'Patience is wearing thin' over Magee expansion, councillors told

A motion calling for the First Ministers and Economy Minister to work to ensure that Magee expansion proposals set out in the New Decade New Approach agreement are realised passed unanimously.

Councillors called for the expansion of Magee to 10,000 students to be included in the forthcoming Programme for Government.

However, an amendment calling for the City Deal funding to be withheld from Ulster University until a firm guarantee is given by the university to have 10,000 full-time students at Magee by 2030 fell.

SDLP Councillor Rory Farrell brought the motion saying ‘We need to see proposals and progress and we need to see them now’.

He said: “We have the smallest uni of any city on these islands. We have the highest unemployment, highest economic inactivity and lowest wages of any city on these islands and that’s not a coincidence, it’s not rocket science.

Universities create opportunity, they create employment, they create wealth and those are three commodities in very short supply in our city.

“New Decade, New Approach was published 18 months ago and it included a commitment to bring forward expansion proposals for Magee. 532 days later we have had no proposals and no progress, just dithering delay and downright avoidance.

“We’ve pressed the First Ministers repeatedly and have been ignored, blanked and dismissed repeatedly. Like it or lump it, the First Ministers own all of the commitments within the New Decade. If the First Ministers and Economy Minister aren’t prepared to make this happen they need to tell us. If they think it’s too hard or too costly, they need to tell us and if they think Derry doesn’t need it or Derry doesn’t deserve it, they need to tell us.

“Derry needs university expansion, we need the commitment of New Decade, New Approach to be honoured and to be delivered.”

Supporting the motion Sinn Féin Councillor Conor Heaney said: “Focusing on the Executive office as a magic bullet for the expansion misses the point. Our university as an institution still needs to get its act together and produce an updated business case which will propose how a new MaSN would be used within that campus.

“We know, Councillor Farrell has his own reasons for trying to focus on the Executive Office, I’ve been directly involved in trying to progress this issue for years, including my time when I was in the Executive Office and it’s my experience that there are two key issues that have held back the expansion of Magee for years. "

He said these were a lack of prioritisation of Magee and 'downright resistance' from some.

"To be fair to local DUP representatives I wouldn’t tar them with that brush because they have supported Magee," said Colr. Heaney.

Proposing an amendment that the City Deal funding be withheld from Ulster University until there is a firm guarantee to have 10,000 full time students at Magee by 2030, Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly spoke of how the university had ‘failed’ the area.

“We need to stop setting ourselves up to fail. We need a full discussion in the north west free from the interference of Belfast, whether it be the Ulster University or Stormont.

“There’s those that believe discussion has to centre on the development of an independent university for the north west.

"A university that will drive the regeneration of that region for everyone in that region," he said.

Independent Councillors Raymond Barr and Paul Gallagher and PBP Councillor Shaun Harkin supported the amendment with Councillor Gallagher saying; “How many groundhog days do we need until we say let’s put a stop to this and the only way to do that is to support this amendment and say enough is enough?”

Before the vote on the amendment, Sinn Féin Councillor Sandra Duffy said it wasn’t within the council’s power to withhold the money.

“Unfortunately from my understanding of the City Deal money, the money doesn’t belong to the council, it belongs to the individual projects, the individual strategic business cases that have been set up around it,” she said.

“With regards to the projects linked to the university, they belong to the university, they are there because the university has worked up those innovative projects. It’s not our money to withhold so we can’t even if we passed that motion, we wouldn’t have the power to see it through.”

The amendment fell with six votes for and 29 against. The original motion brought by Councillor Farrell passed unanimously.