Spring Cleaning Needed on a City–Wide Scale

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March has something of a reputation for arriving like a lion and leaving like a lamb. It’s an old saying that’s particularly fitting for 2024, given the timing of Easter. But more than anything it’s a reminder that the month we’re now in is one of transition.

Transition from biting winds and cold temperatures to the distant prospect of spring sunshine, which is currently tucked away over the brow of the hill. We can but hope!

On a serious note, these changing winds can have a reenergising quality, helping to blow back the winter cobwebs and leave us collectively looking forward to the year ahead with a renewed sense of focus.

The restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive has no doubt elevated that sentiment, adding a welcome spring to the step and, crucially, a fresh impetus to get things done. To seize opportunities locally that have lay dormant for too long. One of which was brought into the light of day recently by London’s Night Czar Amy Lamé, who upon visiting Belfast last month highlighted the potential to rekindle the city’s night–time economy.

As Night Czar, Lamé has the unique authority to advocate for London’s status as a 24–hour city. To promote a night life that isn’t solely about the bars and clubs, but also inclusive of entertainment industries, local businesses, transport, police and the public. Creating not so much a city that never sleeps, but more a thriving hub that caters to our wider workforce.

For the doctors and the nurses, the council workers and emergency staff coming off shifts at three or four in the morning who often find it difficult to even source a warming cup of tea. They are the hidden heartbeat that quietly keep our cities ticking over in the dark of night. In fact, ONS figures show that there are currently around 8.7 million nighttime workers in the UK – that is, people who work between the hours of 6pm and 6am.

The very same people working through the night to ensure supermarket shelves are stocked and schools and offices cleaned for the day ahead. For those of us who go about a more conventional day–to–day, often we’re lulled into not appreciating the often unseen contribution of night workers. But we’d certainly notice if it was suddenly taken away.

In energising a city’s after–dark offerings, consideration must be given to the safety of women at night. As Lamé highlights, this priority issue requires close collaboration by venues, operators, charities, councils and transport providers to ensure public spaces are safe throughout the night.

Which is why it’s so important to see foundations being laid by Hospitality Ulster who in its recent collaboration with White Ribbon NI have committed to rolling out the Women’s Night Safety Charter right across Northern Ireland. Using London and indeed Belfast to spark a ripple effect that will see the introduction of improved measures and guidance to ensure the safety of women and girls travelling, working or going out at nighttime.

Changing the opening times of an entire city will undoubtedly require buy–in across the board, not to mention careful planning and engagement with local residents living in the heart of Belfast.

Through the creation of a Night Czar or similar advisory role on our doorstep, we can begin to plot out the benefits of reenergising our city centre. Leveraging not just the restoration of Stormont, but also the increased footfall of university students to breath a new lease of life onto the streets and create a space which is inclusive and forward–thinking in this era when working flexibly has become more and more common.

Like most items on the Executive to–do list, two years of stalemate has only compounded the need for swift and effective progress. But it does not need to be a standing start. By drawing on the lessons from London, we can view Belfast City Centre through a new night–time lens and uncover the opportunities hiding in the darkness.

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