Congratulations to Declan Hassan for focusing in his Business Matters column this week on the Fort George plan. As he explained, the proposal approved by the Department for Communities is for a new health treatment centre on the river front. Yet this could be located in a variety of other locations on the city-side.
As Fort George is arguably Derry’s most strategically important development site, this decision is, on the face of it, bizarre and stupid. Perhaps the Department for Communities could accept the need as a public body for democratic accountability and provide the reasons – in detail.
Surely, this riverside site should be used for something that adds real value to the city in terms of tourism offer and economic opportunity. For example, one of the alternative proposals is for it to be a visitor centre that shows off the city’s history as a place of embarkation for literally millions of Irish people, leaving their homeland for America, Australia and elsewhere. Surely that warrants more than a footnote in history books.
A major embarkation visitor centre would potentially be Derry’s equivalent of Belfast’s Titanic Museum. Similarly, a high quality visitor attraction on the Foyle could unlock a range of other facilities for tourists and local people along the Foyle.
Our river is badly underused. And much of our city’s unique history is ignored. Too little is said or done about Derry’s location as an embarkation port for generations of Irish people; its key role in the Second World War’s Battle of the Atlantic; and, even, the Siege. It is almost as if too many Northern Ireland decision-makers are indifferent to the welfare and disparity of the city and region. If so, it shows that history is being constantly repeated.
Perhaps the Department for Communities has sound reasons for rejecting scheme proposals that would enhance the city and region’s tourism industry, generating significant income and extra jobs. Of course, the health treatment centre will also create jobs and services – but would these not be better located in another setting?
Derry has a poor record of making the best of its most important geographical resource – the River Foyle. And the Department for Communities, in its previous guise as the Department for Social Development, has a poor record in doing right by the city. After all, DSD’s restrictions on the activities of the former Ilex urban regeneration company was a significant factor in it failing to achieve what was expected of it.
A public conversation, along with public accountability, should now take place. Perhaps it is not too later for the decision on the future use of Fort George to be reconsidered. And perhaps if the regeneration powers were transferred to Derry City and Strabane Council, as had been intended, a better decision would have already been made.
It is time for Derry City and Strabane Council to have full regeneration powers. And the city as a whole to have a proper debate on our future and how to create prosperity that benefits far more people.