City Deal: all the plans and visions are now becoming a reality

Derry City and Strabane District Council Chief Executive John Kelpie says the signing of the Heads of Terms Agreement for the regional City Deal is an important milestone. In this article, he gives an insight into the work involved in getting it over the line and outlines the next steps in bringing about delivery.

Saturday, 6th March 2021, 10:59 am
Derry's prospects as a result of the City Deal are set to flourish.

The signing of the Heads of Terms Agreement for the Derry/Londonderry and Strabane City Region City Deal and Inclusive Future Fund Investment Plan last week was a momentous occasion. It was a hugely positive and significant step forward for the City and District and testament to the sustained collaborative effort over many years by Council and its partners in working with both the UK and NI Governments to deliver an investment package of such scale.

It clears the way for the next stage of the process which is the development of outline business cases for each of the projects which comprise the overall £250m. funding package.

It has been a long road to get to this stage and has only been possible through close, joined-up working with our local key delivery partners - Council, Ulster University, the North West Regional College, the Western Health and Social Care Trust and C-Tric, the clinical research and innovation centre at Altnagelvin Hospital.

John Kelpie.

These delivery partners have been supported throughout by the wider civic, business and community and voluntary organisations across the Council area, by key partners regionally and nationally and with full unanimous political endorsement both present and past at Council, MLA and MP levels.

Thanks to our combined efforts, we have made great strides in developing and advancing proposals to the point where respective government departments have ‘cleared’ strategic outline business cases for all of the innovation and regeneration projects submitted and are now committed to work with us to further develop and implement the plan.

The funding will deliver three world class centres of innovation excellence, two major and transformational city and town centre regeneration schemes in Derry and Strabane respectively, enhance and maximise our digital connectivity, provide skills and employability programmes and build the new School of Medicine at the Magee Campus of Ulster University.

The investment catalyses the delivery of a number of projects featured in the City and District’s Inclusive Strategic Growth Plan 2017-2032 which many of our partner organisations, businesses, communities and individual citizens worked on to co-design and co-create back in 2016/17 with a shared vision of a thriving, prosperous and sustainable City and District with equality of opportunity for all.

The City Deal has the potential to realise economic growth in the city and region.

Together with the many other projects, initiatives and programmes set out in the original plan, the City Deal projects will contribute to building a stronger, more competitive and resilient economy, will provide opportunity in additional and higher paid jobs, and will help create a more regionally-balanced economy over the coming years.

Delivered correctly, the projects should go some way in addressing many of the historic challenges faced by the City and District and provide pathways to employment for many of our citizens, particularly our young people for whom a strong signal of hope and ambition, particularly at this time, is so very much needed and welcome.

City Deals in Northern Ireland are tailored packages of funding and investment aimed at stimulating and developing innovation projects of regional and national significance. They are negotiated between the UK Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and local authority led partnerships and are generally augmented by match funding for major regeneration and tourism projects. City Deals are designed to create new jobs and employment opportunities and leverage additional investment to accelerate inclusive economic growth through medium to long term investment.

The Derry and Strabane City Deal is bolstered by the parallel Inclusive Future Fund which is unique to this Council area. The combined investment package in City Deal and Inclusive Future Fund will see £210m. provided by Government. This is made up of £100m. City Deal funding, comprising £50m. from the UK Government match funded by £50m. from the Northern Ireland Executive, and The Inclusive Future Fund in an amount of £110m, made up of £55m. from the UK Government match funded by £55m. from the Northern Ireland Executive.

With an additional approximate £40m. provided by Derry City and Strabane District Council and its delivery partners, overall circa £250m. of funding is now approved and represents the largest, single investment ever by government at any one time in a suite of integrated projects in the City and District.

This suite of projects is in the areas of Innovation, Digital and Health together with Regeneration, Tourism and Renewal and they will be underpinned by a programme for job creation, skills and employability in their design and delivery, and by the principles of inclusivity and sustainability.

