UK City of Culture is a success but what does “success” mean? Greater transparency is needed

What is UK City of Culture delivering for Londonderry and Derry for the rest of us?  My fitful browsing and searches in journalism and the written public record doesn’t tell us much. No doubt there’s a buzz about the place with the opening of Ebrington Square and the Peace Bridge. You only need the evidence of your own eyes to see that tourism has become a major  – the major? – source of investment. They are squeezing every last ounce of value out of the remote and the recent pasts. Purists eat your heart out and celebrate Nessie’s visit with the Return of Colmcille. If proof were needed, the Radio 1 Big Weekend showed that Derry kids are (phew!) like kids everywhere. Insurgency thank God has not entered the genes. Amazingly, droves of foreigners – how many they don’t yet know  –  are attracted by holidays with a hint of an edge and a break from all that hot weather they have to put up with at home.

But if an analysis has been done it’s being kept well hidden. “The Lonely Planet named Derry-Londonderry the fourth best place to visit in the world in 2013.” Amazing and gratifying if true but why are hard figures so apparently hard to get? I did find this quite touching puff in the website of the Washington embassy from a young staffer with Derry connections but you could hardly call it information.

Follow up marketing strategies can’t depend on hype and optimism alone and the public are entitled to real information. I was also looking for information about the development programme that the Year is showcasing, called the One Plan. At last I found a report on both in the record of the Assembly.

Sharon O’Connor Derry City Council’s chief executive followed by  Shona McCarthy the CE of the Culture company gave very upbeat assessments to the Assembly’s Social Development Committee a couple of weeks ago – ignored as far as I can make out, in the texts of  the traditional media.

The Londonderry Chamber of Commerce has told us that about 39 new businesses have started.  We reckon that about £120 million worth of capital investment has accrued from the City of Culture project, and the psychological boost to the city and the region is, I think, beyond price.  It has been really exceptional.  So, you find a city transformed by the project.

The evidence from other capitals and cities of culture is that the economic benefits do not accrue during the year but in successive years.  So, you are building for the future and making an investment for tomorrow.

Shona McCarthy chief executive of the culture company spoke about the social development connected to the Year.

We have been working with neighbourhood renewal partnerships across the city and, through partnership with them, have managed to distribute some £300,000 to community projects.  We are also working with the Rural Area Partnership in Derry (RAPID) so that we are also covering the rural areas.

The Portrait of a City project is, I think, a very exciting and new model for targeting social need in the city.  It is probably the most ambitious and biggest community participation project in an effort to create a collective audio visual heritage that has ever been attempted in one place.

We have worked with the Big Lottery Fund, which has given out some 50 grants to different community groups.  The Big Lottery programme has been open to organisations across Northern Ireland but is tied into the themes of the City of Culture.  There is some £1·53 million in that Big Lottery funding.

The Music Promise is probably one of our biggest success stories… We have worked with Link Music, the neighbourhood partnerships and the Nerve Centre, and that project is now reaching 450 young people a week.  Last week, we saw a performance from a young band comprising young people who, until six weeks ago, had never lifted a musical instrument but were able to stand up in public and perform.

Through the funding for the community projects and ideas that we deliver through the What’s the Big Idea? programme, we have managed to give out over £600,000 for community-based initiatives for community organisations to deliver their own bespoke City of Culture projects.

I am relieved, I suppose, to be at the point where we are already at over 60% of our targets on ticket sales, still only five months into the year.  So, the signs are positive.  I am not saying that everything is rosy, but we know that the programme will now be delivered and that there is no threat whatsoever to the delivery of the full programme and the full benefits for the city and the region.

The Chairperson: So, the £598,000 programming shortfall at the end of April is now covered in its entirety by the council?

Ms O’Connor: A council underwrite is in place, and, as Shona said, the Culture Company is continuing to raise funds.  It is a steady situation, because the programme is copper-fastened and will happen.

