THE LEGACY OF ILEX: The Spartan child left on the hillside

Local businessman, Ryan Williams
Local businessman, Ryan Williams

Following last month’s announcement that urban generation company, Ilex, is to close next year Ryan Williams, local investor and business owner looks at its legacy and suggests it achieved more than it has been given credit for.

Mr Williams, a former NW Director of Business in the Community in Northern Ireland, has had a long career in social and economic regeneration at both an executive and voluntary level and supported the development of the corporate engagement strategy for the City of Culture in 2012/2013.

Ilex was formed about three years after I first moved to the city in 2000. From the moment it was set up the future was always going be to be problematic and challenging. Ilex was a premature birth, landing in a harsh and long suffering landscape with an unhealthy, unhelpful mix of headline grabbing politics, an immature grasp of regeneration and what it meant (with a few notable exceptions), a lack of fundamental leadership or confident concerted community optimism. The urban renewal toddler with distance-based parents was always going to find it tough to grow up fast.

The recent and final report of RSM McClure Watters makes for some interesting reading and its conclusions make for some ‘even better’ headlines. Let’s assume there are no grounds for a massive conspiracy theory and no vested interest in ensuring Derry has its potential limited and stifled by a central administration in Belfast. Taking such a view wastes time, effort and detracts from any co-ordinated challenge to the assumptions contained in the report. And challenges are required. Below is a little food for thought:

‘Mission drift’

Describing the securing of the City of Culture title as ‘mission drift’ is almost farcical. The City of Culture was an incredible achievement for the North West and while some of the local press took great delight in finding fault across the year-long event the title put the city on the global map like never before. Derry now has a global reputation for delivering world class events, something not remotely possible ten years ago. To describe the City of Culture in urban regeneration terms as ‘mission drift’ is a bit like describing the Guggenheim Museum as ‘dressing on a salad’ or Liverpool European Capital of Culture as year of ‘good craic’ – both achievements are central pillars of broader cultural and economic transformation. I have personally met around 20 people in the city who claim to have secured the City of Culture title – can we be absolutely clear that the bulk of work, vision and drive came from our ‘failed’ Urban Regeneration Company.


Ilex had some incredible leaders during its 12-year history and we have to ask the question: what was so badly flawed in the role or the environment created that ensured limited tenure? It seems incredibly puerile to state that the company simply recruited the wrong people - every time. Many of the individuals involved were - and continue to be - incredible leaders, innovators and exemplar community champions and social entrepreneurs. I know their calibre well having worked with some of them both inside and outside the city over the last 20 years. It should be noted that 80% of leaders fail because of the environment they enter – not for any lack of skill or ability. Motivating and retaining talent is not rocket science. A former chairmen of Ilex once said ‘I have never seen a city that could hurt itself so much’ – that hurts.

Ilex versus DSD

Comparing the value of Ilex to DSD is perhaps one of the more ludicrous comparisons contained in the report. A Department which will consume almost three quarters of billion pounds this financial year is likely to have a broader impact than Ilex. It has a budget and a direct line to the decision makers – not something which Ilex was afforded. We also have to look with suspicion at a number of the ‘success stories’ from DSD in recent years that they directly manage. When I worked with DSD at the start of my career progress on capital projects was entirely down to the public sector executive from the department who was nominated to work with your project. If you got the right person then progress was possible. If you got the wrong contact, you might as well have pulled your capital regeneration duvet back over your head and slept right through winter. Likewise OFMDFM would probably need to tread gently in terms of pointing to ‘massively’ successful urban regeneration projects.

No capital budget

Ilex didn’t actually have a capital budget – every penny had to be secured via a separate business plan for every project. Urban Renewal must generate a domino effect – if one domino doesn’t topple the machine tends to stop. If every domino needed someone to intervene to make it fall you end up in regeneration hell. The other comment allegedly from DSD again requires further exploration – the quality of business plans received was insufficient. This again borders on hilarity. What makes a successful effective business plan in DSD has been an item of some mirth for almost two decades. Equally again knowing some of the individuals in Ilex at various levels, personally and professionally, the ability to write persuasive and effective business plans is a given.

The One Plan

The One Plan was an outstanding piece of strategic development and visioning, providing a much need city-wide focus and synergy for the first time. Before the One Plan the city had created a tapestry of strategic nonsense culminating in around 143 various types of regeneration plans and priorities – it was a spaghetti junction of nonsense and immobilisation. Ilex delivered the One Plan.

Ebrington and Fort George

I’m not sure about anyone else but I do see a little more than a slight change in Ebrington and Fort George. I see Fort George most days in that we based two of our own businesses in the Science Park alongside a host of other tech and high-growth start up enterprises. My father came to Derry almost 30 years ago to take part in a teacher training programme. He returned for the City of Culture and described what he witnessed as the biggest transformation in any city he had ever seen. That takes a little work. Ebrington and Fort George would not have happened without Ilex.

The Peace Bridge

I must admit I wasn’t sold on the bridge as a ‘first’ project. I was wrong. The Peace Bride has become the city’s Guggenheim – it has brought the city together physically and emotionally. It has become an emblem for our ambition and progress. Ilex delivered the Peace Bridge.

There is no doubt Ilex had some problems. They were unable to respond fast enough to the private sector – they had an insufficient complement of staff from the private sector across the staffing team. Unfortunately this is not uncommon in Urban Regeneration companies as they usually have to comply with recruitment policies that actively discriminate against applications from the private sector – or fail to attract interest because of the attraction approaches they are obliged to deploy.

Ilex also failed to fully harness ‘greed’ and its importance in regeneration – this does allow you to, on occasion, fast-track investment - but it can come at the cost of integrity, compliance and good governance. The issues identified in terms of governance incidentally, during the ten years of Ilex, could only be described as sardines in the ocean of NI PLC governance and integrity killer whales.

Ilex is analogous to a weak Spartan child cruelly abandoned by its parents on a hillside. Left to fend for itself it appears our Spartan toddler will not make it through the night. If only we had made it through adolescence - and perhaps seen our parents once in a while - we might just have become the responsible and effective adult we all hoped it could have been.