They include the expansion and development of centres of innovation excellence which already exist in the city; in data analytics and artificial intelligence, robotics and automation at Ulster University’s Magee Campus and in personalised medicine on both the Altnagelvin and Magee sites, together with the development of the Graduate Entry Medical School.

A digital enabling infrastructure programme will be delivered creating a step change in the digital infrastructure within the city region by focussing on next generation technologies facilitating new capabilities in terms of availability, speed, capacity and resilience. A ‘Smart City’ project will place the city at the leading edge of urban innovation supporting the development and deployment at scale and commercialisation of smart specialisations across a range of sectors and public service delivery.

The Central Riverfront and Walled City regeneration projects will include the complete reconstruction of Queen’s Quay and remodelling of Harbour Square, delivery of the Derry/Londonderry North Atlantic (DNA) Maritime Visitor Experience at Ebrington and investment in tourism, place making, major environmental improvement and economic stimulus in the Walled City Core.

The vision is to shape and create a vibrant and attractive riverfront and a world class cultural, business, civic, learning and innovation destination with significant new opportunities for further investment and employment.

The Strabane Town Centre regeneration programme will revitalise the town centre by creating new physical infrastructure centred around the historic Canal Basin to include a primary health care hub, a further and higher education campus for the North West Regional College, a new leisure centre and swimming pool, and business incubation units all connected into the town with new public realm and a footbridge over the river.

In spite of significant progress in recent years, it is long understood and well documented that the city and district faces complex challenges resulting in the persistent underperformance of the economy for a range of inter-related geo-political and historic reasons including its border location, peripherality, poor connectivity, legacy of infrastructure underinvestment and inadequate university provision.

The result is a city and region which has not and is not fulfilling its maximum potential and the gap in performance between Derry and comparable cities continues to diverge. The recent challenges of Covid and Brexit may serve to further exacerbate these long-established difficulties.

Now, however, as we plan for recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and the impacts resulting from the UK’s exit from the European Union, we must work together to face these new challenges while continuing to address the long established ones.

While mitigating challenge, however, it is equally if not more important to recognise and embrace emerging opportunities.

Opportunities in Life and Health Sciences, in digital technologies, in the application of research in artificial intelligence and machine learning - all areas of focus and investment through City Deal. Opportunities in the development and promotion of the compelling proposition that is Derry/Strabane and the wider North West as the only city region located where the UK and EU meet; a great place to live, visit, study or to do business. Again, areas of focus through City Deal and Future Fund in relation to the significant regeneration, tourism and renewal projects and the emphasis on skills development.

Current economic analysis for the Council area forecasts that, if we continue as is, employment will grow over the next decade or so, but only moderately by approximately 3,500 or 5%. Factoring in the projects to be delivered by City Deal and this growth is conservatively forecast to rise to approximately 11,000 new jobs, and overall 14% uplift. Local Gross Value Added (GVA –the value of local goods and services) is anticipated to rise by approximately £210m. and local wages by £126m. over the period and a forecast decline in population growth arrested and reversed.

It is anticipated that 70% of the jobs created could be filled by local residents if we deliver effective skills and pathways to employment schemes and initiatives. This we must do and will do with our third level colleges and university, our schools, our experienced skills providers and our connected community and voluntary sector all working together in partnership with our statutory government departments and agencies to ensure that there is opportunity for all and that no-one gets left behind.

The employment opportunities generated will be across many sectors and a range of skills and competencies. More jobs, better paid jobs and a greater choice and range of employment opportunities. In technology, research and in industry; in construction as the projects are planned and built; and in the hospitality, tourism, recreation and services sectors as the projects develop and the benefits widen. Inclusive growth with benefits for all if designed and delivered together, with our people, especially our young people, at the core of our ambition.

Private sector investment must grow to maximise the opportunity. We are already seeing an increase in interest and activity with more inquiries than ever before. While our indigenous private sector is constantly innovating and reinventing, there is simply not enough entrepreneurial opportunity currently in the city and district. This is something we expect to grow as these projects start moving forward.