“Unforeseen costs” for the first ever Fleadh Cheoil north of the border to be held in August  include  the cost of extra security  and an accident and emergency unit in the centre of the city, estimated at about half a million. This will come apparently from a DCal reserve

Added Ms O’Connor: Various numbers are quoted for the output, but it is certainly in the many tens of thousands — upwards of €30 million in revenues is derived from the hosting of the all-Ireland fleadh.  In that context, something less than £500,000 is a good investment to accrue that sort of commercial benefit for the city as a whole.

Much of the Year has been about Derry looking at itself, to the fascination of its people and outsiders. The only recent assessment I can find is by the Guardian’s Owen Hatherley an outsider looking in perhaps for the first time at what the Derry experience has meant to local and foreign artists.

The Assembly committee members reflected some grumbling about  a lack of “ inclusivity” i.e. that unionism was being downgraded  or sidelined.  The Maiden City Festival   was not in the brochure (although linked to it in its website). A apologies for “ omission rather than commission” were offered and accepted.

Dave O’Brien a cultural studies academic in City University offered this view in advance of the Year.

The experience for Derry may, in actual fact, be to discover success comes in forms that are hard to capture through metrics like tourist spending, visitor numbers or media column inches and also moves beyond the aesthetic experiences associated with cultural consumption…

The benefit to Derry may well be found in the partnerships created and the cooperation engendered, rather than just the figures for visitor numbers and tourist spend, or indeed the cultural experiences that will certainly bring to life the sense of wonder and joy the 2013 programme aims to create.

That indeed would be a welcome return on the investment and out of sight better than spending on high security. All the same it would nice to know what’s happening with that £130 million.


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

  • mylesgee

    “The Londonderry Chamber of Commerce has told us that about 39 new businesses have started….”
    How many full-time jobs to Derry does that actually represent?

  • The Raven

    And yet…and yet…and yet.

    I’ve enjoyed many of the events and activities so far. Let me repeat that, before anyone kicks back: I’ve enjoyed loads of gigs and events over the past six months. But not very many of our countrymen from outside the city have been keen or indeed encouraged to join in. I know – I’ve asked them to come with me. Bought tickets. Couldn’t give them away.

    Lots of outreach at the airports and the overseas offices and online, if you look for it – not much along the north coast. Or even to Belfast? Maybe Derry only needs to market to their own, to Donegal, and a few Spaniards visiting their cousin studying at Magee.

    This has been missed opportunity to strengthen the North West, and bridge some local decades-old gaps in the area. It’s been a big knees-up for Derry and a knees-up is always a good thing. But let us not paint it as anything else, with words like tourism and investment. Not with a place still walled in name and mentality from its wider hinterland.

    Your quote from the academic is where the strength in City of Culture lies. Let’s see Derry reach out now, and be less of a place apart, rather than remain the whinger on the edge – which those outside of the walls recognised as much closer to the truth than some within would have cared to admit.

  • Harry Flashman

    My last visit was in August 2011 and I can only recount my own personal observations, others may see things differently and the scene may have improved in the intervening time.

    First off the good bits; the place looked great. Now admittedly for someone who grew up in Derry in the seventies and eighties I might not have been setting the bar very high but there is no doubt that the old home town scrubs up well. The fine public (and I’ll come back to that) buildings, those which had survived the tender ministrations of the Provos’ bombing campaign that is, had all had facelifts and looked fresh and new.

    The Walls, that dark, dank place, shrouded in barbed wire and steel fencing and fit only for use as a under-age drinking den were transformed and were a stunning revelation. Even the view out on to the Bogside, admittedly on a bright summer’s morning (I still shudder about the place on wet Tuesday nights in November) was a pleasure. Nestling under the beautiful Donegal hills, with its neat nicely painted public housing and carefully pointed murals the Bog looked positively chic and suburban. A tough sell to tourists looking for the authentic urban guerrilla experience I thought.

    The new bridge was a delight, Ebrington looked superb, so all in all 10/10 then I suppose?

    Hmmm, not quite.

