As we hurtle our way towards City of Culture 2013 I think it is appropriate to submit a few thoughts for public debate.
Why do we have an unelected and unaccountable body like ILEX responsible for the regeneration of Derry?
After £14m has been spent we appear to have tons of verbiage about self-evident aspirations like a fair, environmental, educational, interesting and creative city but precious little in the way of actual programmes.
It appears that ILEX is totally committed to spending whatever capital (precious little by all accounts) it can lay its hands on in the Ebrington site. How can we have faith in a body that talks about a Tate Modern costing hundreds of millions as a centrepiece for an arts and culture cluster in Ebrington when the existing Arts and Culture cluster in the city centre is so desperately starved of funds?
How can we take seriously the consultation process when everybody in the business community has been shouting at deaf ears that we need an adequate car parking strategy, and at the same time plans are afoot to remove the car parking adjacent to the Guildhall to facilitate a park supposedly to accomodate the thousands that are going to throng to the city centre on the new peace bridge, even though we have an entire riverfront that badly needs to be upgraded as civic amenity.
We have heard many times and oft that there is no money attached to the City of Culture award and it will be down to private investment to make the City of Culture happen.
Well here is the breaking news -that’s not happening. This is not simply because all our local entrepreneurs are finding themselves strapped for cash but also because it is difficult for investors to see how they will get a return. We have seen an alarming rise in charity organisations taking over potentially commercially valuable space on zero rent simply so that the property owner can avoid paying rates on their vacant property. But it’s not just charity organisations that are driving down rentals.
In the past year I have tried to let out my city centre premise to local government, city council and a variety of other organisations to be told that the rentals they would be prepared to pay ranged from £0 to £3 per square foot.
We are told that there will be a shortfall of beds in Derry by 2013 of between 50 and 1500 and yet there are city centre properties capable of being redeveloped to meet that need which can be purchased for a fraction of their value in 2007, lying undeveloped. Why are the “greedy developers” not biting? Could it be that they are not buying the hype?
We have just had the City Realm project delivered at the cost of millions. It basically involved removing perfectly good paving from the Guildhall Square and Strand Rd and Waterloo Street and replacing it with inferior paving that seems to attract dirt. Our Council has spent millions of pounds to develop a quality market and if you want to see what that has delivered have a look at the fine stalls outside Supervalu.
The City of Culture 2013 provided Derry with an opportunity to showcase itself, not just for 2013 but for the years to come. To date I see little effort being made by those charged with delivering this objective in galvanizing existing local stakeholders. It seems they prefer instead to bring in outside overpaid consultants. When I look at the astounding achievements of the Nerve Centre, The Playhouse, the whole host of community and voluntary groups not to mention commercial operators like Masons and Sandinos, I am certain that Derry will have a continued vibrant cultural and political life. But it is high time that we developed a strategy that synergies that latent local talent with whatever public funds are available. In the tough times ahead it is time that we found a new paradigm for community groups and enterprise to maximise the benefit to the community.
Just as a small aside, I note that the council are congratulating themselves on keeping the rate rise to a minimum. Pause for reflection - why are the council charging local businesses to have their cardboard collected and paying ratepayers money on drivers to go out and collect it when Brikkiln are doing it for free. Could it be that private operators could carry out many council functions for a fraction of the cost!
Yours, Peter J Mackenzie,
Cafe Artisan, Derry