Four Corners in the Cathedral Quarter (£12.2m), Ards Shopping Centre in Newtownards (£15.75m) and Central Park in Mallusk (£17m).

That indicates a confidence integral to market strength, and there’s hope for a continuum in that momentum as investors remain drawn to Northern Ireland’s unique location as a gateway between the UK and EU.

Bricks and mortar notwithstanding, another facet of the city’s dynamism is its permanent and transient working population.

People are coming back to work in the city, with the ‘hybrid’ balance shifting towards what, pre-Covid, was the norm.

Notable completions such as The Ewart on Franklin Street, City Quays 3 at the harbour and Olympic House at Titanic Quarter, and the Paper Exchange on Chichester Street, are boosting the city’s renewed attractiveness by offering both a very competitive cost base and enviable amenities for staff.

Those projects follow on from global giant PwC moving into the Merchant Square headquarters — the largest regional base outside London — which can easily accommodate its close to 4,000 employees.

The company’s Regional Market Leader for Northern Ireland, Cat McCusker, said that becoming the Merchant Square anchor tenant — which was the biggest private sector letting deal at the time and subsequently led to the £87m purchase of the building by a Middle Eastern investor — demonstrated PwC’s belief in Belfast’s long-term future.

“We invested so heavily here because of the quality of the workforce, the diversity of talent and the opportunities we saw to innovate across the region,” she said.

“We’ve continued to grow in local, national and international markets from Belfast by drawing on the talent from our universities and colleges.

“Our investment in our new office has certainly been a huge factor in the attraction and retention of top tech talent.”

PwC, a leading graduate employer in the UK, has 11 degree programmes, including those in partnership with Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University.