    You see, and I stand open to correction, it seemed to me that like all this was been done “for” Derry rather than “by” Derry. It was all public money being spent, or money from outside investors and organisations. There didn’t appear to be any spontaneity from the people of Derry, it was all being done on their behalf and they looked on in mild bemusement as others rushed around sprucing up their city.

    God look to Derry and the Derry wans, they’re a resilient people but maybe the credit crunch just took the final stuffing out of them but there seemed to be few local entrepreurs left to benefit from all this largesse.

    Derry came through the horrors of the Troubles and by the 90’s was getting back on its feet and this was done purely by local people getting up and doing it for themselves as they opened new businesses and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. When I was back I was shocked as I heard the litany of local businesses and businessmen who had gone to the wall.

    Walking around the city centre I was depressed at the number of “For Sale” and “To Let” signs over the shuttered premises of what I had recalled were thriving small, local businesses.

    Off the beaten track it was even worse. Spencer Road, a mile-or-so long thoroughfare, once the heart of the Waterside business district was like a ghost town. Walking along Spencer Road just before 8am (as I did as a schoolchild past bustling little shops and businesses) I could hear my own footsteps echoing as I, like the sole survivor of some nuclear war, desperately looked for a shop open where I could get a paper and “the buns”. Again there seemed more estate agent signs than viable businesses. Again the only bright and fresh premises belonged to government agencies.

    I hope I’m wrong, I hope I just saw the place at a bad time, I hope I am being too hyper-critical but unfortunately I saw very little in the way of green shoots or anything that would lay the foundations of further development post-2013.

  • Imagine that. Resenting people having a bit of fun? We’re all doomed, doomed I tell ye.

  • Harry Flashman

    Good heavens Joe, I don’t resent anyone having fun and especially not the people of Derry where my family still lives. If that’s the impression I gave I mustn’t have expressed myself very well.

    My point is that there is an artificiality about the “rejuvenation”, a top-down approach that seems to imply that Derry people should be recipients but not the originators, that they can’t do this on their own, and that left me wondering what will remain when the carnival moves on?

    I said above that Derry’s rebirth occurred in the 90’s in hindsight I was a bit off. It occurred in the mid-80’s. Putting your finger on where exactly it started and with what would be difficult but certain things stand out. The building of the Tower Museum, Derry City getting back into professional football, John Hume being elected, a nationalist majority on the council, all of these? None of these? Don’t know, but for sure Derry came alive at the end of the 80’s and it was all due to local Derry people doing it themselves.

    For sure central government helped with the Richmond Centre and the Foyle Bridge, but these merely supplemented what Derry people were doing for themselves.

    The feisanna, the football, the Halloween festival, the music scene, the pubs and clubs, the theatre, the new shops and businesses. These were all grassroots Derry innovations initiated by Derry people; artists, musicians, businessmen, sports people and chancers. And they all happened completely under the radar of the great and the good in Whitehall or Dublin 4.

    The change was noticeable indeed Panorama had picked up on it by 1987 with a special edition devoted to Derry’s revival (admittedly marred by the fact that the night it was aired the Provos murdered a 61 year old Derry protestant and booby-trapped his body to kill two policemen, an outrage so vile that it wasn’t equalled till three years later when they booby-trapped a living man and blew him up and six soldiers).

    Now, where is the local content? I don’t see it, it all depends on outside agencies. National Lottery, the BBC, Fleadh Ceoil, Lonely Planet, UK city of culture. Seems like the Derry people can’t do it themselves anymore and I just wonder what will be left over in 2014 when the city of culture has moved on, what things concrete will have been left behind in a city that can barely even support locally owned bakeries or hardware stores.

    I’m sorry if I sound like I am carping, I hope I am proved wrong but it looks to me that we’ve painted the place up nice but left nothing of substance.

  • aquifer

    ‘Greater transparency is needed’

    Depends on whether your specialism is journalism or PR.

    If you are generating hype and excitement for an event, you only have to convince a minority of the available public to attend to have succeeded.

    If a journalist paints an event as a failure based on selected facts, nobody may bother to come.

