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Alistair Reid, Belfast City Council

Two cities already owe a debt of gratitude to Alistair Reid: Leicester and Bristol. He'd never say it himself, of course, but his work has helped transform how the people of those two English cities experience everyday life. And now he's onto his third: Belfast.

“I’d done a lot of work in Bristol and coming to the end of my time there, I thought I was going to maybe go into the charity sector or go travelling for a bit and take a break. But an articulate recruiter called me on the day I handed in my notice and convinced me ‘not to turn down a job I hadn’t yet been offered’. That got me hooked and the rest is pretty much history. I’ve been in Belfast ever since.”

What was the attraction of the new role?

“That’s simple: I’m a professional place-maker and the city has a stated desire to grow. There’s an official plan to grow our population by 66,000 people by 2035. If we do that, and we’re able to provide 40,000 more jobs within the city, that will require 30,000 new houses and the commensurate amount of working space.

“So, you know, there is a very clear growth agenda and it’s taking a very modern approach.

“Our strategy was very much to look at more sustainable, high-density housing in the city centre area, as opposed to urban sprawl. There are many good examples of this being done well in Western European where they have created a residential community within the city centre.

“It’s an opportunity. City centres are going to have to reinvent themselves. Retail is increasingly online and out of town which fundamentally affects what needs to be in town. Our intention is to bring forward the residential community by working with developers and looking at whatever market opportunities are appropriate. That has promoted a huge number of conversations in the development world. In the last five years, we’ve gone from next to no students living in the city centre to 3,500 students living in the city centre today with another 2,000 or so student accommodation units in the pipeline.

“This inward, student-focused growth is bookended by the city’s two large educational institutions – Queen’s to the south and the University of Ulster to the north.  The growth in their accommodation has been hugely influential on the city.

“If you have 5,000 students living in the city centre, and a turnover of roughly one-third every year, that’s 1,700 people annually coming out of student accommodation looking for somewhere to live. Not all of them will remain here in Belfast, but a good number will as they will pick up on the excellent job opportunities in Belfast. That initial student growth then requires more of an office footprint and the growth cycle goes on.”

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