Derry – the model for the future?

I’ve just returned to London after an ancestral visit which all in all was pretty heartening. I don’t think most people realise the scope and ambition of the regeneration plan for “Derry-Londonderry”. The new brand is now tripping off local tongues so easily that even the name thing may be solved.

The brilliant choreography of receiving the Bloody Sunday report, followed by the winning of the UK City of Culture, 2013, were clear signs of a town determined to discard a ghetto identity. For the first time in my lifetime of 60 years, a new confidence is being born.

Clearing away choking traffic contributes a lot to a change of atmosphere. Children now gambol through the fountains of the new precinct of Guildhall Square and Waterloo Place. The restoration of the walled city, crumbling from long before the Troubles, proceeds apace, led by the shrouded and scaffolded multimillion pound restoration of the leading churches St Columb’s Cathedral and First Derry Presbyterian church.

Shortly, the Mersey Mammoth, a massive barge the size of a football pitch will moor in the Foyle for the construction of the superstructure of the Peace Bridge, to span a river far more gracious than the Lagan, stretching over 600 metres from the embankment at the back of the Guildhall across to the old Ebrington barracks in the Waterside.

This is a focal point for the UK City of Culture and the whole regeneration plan. It is surely the most ambitious “shared space” concept in Northern Ireland. The barracks site centring on the original Victorian star fort is an area the same size as the walled city.

It is intended to match the old city with a new heritage site, encouraging the development of a new shared community. At its heart are to be a new art gallery, a maritime museum, and a genealogical centre created from the listed barracks buildings sited around the former parade ground the size of Trafalgar Square. Social housing and local shops, bars and a bijou hotel are also planned.

Funding for the bridge due to be opened next year is awarded from the EU Peace funds and seems assured. The overall regeneration plan of £200 million may be less so, although championed by FMDFM.

But there are shadows as well as sunshine. There may be more heritage around than Derry can deal with. The publicly funded Ilex regeneration company may rescue lots of the Georgian town but how many of these old buildings are suitable for commercial or residential use?

There’s a limit to the number of moody tapas bars a small city needs. Without going into a panic about it, the latest vandalism of Governor Walker’s statue salvaged from the 1973 destruction of his pillar, is a horrible reminder of the lingering remnants of the Troubles. A cross community fund should be set up to restore it.

Inevitably, the physical heritage – the traditional part of it at any rate –  is dominated by “British”, Planter and even Army legacies. It is both idealistic and self-interested of the nationalist majority to embrace them  warmly. It is also theirs to enjoy. But what most welcome, some still want to destroy. To protect the huge investment, nationalist Derry will have to face down their own wreckers.

Does urban regeneration work? This is the big question now being tested. It’s tempting to be neo-Malthusian about Derry. The population has doubled in my lifetime and is set to grow to 120,000 by 2020. Youth employment is around only 30% in the Creggan and Brandywell and is unlikely to improve any time soon.

Derry has to run very fast to stand still. The economic analysis prepared for Ilex is by its own admission partly  “intuitive” but a concentration on culture and tourism seems a good bet for Derry, as it does for NI as a whole.

There are certainly opportunities for growth which more home holidays in the down turn may actually boost. In 2007 only 149,000 visited the city compared with 883,000 to what we now must call the Causeway coast. Amazingly only 20% came from the Republic. And only 7% of outside visitors came to both ROI and NI. There is room for dramatic improvement here in Derry-Donegal and north Tyrone. Overall though, ambitions are gradualist and probably realistic.

Over the next few years, the construction of the Peace Bridge and progress with UK City of Culture 2013 will produce a flood of positive news without I hope creating euphoria. Regeneration of the community will be an even bigger undertaking. The bridge will bring the city centre to the Waterside.

At best, Protestants have mixed feelings. Will this be seen as a Catholic invasion or community sharing?   The roads favoured by Protestants in the eastern suburbs point away from the old city on the west bank. The main A2 is being dualled, ready to take them even more quickly to the shopping havens of Limavady and Coleraine.

Much remains to be done before both sides feel comfortable with their fellow townsfolk. While the language of regeneration is carefully inspirational and economic, there is I believe, a growing common appreciation of what’s at stake. I hope it surfaces more prominently in the months to come.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London