Our Festival Director, Peter O'Neill, writes about the need to revitalise Belfast's night time economy and the need for a Night Czar.

Supporting the Night Time Economy as part of the Draft Belfast Agenda.

There has been a rather muted reaction to the publication of the Draft Belfast Agenda and Belfast City Council’s vision of the future. But with the consultation now extended until 20 April, perhaps we can kick start a debate on a number of issues close to our heart.

Although there is a considerable emphasis on growing the local economy, there is little attention paid to the arts and creative industries and the role of the night-time economy in the plan. This is despite the evidence gleaned in earlier consultations that “People want more facilities and entertainment and things to do, such as culture, arts, leisure and events, retail, nightlife, bars, restaurants etc, as well as extended opening hours/reformed licensing laws.” 1

Across the globe, large cities are investing in their night-time economies and there is a growing recognition of the importance of 24-hour cities as a means of economic and cultural development. Yet, this is not adequately reflected in the Belfast Agenda and the associated discussions about re-imagining the city. For example, many of the world’s most culturally significant metropolises have appointed Night-Time Mayors to champion, coordinate and develop their night time economies.

With Night Mayors currently in place in many major cities such as Paris, Zurich, Toulouse, Groningen, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Milan (to name but a few) and discussions taking place in Dublin and many other cities, it is surprising that this development has not been considered in the draft plan.

Closer to home, the Mayor of London has appointed the Night Czar, Amy Lamé, and Chair of the Night Time Commission, Philip Kolvin QC, to deliver a vision for London as a 24-hour city. They have brought together businesses, venues, local authorities, the Metropolitan Police, Transport for London and other interests (including ordinary citizens) to ensure London thrives as a night-time city and to support initiatives as the Night Tube, more night buses and protection of music venues.

Perhaps its time Belfast City Council considered electing a highly effective individual to such a role, whether as a Night Mayor, or a commission chair? At least there is a local precedent – you may remember Terri Hooley and Martin Lynch jousting for the position of Lord Mayor of the Cathedral Quarter for Culture Night 2011!

Belfast City Council should consult on the election of a Night Mayor and start a debate on making Belfast an exciting entertainment and leisure destination for residents and visitors.

With all due respect to the current Lord Mayor and previous incumbents, councillors are not exactly noted for their understanding of the evening economy and painting the town red (though I stand to be corrected!). The position of Night Mayor should be invested with appropriate resources and authority, and tasked with bringing relevant stakeholders (including venues, arts organisations, performers, PSNI, DHSSPS etc) together to develop Belfast as a genuine 24-hour city.

A properly supported late-night economy can bring many benefits to a city, such as boosting the local economy, enhancing the sense of community and also tackling antisocial behaviour and segregation. The consultancy firm TBR produced the first UK study of the night-time economy in 2010. It calculated that the sector employed 1.3 million people and generated £66bn in revenue across the UK. That figure was updated in 2016 to £70bn – approximately 4% of Britain’s economic output. Belfast could do with such an economic boost which could also support more arts and cultural activities.

The council should develop and implement a vision of Belfast as a 24-hour city and commit to the development of Belfast’s night-time economy.

The Belfast night-time economy should be attractive to all age groups and income groups. It should also be more accessible at all hours, whether by public or private transport, by bike or on foot. We also need good signage, lighting, and security for a diverse range of people throughout the night. We should remember that the night-time economy is not a homogeneous element and specific attention needs to be paid to developing policies and programmes for different time zones such as the hours of 6pm to 9pm, 9pm to 12am and 12am to 3am.

To add vitality to the development of the evening economy we need to entice people out of their homes to enjoy high quality arts and leisure events and activities. The council should produce a specific arts, culture and leisure annex as part of this plan in order to realise a dynamic vision for for the city at night. As many commentators have reported, council planning and licensing policies need to be modernised and redesigned to enhance the city’s leisure, tourism and entertainment offers. Residents and visitors should not be patronised by paternalistic and outmoded licensing restrictions.

As Philip Kolvin has stated: “Most importantly, the leisure economy is where, after the stresses of ever longer working days, we meet, eat, socialise, drink, dance, learn, laugh, fall in love, celebrate, and behave as we were born to behave, as social animals. But night time economies are like gardens. They need to be planned and tended. Otherwise they may grow wild or even decay.” 2

During the festival we have a range of civic conversations for you to have your say and other events looking at aspects of Belfast’s economy and how to reimagine the city. Join us for a discussion on how we can all enjoy this wonderful city and put culture and the night-time economy on the agenda.

Peter O’Neill, Festival Director

1. What would you like Belfast to be like in 2030? The Belfast Conversation Summary Report. Belfast City Council. April-June 2015

2. Manifesto for the Night Time Economy. Philip Kolvin QC. 2016. P2

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