Belfast Harbour invests record £65m in capital projects last year

Belfast Harbour invests record £65m in capital projects last year

Belfast Harbour says it has invested close to £400m in capital infrastructure projects over the past decade, while profits and turnover remain strong. However, it says it is being hampered by an inability to borrow, which would reduce its ability to expand and grow, writes John Mulgrew

It also saw turnover rise to £82.9m in 2023 – an increase of around 7%.

However, pre-tax profits fell slightly to £24.3m, while underlying pre-tax profits rose to £36.7m.

It has invested significantly in a number of major construction projects in recent years, including City Quays 3 — which now has five tenants — while City Quays 4 and 5 are under development, and work on City Quays Gardens is well underway.

However, the port says its ambitions to develop and drive further growth “are being constrained”.

In its latest report, Chief Executive Joe O’Neill said the company was constrained and unable to “borrow sufficiently” due to its classification as a public company, despite there being no public money involved.

“This restriction does not support the scale and scope of the regeneration projects we envisage for the port and estate,” he said.

“Our ambitions to continue to drive sustainable economic growth and create opportunities for all are unfortunately being constrained by our inability to borrow sufficiently.

“We will need to borrow if we are to continue our transformative offering to the city and the region.

“I would like to place on record my thanks to the officials at the Department for Infrastructure who have engaged so positively with us on this issue throughout the year. I look forward to continuing the discussion with them and, of course, the Infrastructure Minister. As this issue is constraining the positive socio-economic impact of all Trust Ports in Northern Ireland, we have been and will continue to work together to seek routes to resolution.”

Over the past 10 years, the port has invested around £374 million in capital projects, funded entirely from the organisation’s post-tax profits.

The Port of Belfast handled just under 24 million tonnes of goods in 2023.

The city also received a record 158 cruise ship visits.

A new £11 million automated shuttle service – The Harlander – will also be launched soon. Delivered with Innovate UK, BT and several other partners, it will connect Titanic Quarter railway station to Catalyst on Queen’s Road.

Turning to its film studios, the port said the impact of writers’ and actors’ strikes throughout much of 2023 “has had a worldwide impact on the media industry, effectively bringing productions to a standstill.”

This caused a proposed ‘Blade Runner 2099’ television series to be shelved. It was due to be filmed at Belfast Harbour Studios.

“The quality of studios and production capacity in Northern Ireland, however, was key to securing another production that was taken up immediately after the end of both strikes,” the port said.

“This new production will be in occupation until mid-2024. This strong and continued attraction of Belfast Harbour Studios and Northern Ireland as a world-class filming location, coupled with the development of the local crew base, has provided a compelling narrative to extend the Studio’s existing facilities.

“Our strategy to create a leading European creative and media hub has seen continued construction throughout the year with the development of additional soundproof cinema stages, with production offices and supporting workshops.

“The development also includes the first project funded by the Belfast Regional City Deal, which aims to create a state-of-the-art virtual production facility on campus, which will be operated by Studio Ulster Ltd. Upon completion, scheduled for Q3 2024, the enhanced facility, which has been designed to achieve a BREEAM ‘Excellent’ sustainability accreditation, will provide 107,000 sq ft of soundstages, 52,000 sq ft of workshops and 68,000 sq ft of ancillary production offices located across a 19-acre campus.”

Dr Theresa Donaldson, Chair of Belfast Harbour, said: “I am confident that we can reflect on 2023 as a year in which this organisation has strongly demonstrated its dedication to the economy and wider society.

“Our landmark capital investment of £65 million demonstrates our ethos as a Port Trust. We strive to make this organisation the success it is, and we share in that success by investing our profits in projects and partnerships that enable economic growth and create tangible social value.

“Looking to the future, we are determined to accelerate our contribution to the local economy and communities, building on our achievements and expanding the positive impact we have on those who live, work and visit Belfast Port, the city and the wider region.

Joe O’Neill, Chief Executive of Belfast Harbour, said: “Despite the challenging economic backdrop, Belfast Harbour delivered another solid financial performance in 2023. This reflected the diversity of the business, the quality of our client activities and the hard work of the Belfast Harbour team.

“We have delivered on our promises by maintaining an essential service for everyone in the region, through the safe, efficient and effective operation of the port. We have completed the 2023 aspects of our wide range of investment projects on time and have made a real difference to our neighbours through partnerships and community funding.

“Crucially, we have gained momentum in terms of our diversification into marine renewable technologies, our property portfolio expansion, our drive to become one of the world’s safest ports and our role as an ESG leader. These will continue to be key areas of focus for us going forward.”