Why Derry needs Ilex

Paul Gosling responds to calls for Derry’s urban regeneration company to be scrapped.

On a recent trip to Leicester, I was taken to the top of the council offices to look at a sky line dominated by cranes. Bill Kirk – chief executive of Derry’s urban regeneration company Ilex – promises a similar horizon here within months.
It’s not, of course, that cranes are objects of beauty. But they are a symbol of our better future – of renewal, regeneration and, ultimately, renaissance. From Derry’s mix of wonderful and downright ugly there will emerge something that is excellent. From this our economic and social reconstruction can be forged.

This is not merely wishful thinking. Over recent months I have been to English cities to look at their regeneration – visiting Manchester, Sheffield, Leicester, Nottingham, Reading, Derby and Lincoln.

What I have seen is inspiring – and should inspire us. Cities that flourished in the Victorian era but declined as their traditional industries faded have been recreated. Those of us who knew these cities before can be amazed and delighted that places of depression and poverty have become scenes of urban beauty.

Talk of ‘urban beauty’ might be thought over the top – but go to Lincoln and take a look. Lincoln has similarities to Derry. It is a small city of 83,000 people, it suffered as its heavy engineering industrial base declined and it has too few graduates – just 10%, the same as Derry. It also has an historic centre, with a cathedral and old quarter.

But Lincoln was blighted by a central riverside site – Brayford – that was a rat-infested wasteland, containing rotting railway sidings and carriages. Lincoln was also a city in need of re-skilling – to build a workforce fit for 21st century technologies. The solution to the two challenges was the creation of a new university, the University of Lincoln, whose campus is at Brayford Quay.

What had been an eyesore is now a modern campus, producing students with the knowledge to work in the creative industries – a specialism of the university – and lead the city’s rebirth as a hub for new technologies. It is a strategy that is working. Lincoln University’s replacement of the old University of Lincolnshire and Humberside – which had been sited in Hull – was called by The Times Student Guide “the most dramatic transformation of a university in recent times”.

And specialist courses and incubation units within the university are confidently expected to produce spin-off new creative businesses that will be the basis of the city’s future economic wellbeing.

Other cities and towns tell different stories, yet ones that are as dramatically successful.

The centre of Manchester is wonderful – transformed. Sheffield’s city centre contains some of the most attractive new buildings in Europe. Leicester is building a performing arts centre that is the most ambitious building project of its kind anywhere in Europe.

And Reading (population 146,000) has led its economic expansion with a three-pronged strategy based around retail, commercial and sporting. It has a stunning, massive, shopping centre in the heart of the town, constructed on a derelict riverside site, bringing new life to the town.

Modern business estates have attracted multinationals and thousands of jobs.

The cultural improvement of the town has been led by the reinvigoration of Reading Town Football Club, a sparkling new stadium and a partnership between a wealthy businessman and the council.

Different routes – same destination

These wonderful developments have taken derelict land – polluted by years of heavy industry – and used them to create ultramodern facilities. The models used for regeneration have differed.

In Reading and Lincoln, regeneration was led by local councils – but these authorities have more powers than do councils in Northern Ireland and have benefited from consistent and strong strategic leadership.

Elsewhere, the remaking of old towns and cities has been led very successfully by regeneration organisations – urban development corporations (UDCs) and urban regeneration companies. Belfast’s impressive regeneration was led by the unique Laganside Corporation.

The success of different models shows that there is no single route to regeneration achievement.

But what we have here in Ilex should serve us well – providing it is strengthened and made more accountable. Ilex has certainly had difficulties – it is in effect on its third chief executive and third chairman, in only four years – and its community engagement is weak compared with the best regeneration agencies in England.

Ilex needs a stronger relationship with Derry’s population. It is, though, an organisation that we cannot afford to lose.

Imagine Derry as a buzzing city, with tourists attracted in their thousands by its history, its arts, its walls, its connections with St Colmcille/Columba and Amelia Earhart.

A Derry with a thriving large university campus, producing students fit for our new technology industries.

A city centre purged of its eyesores, with high quality architecture.

This is an ambition that is realisable, providing it is led by regeneration professionals with the right skills, vision and drive.
Ilex has proved by its recent progress on producing a first class regeneration plan for the Ebrington Barracks and the commencement of work on site that it is now up to the job of recreating Derry, under its current leadership. That is why Ilex deserves the support of the whole of the city.

Paul Gosling is a journalist and consultant and is co-ordinator of the North West Public Sector Review Group. Its report on Ilex can be accessed at www.northwestpublic.org. (see the final article in Colm Cavanagh’s series on Derry’s future, p18)

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