Liverpool has made giant strides in several business sectors over the past decade but still struggles to attract blue chip occupiers from elsewhere – in contrast to Belfast. Tony McDonough reports.
Liverpool’s economic renaissance is often hailed as impressive – and rightly so.
Political conflict in the 1980s was the catalyst for years of decline but the turnaround in the city’s fortunes over the past decade is real and tangible.
But shortcomings and problems remain and a glance across the Irish Sea reveals a comeback story even more remarkable – and perhaps one we can learn from.
Last weekend I visited Belfast at the invitation of a friend who lives in the city.
I had been keen to see the city for myself after meeting and interviewing the chief executive of Belfast City Council, Suzanne Wylie, at the MIPIM investment expo in Cannes earlier this year.
Liverpool may have had political conflict in the 1980s but, back then, Belfast was in the grip of violent conflict.
The Troubles gave Northern Ireland and unenviable global reputation has a hotbed of terrorism, with frequent murder and mayhem involving Nationalists, Loyalists and the British Army.
Republican terrorists exported their bombing campaign to mainland Britain bringing death, injury and destruction to the streets of London, Brighton, Birmingham, Manchester, Preston and Warrington.
So entrenched were the attitudes of those on all sides of the conflict that it was almost impossible to see any kind of lasting peace.
Then came a tentative peace process out of which came the Good Friday agreement and now Belfast is a city transformed.
I walked round a confident, cool and vibrant city centre, thronging with both locals and foreign tourists. I also spent time in the suburbs and in those areas of West Belfast synonymous with the Troubles.
That is not to say sectarianism has gone away – it hasn’t. But even on the once notorious Falls Road I saw a gaggle of smiling tourists taking pictures of one of the famous murals.
Entrenched views remain on both sides of the religious divide but my friend tells me that, for the most part, people are happy with the progress the city has made and there is little appetite to return to the dark days of the 1970s and 80s.
One area where Belfast has been particularly successful in recent years has been in inward investment.
It has managed to attract blue chip professional firms from across the globe, particularly from North America. In 2014 global financial services company Citibank created 600 new jobs in Belfast, in an investment worth £54m.
At the time the firm already employed about 1,500 staff at its office in the Titanic Quarter of the city.
Earlier this year, Suzanne Wylie told me: “We have been really successful at attracting some of the big North American companies – some of the big legal firms, ICT, Fintech, Citibank.
“And legal firm, Allen and Overy, who have put their biggest office in the world into Belfast. We have built really strong relationships with those companies.”
Shortage of space
While the Liverpool city region has excelled in sectors such tourism, digital and creative and automotive manufacturing, it has struggled to attract blue-chip occupiers to the city centre.
This is despite the best efforts of organisations such as Liverpool Vision and Professional Liverpool. Now, to compound the problem, Liverpool finds itself with a dearth of grade A office space.
So should a major occupier show an interest in relocating here, we may have nowhere to offer them.
So how has Belfast prospered in this regard? Ms Wylie says the city has unashamedly exploited Ireland’s strong diaspora around the world, particularly in North America, using that as a basis to build relationships with leading companies.
The city’s relatively low occupation costs (something Liverpool also has to offer) coupled with significant investment into broadband capacity (Liverpool not so much) also helps to sweeten the deal.
The Northern Ireland assembly plan to lower its corporation tax rate to 12.5% by April 2018 to compete with Dublin also makes the city even more attractive. It is astonishing to think that, over here, the Labour Party is keen to raise corporation tax up from its current 20%.
Northern Ireland also has a better educated workforce, consistently achieving higher GCSE and A level grades than England and Wales.
My friend tells me there is a strong culture of educational achievement in the province in both the poorer and wealthier communities.
There is not much Liverpool can do about corporation tax but evidence suggests we could still do a whole lot better. We may have our valid excuses but, given its recent history, Belfast would trump us on that.
If Belfast can thrive like it has, there is no reason Liverpool cannot follow.