It is also important, however, that, as we grow, we are cautious about the type of investment we attract, that it is of the highest quality we can achieve and that it fits in with the skills and talent base that we have and is aligned to our objectives and goals.

A key element of all of this will be ensuring it aligns with our aspirations on climate mitigation and change, the environment and sustainability and has real social value.

Inclusive growth economically, environmentally and societally with a focus on climate change and sustainability in the planning and design of all of the projects, with an emphasis on local supply chains and social clauses in contracts and with a wider strategic view to deliver a more connected, more accessible City and Town Centre in Derry and Strabane with improved, high quality and frequent public transport services.

The City Deal and Inclusive Future Fund Investment, while delivering tangible and substantial benefits, is clearly not a panacea for all ills and our ambitions and plans are for sustainable and inclusive growth considerably in excess of what can and will be delivered by this investment alone, however welcome and opportune it may be .

Parallel community development and the provision of enhanced local facilities across all of our neighbourhoods is paramount. Derry City and Strabane District Council understands this and is currently delivering or planning to deliver over £100m. of local play, recreation, physical and mental health, leisure and community infrastructure and programmes right across the Council area in the next five years with further investment continuing beyond then.

The potential of the City Deal and Inclusive Future Fund projects will also be limited without full implementation of the key strategic government commitments to significant expansion in university/third level provision in the city and wider North West and to full delivery of critical strategic enabling road, rail, air and port infrastructure.

Full implementation of the commitment in the New Decade New Approach agreement to the provision of a minimum of 10,000 university places in the city must be realised to provide maximum opportunity for young people from across the city and district and beyond to avail of the opportunities arising from the investment and to ensure long-term sustainable employment growth.

High quality road connectivity providing fast, reliable and safe journeys to/from the city and district is critical and, while the A6 Derry to Belfast is currently progressing well on-site, development of the remaining section of this important route needs to advance as soon as possible as well as full delivery of the A5/N2 Western Transport corridor to Dublin.

Within the city, it is vital that the A2 Buncrana Road widening scheme is provided to unlock the currently constrained economic development along its length from the border to Fort George with its proposed exciting innovation, health and tourism developments.

A focus is also required on sustaining vital air connectivity via City of Derry Airport, on the development of Foyle Port and on the future of rail including the delivery of the planned Phase 3 works between the City and Coleraine but also importantly on feasibility planning for future expansion.

We have many business cases and processes to work through yet before we see cranes on the skyline and full implementation but it is happening. We are collectively making it happen! The medical school is opening this August in temporary accommodation within the existing Magee campus and design work will start soon on its preferred new home on the riverfront. The DNA in Ebrington and the leisure centre in Strabane will start on site in the next 2/3 years and the various innovation projects will roll out from then as well.

The major regeneration projects, due to their scale and complexity, will take longer but short term improvements are being consulted on and planned for delivery between now and then, engaging people and opinion in shaping and creating the plans.

No-one underestimates the task ahead, the challenges and the difficulties. Important as the announcement was last week, it is imperative that we keep it in context and, while a significant boost in advancing our collective goals as a city and district, we must remain focussed on the bigger picture.

There are so many organisations, businesses, teams and individuals right across this city and district right now who are delivering and planning to deliver even more exciting plans and initiatives in the years ahead. There are more exciting announcements to come, big and small and all equally as important. We are all cognisant of the year we’ve just been through; the loss, the pain, the hurt and suffering. But there currently is a new air of hope and optimism. The planning and visioning by so many, both past and present, is becoming a reality.

For each and every one of us, for our communities and our businesses, the City Deal and Inclusive Future Fund Investment creates opportunity. We must work together to understand that opportunity, to capture and harness it and make it real.

Above all, for our young people reading this, it signals the delivery of creativity, hope and optimism. Whether at University or planning to go, studying at the regional college, undertaking an apprenticeship or still at school, the signing of the Heads of Terms agreement last week, delivered and supported by so many, is clear evidence that this city and district is working for you to provide unsurpassed and fulfilling life opportunities for all of you, your friends and future families right here, right now, in this great place.

That, when all is said and done, is what all of this is about.