Suzanne Wylie

Chief Executive, Belfast City Council
Interviewed by AECOM's Trevor Leaker, Regional leader, NI, and Jody Wilkinson, Project Director

Suzanne has been Belfast City Council Chief Executive since July 2014. She is the council’s first female chief executive and leads its City Plan, the Belfast Agenda 2035, which focuses on inclusive growth and connecting neighbourhoods and people to the opportunities it creates. Belfast City Council is the largest council in NI, with 2,700 staff, and is responsible for providing services to the city’s 333,000 people. 

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond’s commitment of £350 million towards the Belfast Region City Deal in the Autumn Budget is great news. What will the investment mean for the Greater Belfast area?

The deal has the potential to create up to 20,000 jobs and increase productivity. It focuses on our growth sectors: FinTech, advanced manufacturing, health and life sciences, cyber security, data analytics and tourism and creative industries. The money will be invested in our wider infrastructure, allowing these growth sectors to really flourish. For example, we are working alongside universities to create research and development hubs for each of these sectors and on digital projects that will create smarter districts and better connectivity across the region. The deal will also include tourism and regeneration projects, along with employability and skills programmes to create the right pipeline of jobs.

With the lack of a Stormont Executive, how can the council help restore foreign investors’ faith in NI?

We continue to see new companies investing in NI, with 75 per cent of FDI companies reinvesting and expanding. Certainty is a key issue for businesses setting up here and some have looked to the council as a stable governance system, still making decisions, still supporting investment and co-investing to make projects a reality. Alongside Invest NI, we help FDI companies set up their businesses and source employees. If we really focus on tying down the skills available, having good infrastructure in place and promoting the right narrative, we will continue to attract FDI. We are also focused on supporting the growth of small businesses as well as start ups. Just take cyber security for example. We are now a well-recognised hub across the island.

Belfast City Council is actively encouraging more city-centre living. What is needed to make the plan work?

Any successful city has people living in the heart of it. We have long-established communities in Belfast, which we need to embrace and help flourish, but we also need more housing and more people living in the city centre.

The Belfast Local Development Plan (LDP) 2035 talks about 8,000 new homes in the city centre itself. The public sector can help by making space available and taking a focused approach to planning.

We also need the private sector to co-invest alongside us. The LDP is targeting a total of 32,000 new homes in Belfast over the next 20 years. We want to retain more of our young people and bring back those who went to university elsewhere; that’s a real challenge and why focusing on creating good jobs is really important. We also have 15,000 students coming into the city through the new Ulster University campus. Alongside Queen’s students, that’s going to create a great dynamism within the city. Our regeneration plans are ambitious but need stress-testing against what is currently happening in the heart of our main city after the Bank Buildings fire. It’s important we have a strong city, for the good of the entire region.

Many European cities are becoming increasingly car-free. What more can Belfast do to reduce congestion?

The recent investment in public transport was absolutely needed. The Glider operates west and east, but one of our City Deal projects is to run it north and south, and out beyond the city boundaries. The Transport Hub and its ability to handle many more passengers will be another game changer. 

Parking also needs to be smarter. Too many people circle the city centre looking for a space with no smart technology to show availability. We really need to reduce the number of workers parking in the city all day. That’s why public transport needs to be top quality, good value and very timely to get people in and home quickly from more strategic places like ‘park and ride’ facilities.

Our cycling network is making great strides, but we need to join it up more. We’re adding more Belfast Bikes and reassessing station locations so they’re in the best-used areas. The city also needs to be more walkable.

Retailers are struggling across all cities and our High Streets are going to look very different in 10 years. With this in mind, and considering the aftermath of the Bank Buildings fire, how is the council addressing the changing face of retail?

A fire at a heritage building in a city centre crossroads has led us to rethink how Belfast should up its game as a vibrant commercial and living space.

In the short term we are focusing on supporting traders with a financial support package and getting the cordon taken back as quickly as possible. Medium term is about driving footfall back into the centre. Longer term, if we look at really successful places where retail works best, there’s a mix of attractions which can include visitor facilities, offices, an arts and cultural scene, and increasingly, residential space — that’s what we really want to see in Belfast. People come into the city centre for a wider experience and shopping is only part of this.

We also joined the 100 Resilient Cities Programme. This allows us to tap into expertise right across the globe and demonstrate how we need to be capable of responding to the quick shocks and longer-term stresses we may face.

We’ve been meeting with your Smart Belfast team, looking at the opportunities technology can bring to Belfast. How do you see technology improving the city?

We need to solve real city problems using technology rather than be technology led. Think of car parking, live transport feeds, tourism footfall and waste management — these areas use technology strategically and that’s the approach we’d like to take. We want to have a smart district in the city and have been working with Belfast Harbour, which wants a smart port to improve logistics. This approach could be developed out to the city centre too.

We want to be 5G enabled to improve connectivity and also to test new technology. Dublin’s Smart Docklands is promoted as the Europe’s most connected two square kilometres, attracting some big technology companies to invest. For me it’s about joining it all up to see smart technology adding to an overall city strategy.