Local Development Plan must deliver for Derry's city centre

In this article, DECLAN HASSON, argues that Derry's economic recovery should begin in its commercial heart.

Saturday, 3rd March 2018, 1:33 pm
This building at Bishop Street in the heart of Derry city centre has been derelict for some time now.

Earlier this month, Derry City & Strabane District Council granted planning permission for a major commercial development at the old Arntz Belting site on Pennyburn Pass.

At its core, the scheme has a sizeable healthcare facility along with a 50,000 sq. ft. ‘foodstore.’ The remaining elements of the proposed development are a restaurant and a petrol filling station.

This is the first major commercial planning application of its type to have been approved by the council, since powers were devolved to local government in 2015.

Since then, however, council has been working on its ‘Local Development Plan,’ which it intends will form the basis of local planning policies and priorities to specifically meet future development needs up to 2032.

The Arntz Belting planning application has been in the ‘pipeline’ for years, so how will this major scheme conform with future planning policies and priorities, as envisaged in the ‘soon-to-be completed’ Local Development Plan 2032?

The planning consent for the scheme has implications for Derry’s city centre, because of its considerable commercial content.

Whatever the ‘need’ may have been then, when the scheme was first designed, may not apply today, considering the deteriorating state of Derry’s ‘commercial core’ area.

The Strategic Planning Policy Statement, 2015, is the current policy and guidance on planning matters. It aims to support and sustain vibrant town centres, as the appropriate ‘first choice’ location for retailing and other complementary functions. The policy is more generally known as ‘a town centre first approach.’

As part of the consultation process feeding into council’s proposed Local Development Plan, 2032, a workshop dealing specifically with ‘retailing’ was held in May, 2017. The summary document makes interesting reading.

Paragraph 2.10 states: “In preparing Local Development Plans, councils must undertake an assessment of the need or capacity for retail…and should include a strategy that must promote ‘town centres first’ for retail.”

Paragraph 2.11 says: “in relation to retail impact, [current planning policy] states that ‘all policies and proposals must ensure there will be no unacceptable adverse impact on the vitality and viability of an existing centre…and that [planning] decisions must be informed by ‘robust and up to date evidence.’”

In the case of the proposed Arntz Belting development, the question is how up-to-date is the evidence to support yet another major commercial planning application on the edge of town?

In order to appreciate the potential impact of the ‘Arntz’ development proposals, it is important to understand the complexities of the retail sector within the city’s ‘commercial core.’

The unique aspect of our city centre is that historically it lies within our walls, an area more commonly referred to as ‘The Walled City.’ However, within planning, the ‘city centre’ is a much more expansive area, taking in ‘chunks’ of the Waterside, as well as along the Strand Road, as far as Fort George.

Contained within the city centre, however, is the crucially important area, known as the ‘commercial core.’ This is where retailing is concentrated, or should be concentrated and its natural ‘centre of gravity’ is within the perfectly defined area of The Walled City.

The economic ‘well being’ of this area should be a priority consideration, if we are to secure the viability and vitality of our city centre.

A number of studies over recent years consistently refer to the ‘concerning’ levels of shop vacancy in Derry. This is by no means a problem that is unique to our city, but because the problem exists elsewhere, is no reason why those with responsibility here, should not be more pro-active in reversing the negative trend.

Some of the studies mentioned in the ‘retail workshop’ document refer to the over supply of retail floorspace, pointing out that although Derry has similar retail ‘unit’ vacancy rates to many other Northern Ireland towns and cities, it has a much greater area of retail ‘floorspace’ lying empty.

The Department of Social Development’s “Derry/Londonderry Demand Analyses,” published in 2014, highlighted the issue of ‘need’ and ‘demand.’ It concluded that with ‘occupation rates’ in the city being so low, the demand for additional retail floorspace was “not there.”

Oddly enough, the report attributed the high levels of vacancies to national retailers closing down. The reality is that local, long established, independent businesses have fared far worse than their national counterparts.

Since 2014, the following well-known names have disappeared from our city centre streets: Bookworm/Café Artisan, Poundstretcher, LPC Stationery, Celtic Shop, Bishop Street Post Office, Bluebells Florist, Interior Dreams/Castle Furnishings, Maiden Heaven Ice-cream Parlour, Poppy Boutique, Austins Department Store, Peter Whiteman Florist, Sony Electronics, Gormley’s Footwear, Thomas Cook, French Connection, Trip Fashions, Bejewelled, British Heart Foundation, Pauline’s Patch, Shipquay News and Books, Emporia and Thran Maggies.

The list is not exhaustive and does not include local retailers in shopping centres. Some have relocated, but most have closed down.

Charity shops fill some of the voids, but even some of these ‘rates free’ businesses find the going tough on the high street.

A DOE ‘Industrial Monitor’ survey, carried out in 2013 revealed that almost one third of all businesses operating in local industrial estates were non ‘industrial’ and in essence were in breach of planning regulations.

Further evidence of an over-supply of retail floorspace (i.e. there is too much provision relative to the amount of expenditure being generated by consumers) was presented by planning consultants G. L.Hearn at a workshop in the city, prior to the devolution of planning powers to local councils in 2015.

The recent closure of a large B&Q store at Templemore, Primark at Lisnagelvin (impending), the sizeable Toys R Us store (impending) The World Of Furniture and Frankie & Benny’s restaurant, plus concerns over the future of Maplin, in the Crescent Link Retail Park.

The announcement that the Arntz Belting development has been given the “go ahead,” by the council’s Planning Committee, should also be viewed in the context of other major planning approvals, with a large commercial element.

A statement, issued by a council planning officer, supporting the ‘Arntz’ scheme, said that “research undertaken reached the conclusion that there was ‘plenty of scope’ for supermarket development, especially given that two other retail development proposals for the Waterside (Asda on Crescent Link and a large ‘foodstore’ at Rossdowney/Niche Drinks, had expired.

Why have both these major schemes never materialised? Clearly, the promoters have had second thoughts.

To arrest the decline that is evident in our city centre, it is important to start the recovery from within its ‘commercial heart.’

The Walled City area is a natural starting point, because it is so clearly defined. It also happens to be Northern Ireland’s third most popular tourist destination and yet, unlike the Titanic Quarter and The Giant’s Causeway, it has no dedicated management team actively promoting it.

Continued commercial development on the city’s periphery, at the expense of the city’s ‘commercial core,’ will create the dreaded ‘doughnut effect,’ with plenty on the rim and nothing in the middle.

With the 400th anniversary of The Walls coming next year, some serious focus on one of our greatest assets, would at least be a starting point in helping to regenerate our city centre.

The local Development plan 2032 is nearing completion.

Last May it published its preferred options on all the major issues. Paragraph 7 of the document includes sections on “policies to promote and protect city and town centres.”

Rather than opting for a strong focus on existing centres, whilst constraining District Centres and outer arterial routes, council has proposed a ‘softer’ approach or ‘balance.’ It proposes allowing limited development in District/Edge of Town and Out of Town shopping centres. This approach is too vague and gives little comfort to those contemplating serious city centre investment.

However, the news last week that the Garvan O’Doherty Group is to make a £45 million investment in the city centre, which includes an hotel and the restoration of St. Columb’s Hall, is significant and a most welcome vote of confidence.

Mr. O’Doherty believes that “we are on the cusp of Derry’s renaissance,” a sentiment that, hopefully, will be shared by those in positions of influence in our city.

Delivering that new beginning will require courage to believe in our city centre once again. Its re-invention will depend on the council’s Local Development Plan, 2032, keeping a strong and unapologetic focus on the city’s historic centre.