Posted on Thursday 12 May 2011 by Ulster Business

[caption id="attachment_984" align="alignnone" width="510" caption="UK City of Culture 2103 Corporate Leadership Team"]UK City of Culture 2103 Corporate Leadership Team[/caption]

While there have been some big strides taken to revitalise the economy in the North West, more muscle is needed to build an effective regeneration policy for Derry City, argues John Simpson

Ilex, the official regeneration agency based in Derry-Londonderry, has won some notable successes. It has established itself as a credible agency in bringing together many of the diverse strands of the communities in the north-west and speaks with well-informed authority in discussions and negotiations about the city. Most notably, Ilex can take significant credit, along with the City Council, in winning the bid to be deemed the UK City of Culture in 2013. The City of Culture status is a powerful symbol of a city with a new community consensus and a degree of self-assurance that helps to move away from the image of a much troubled and disadvantaged area. The success in planning to take the stage as City of Culture will generate some of its own momentum for the economy, for life-styles and for its international reputation. That said, there needs to be a recognition that the regeneration of a modern successful city calls for a much more comprehensive long-term strategy, which is not yet assured. Many of the claims that the City of Culture award would attract major investments were, presumably, conditional on the delivery of the more strategic long-term vision. If the plans and events needed to build a strong regeneration policy were put into a sequence, the first would be a secure statement of common purpose that the main stakeholders (to be identified in a later paragraph) would co-operate and contribute to a coherent plan for the city and its neighbouring region. Arguably, because of organisational weaknesses, that has not yet been fully agreed.

Sequential planning

If the merits of a coherent regeneration policy are accepted, then there are questions about its implementation. In turn, that can be sequenced as, first, clearly identifying the responsibilities of the main stakeholders, second, ensuring that there is an agreed baseline of relevant evidence on which to draw conclusions about development options and, third, as options are prioritised they are matched by the identification of responsibilities for funding and delivery. Funding and delivery calls for much more than a Government or local City Council commitment. An important constraint is recognition that the private sector and community organisations must be big contributors. Ilex, with a constrained legal remit, has been influential in its efforts to deliver, or take part in, these sequential steps. The aspirational statements and documents from Ilex have displayed ambitions which reach beyond its narrow remit, stemming from the former military base sites. However, Ilex is not equipped with the legal authority and funding to act as a development company for the wider regeneration of the City. The limited authority of Ilex and indeed the limited urban development powers of the City Council, pose a serious practical dilemma. If, as part of a radical regeneration scheme, parts of the built urban environment need to be managed, redeveloped or incentivised into new activities, the policy levers lie at Stormont through the Department of Social Development (DSD). Despite the well intentioned efforts of DSD, that department is not well suited to the task of major urban redevelopment, particularly when the emphasis is more heavily on economic questions, alongside social needs. Also, major urban redevelopment should be a shared prerogative of local government: the City Council should have defined responsibilities. Regeneration in Derry City is evolving in constrained arrangements with Ilex acting as a combination of marketing agency and lobbyist but not a delivery vehicle. The route map for a potentially influential setting of regeneration policy has been emerging in the work undertaken by Ilex. Most recently, Ilex commissioned Oxford Economics to bring together the evidence of the strengths and weaknesses of the City in a path-breaking study: 'Context and baseline report: Derry-Londonderry, today and tomorrow.'

Baseline and then beyond

The baseline report should be compulsory reading for everyone with an interest in bringing economic progress to the City. The inherent assets are identified, the weaknesses are measured and, to add realism, the scale of disadvantage and inequality are shown to be much worse than in comparable UK cities. Oxford Economics do not mince their words. The challenge to lift the City economy is measured in terms that are formidable. A well informed statistical model reveals the disadvantages of the starting point in 2009 and the scale of the changes needed if modest targets are set for 2020. Using some central objectives in terms of employment and activity rates, Oxford Economics suggests that the workplace economy would need to create 20,000 jobs to realise what they describe as 'the mid urban rank employment target'. This would be an extra 40% over today's employment. In a careful qualification the report adds that this falls well short of saying HOW these jobs would be created. That part of the regeneration programme relies in part on Government actions but relies even more on the factors making the City an attractive location for new and growing businesses. The plan makes the realistic assumption that, especially in the near future, more Government spending will be limited and prioritised.

Enhancing competitiveness

A specific reference to the positive relationship of population growth with a possible expansion of higher education at Magee gives some credence to the suggestions that Magee should be encouraged (and financed?) to expand. Since the number of university places in Northern Ireland is likely to be static, if not falling, this idea has trade off implications for other university campuses. The debate about the location of university places for Northern Ireland students takes on a more persuasive form when the Report quotes the evidence that the present arrangements mean that more students from the north-west must travel to study elsewhere but also that a higher proportion actually go out of Northern Ireland, which adds the risk that more bright people will take their careers out of the north-west. The most telling educational comparator, influencing future policy, is a conclusion that the schools in the areas 'would have to half the proportion of the working age population who have no formal (educational) qualifications (9,000 people)'. There would also have to be an 11 percentage point increase in the number of people with NVQ level 4 qualifications. Derry City is painted as being a long way from being adequately prepared with the right people and adequate infrastructure to begin to successfully regenerate. To the credit of the City, the assessment is that it has a strong cultural and artistic heritage as well as posing good assets to attract a stronger tourism sector. However, in a blunt conclusion, Oxford Economics argue that the City 'performs well below its potential. In comparison with other UK urban areas across a wide range of economic metrics, it languishes towards the lower end of the spectrum'. The case for a carefully resourced urban regeneration authority is compelling!

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