What does the future hold for the former military site at Ballykelly?

STEVE BRADLEY says development of the decommissioned Shackleton site on the banks of Lough Foyle has the potential to make a huge contribution to the economic wellbeing of Derry City.

Tuesday, 27th April 2021, 12:47 pm
Former Shackleton Barracks at Ballykelly.

Things are finally starting to move on the redevelopment of Derry’s key former military sites. Work has begun on the hotel and the new ‘AMP’ business hub at Ebrington, whilst last month saw images released of the new medical facility proposed for Fort George.

However, there remains one other important former-military base in our area that is often forgotten about, despite being significantly larger than both Ebrington and Fort George combined.

In 2011, the Ministry of Defence handed Ballykelly’s former Shackleton Barracks and Airfield over to the Northern Ireland Executive for free.

The vast 621-acre facility is by-far the largest development site in the north-west – covering the equivalent of 353 football pitches.

After inviting expressions of interest in the site, Stormont sold almost all of it in February 2016 to the family-owned MJM Group in Newry which specialises in the fit-out of cruise ships and yachts. The purchase price agreed was £1million.

So, by any measure, the Ballykelly site was sold cheaply by Stormont – doubtless in expectation that it would lead to significant investment and numerous new jobs for the north-west’s economy.

When MJM was selected as the buyer in 2016, it did indeed appear as if major investment would follow shortly.

Its proposal was to utilise the site’s former airfield to establish a new business for fitting-out private jets.

The creation of 100 jobs was promised from the start, with that figure anticipated to grow to over 1,000. A rail carriage fit-out business was also planned, along with an IT service centre and a 60KW solar farm.

In 2018, MJM announced a dramatic shift in its plans for Ballykelly – seeking to use it as one of four hubs for the £14bn expansion of Heathrow Airport.

Sixty five locations around the UK threw their hat into the ring for consideration as a hub, with five other bidders from Northern Ireland (all council-led proposals, including the likes of Belfast International Airport and the former Michelin factory in Ballymena).

The chosen sites were due to be announced in 2020 with work beginning this year, but a Court of Appeal ruling in February 2020 declared the airport’s expansion a breach of the UK’s climate change obligations.

That was overturned by the UK’s Supreme Court in December 2020, but continuing legal and political wrangling over the project places it under a cloud of uncertainty.

Which may all prove irrelevant anyway, as Covid-19 has decimated the global airline sector and is likely to do so for years to come (Gatwick Airport recently advised its investors that the impact of Covid on passenger demand means that London’s airports will not need additional capacity until at least 2030).

Located at the furthest reaches of the UK, Ballykelly was always going to be a long-shot for securing a Heathrow hub anyway.

Meanwhile, MJM Group’s main area of business - the fitting out of cruise ships – is also in a sector that has been hammered by Covid and could very well face a slow return to its former popularity.

The company does have operations across a number of other commercial sectors, too.

MJM is an ambitious, dynamic and fast-growing business – and precisely the type of organisation that could help to realise the economic and employment potential Shackleton Barracks offers the entire north-west.

At Ballykelly, they have secured land with genuinely unique potential within Northern Ireland, if not the entire island.

No other development site offers a combination of its scale and infrastructure provision – with an airport, seaport and power station on its doorstep, and a railway line running alongside.

Yet, five years after the site was secured, we are yet to see any significant progress there.

There is a huge amount of land still to be redeveloped at Ballykelly and we have very little information on how or when this will happen.

Are Stormont ministers and civil servants keeping a watching brief on this key development site - applying pressure to ensure that its owners live up to the expectations they created for it within a reasonable timescale?

Ballykelly sits just outside the Foyle constituency and the Derry-Strabane Council area.

It is, therefore, easy for it to slip off the radar for politicians and the general public here – as evidenced by the contrasting levels of scrutiny that Fort George and Ebrington face.

A site of the scale and potential of Shackleton Barracks could make a huge direct and indirect contribution to the economic well-being of this city and provide high quality employment for people based here.

It is just too important a regional site for its redevelopment to not be placed under continual public and political scrutiny until it is finally and fully delivered.

○ Steve Bradley is a regeneration consultant from Derry. He can be followed on Twitter at @Bradley_Steve