Investing in Derry and Strabane at a snail’s pace

Could we not do better than a temporary car park at Fort George?
Could we not do better than a temporary car park at Fort George?

Now we know what the City of Culture ‘legacy’ is to be. It’s to be a warm glow. The problem is that the feel good factor will fade quickly and we desperately need ‘bread’ as well as a ‘circus’.

Last week this paper confirmed the widespread suspicion that unemployment figures for Derry and Strabane are dreadful. It made grim reading. “Derry people were again bottom of the pile when it came to people coming off unemployment benefit across the north,” wrote Brendan McDaid.

There were just 153 fewer people on the dole in Derry and Strabane in May this year than there were a year ago. That compares very unfavourably with other areas. In much smaller Coleraine, for instance, there was a drop of 482, in Armagh it was 334 and in Newtownabbey it was 355. In percentage terms that was a drop of just 1.7% in Derry and 2.7% in Strabane compared with the overall figure for the north of 13.3%.

The Journal had requested the figures after Invest Northern Ireland (INI) declared that they had “promoted” over 1,000 jobs in Derry and Strabane in the past year.

An INI spokeswoman explained that “promoted” jobs included those pledged or expected to be created over the coming years.

It’s interesting that it has proved virtually impossible to obtain figures for jobs actually created as distinct from those “promoted”.

It’s ironic that we sometimes hear the expression “Derry whingers”. The fact is that there has hardly been a murmur. Had INI produced such a tiny jobs gain in greater Belfast and a larger gain in Derry we’d have heard more about it.

Meanwhile, urban regeneration company Ilex continues to progress only marginally faster than Darwinian evolution.

In 11 years they’ve delivered a grand concert space at Ebrington, a temporary car-park at Fort George and had something to do with delivery of the Peace Bridge. Actually, the spaces at Ebrington and at Fort George were already there. Eleven years of ‘work’ has allowed the space at Ebrington to be tarted-up while the space at Fort George was allowed to turn into a wilderness before being temporarily surfaced. The scare stories about Japanese Knotweed have been wildly overplayed. It’s invasive but it’s a relatively easy weed to eradicate.

Ilex should have been called Ilexs and then it would be an acronym for Investing in Londonderry Extremely Slowly.

Meanwhile, local man Liam Harkin has raised a timely point about the temporary car park at Ebrington. He understands it’s primarily intended for those using the site but it’s greatly under-used and could be made available for public use during the day. Ilex is, after all, funded from the public purse. Mr Harkin points out that, “there is not a single tenant on the site,” and he asks, “Is there realistically a chance that this car park is going to be required for development any time soon?”

According to Ilex’s Caoimhin Corrigan a new multi-storey car park now being built is also to be reserved for “patrons” of the former army base. Mr Harkin asks, “Given the current tenancy situation, is that too to lie vacant except for the odd occasional event?”

We also recently learned that Ilex has returned substantial funding to Stormont as it couldn’t be spent within the required time frame.

So, the culture year has come and gone and we’re back to change at a snail’s pace.