Listen: Karen Bradley on the border, 'Derry Girls', a City Deal for Derry, and that stalled Euro Capital of Culture bid

The Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, believes a ‘City Deal’ could transform Derry’s societal and economic prospects but has warned it’s a non-starter while power-sharing lies dormant at Stormont.

The newly-incumbent minister, who paid her first visit to the city this week, said a ‘City Deal’ cannot be delivered in the absence of a functioning Executive.

Karen Bradley.

Karen Bradley.

Mrs. Bradley indicated the re-establishment of stable regional government in Belfast was a pre-requisite for the devolution to Derry of the extra powers and budgets that would make such a vehicle so transformative for the North West.

“I’m supportive of ‘City Deals.’ I’m supportive of devolution. I think ‘City Deals’ in Northern Ireland are a really exciting prospect. The frustration, of course, is that some of the powers that would need to be devolved currently rest in Stormont.

“They are not powers that Westminster has and until they get devolved government at Stormont, we can’t devolve those powers to the city.

“We can do all the preparatory work. We can do as much as is possible; but actually doing the deal itself isn’t possible until we’ve got a devolved government.”

Derry City and Strabane District Council believes its comprehensive Strategic Growth Plan should be the basis of a ‘City Deal’ and that this would ultimately realise 14,500 extra jobs, population growth up to 156,200 and an extra half-a-billion pounds (Gross Value Added) for the local economy by 2032.

‘City Deals’ in Britain have already resulted in the devolution of extra powers which have allowed cities to invest in growth in return for a direct share of the national tax take, to access national match-funding on top of local public and private investment cocktails and to actually wield powers over rail and transport directly.

DC&SDC has indicated the delivery of a ‘City Deal’ would allow it to work with its partners to progress priority projects including the A5, A6 and A2 road schemes; the expansion of Ulster University and NWRC; new urban regeneration schemes in Strabane and along the riverfront in Derry; the delivery of a major iconic tourism attractor for the region and the delivery of a North West Enterprise Zone.

But Mrs. Bradley said unlocking this kind of potential was wholly dependant on local politicians getting the Stormont show back on the road.

“It’s a really strong message for all the locally elected politicians, to come together, bring that government back to Stormont, because these are the real things that matter to people’s lives and that would make a significant difference to places like Derry/Londonderry, to get a ‘City Deal’ and to get those devolved powers,” she maintained.

During her visit she called into Thornhill College, Altnagelvin Hospital, the Chamber of Commerce, Strand Road Police Station and even went for a stroll along the Derry Walls.
The meet-and-greet came just weeks after her succeeding James Brokenshire as Secretary of State in January.

While it was her first trip to Derry she was by no means unfamiliar with another key priority for the city.

Back in November it was on her desk, as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), upon which dropped the European

Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Mr. Tibor Navracsics’ bombshell letter advising that Derry, as a result of Brexit, was ineligible for the European Capital of Culture title in 2023.

She said: “It’s interesting. It was one of the things we talked about .

“Obviously, we’re greatly disappointed that the EC has said that we weren’t able to bid to be the Capital of Culture [despite it being] the UK’s turn to do it and we had lots of indications that that was what the EC wanted us to do.

“I know my old department [DCMS] is working with all the councils who had put bids forward because you only have to see Derry today to see what 2013 City of Culture did.

“The opportunities for the European Capital of Culture were so great, so there’s great disappointment and I know the department is working with the council to see what we can do to really promote culture because, actually, when you see what culture can do to transform a place as a better place to live, work and visit, it’s just transformative.”

Mrs. Bradley likened the recent buzz around Lisa McGee’s ‘Derry Girls’ sitcom to that which elevated Derry to global attention during City of Culture 2013.

She remarked: “What a success story [Derry Girls has been]. It’s just put Derry on the map again like City of Culture did in 2013. I’m sure with another series in the offing it will continue to do so.”

As for Derry’s stalled tilt for what would be the mother of all City of Culture crowns, Mrs. Bradley said she didn’t believe Derry’s Euro bid was dead in the water just yet.

“To be clear, you don’t have to be an EU member state to be a Capital of Culture. There are cities that have been Capitals of Culture and will be that aren’t members of the EU. There were two countries in 2023, one was Hungary and one was the UK, and DCMS have been given assurances that the EC wanted a bid from the UK.

“They are not replacing the UK with another country so there are good grounds to dispute what the EC have said.

“All I would say is that there’s not a replacement country coming in to replace the UK.

“It will be a Hungarian city and no other, so I think we’ve got good grounds to dispute what the EC have said.”