    Do local journalists colour stories before publishing ever?

  • son of sam

    Aquifer asks “do local journalists colour stories before publishing ever?”.As far as the Derry Journal is concerned,there is certainly a distinct bias towards Sinn Fein ,notwithstanding that the dominant party on the local council is the S D L P and that there are 3 S D L P MLAs to S F’s 2. Sinn Fein have a dedicated journalist on the paper who week by week seems to act as a conduit for the latest press releases and I R A commeration events.There always seems to be room for even the most trivial comment by a S F. Councillor while more often than not S D L P stories are conveniently relegated to one of the inner pages.There seems to be little evidence of any editorial oversight in relation to balance .

  • Harry,

    My comment wasn’t aimed at you but at the naysayers who object to the name.

  • feismother

    I think the omission of the Maiden City Festival from the brochure was more cock-up than conspiracy as the whole thing was full of errors. I’m involved with an annual Arts event which has been running from the early 1980s and our events were misnamed, misdated etc.

    However we’ll still be here in 2014, despite funding difficulties exacerbated by diminishing sponsorship and advertising opportunities. We’re a bunch of dedicated amateurs doing most of it in our own time and following on from the hard work of those who set it up in the first place. It has been very difficult this year to get press coverage for our events because of competition from the Big News stories. However we grew our audiences this year and have every hope this will continue.

    Events such as the Fleadh will be very successful, no doubt, but that would happen without City of Culture input.

    I hope there will be some evidence of “legacy” in the years to come but that it will not be the dreadful Derry~Londonderry thing. Call the city one or the other, I don’t care, but not that trying-to-please-everybody monstrosity.

  • GavBelfast

    What’s wrong with the “Derry~Londonderry” marketing and usage?

    It’s a compromise, and not that much of a mouthful.

    It also offends no one (or should offend no one – anyone that it does offend (I don’t mean you!) clearly just doesn’t ‘get’ compromise.

    I have been away from Northern Ireland for most of this year to date, and will be again, but have enjoyed the events from afar and think the city, especially its location and backdrop, has looked generally great for the bigger outdoor events – a great showcase.

  • Harry,

    I noticed a distinct change in my Derry relatives starting with the disbandment of the gerrymandered council and the elections which ended with a nationalist majority. They seemed more confident than previously after the blows like the new university going to Coleraine. One of my uncles ran and got elected to the Council.

  • Morpheus

    Derry is looking absolutely fantastic at the minute and I have had the please of attending many of the events including the Colmcille event. They were expected about 2k and got over 20k. I can honestly say that it was one of the best free events I have ever attended. The atmosphere was electric and the crowd loved it. If this were an annual event it would bring the tourists into the city in their droves:

    I highly recommend a guided tour of the Walls, a dander down to Guildhall Square, lunch at the American steakhouse diner, a stroll along the water front, across the Peace Bridge, into Ebrington and then into St Columb’s Park. It’s a fantastic day out for all the family, especially if the sun is shining.

  • Harry Flashman

    “I noticed a distinct change in my Derry relatives starting with the disbandment of the gerrymandered council and the elections which ended with a nationalist majority. They seemed more confident than previously after the blows like the new university going to Coleraine.”

    The university-status of Magee (a central government innovation -long overdue- for which I should give credit) came into effect in 1985, so perhaps that is the year along with Derry City’s entry into the FAI that could mark Derry’s original, and for me more genuine, renaissance.

    Other things also helped, including the bringing down of the last of the security gates in 84 and the relaxation in licensing laws in 87 which led to the opening of some of the best pubs, clubs and restaurants in Ireland (although the effects of that on Derry weren’t all sweetness and light).

    There’s no question also that for many Derry protestants the new Derry felt like hostile territory, this wasn’t helped by the Council name-change in 84 and a series of nakedly sectarian murders of Derry protestants during the period in question.

    One protestant friend, with a fine-tuned sense of irony said back in 85 with the building of the phallic “O’ Doherty” fort inside the City Walls, “Ah, so they’ve breached the Maiden at last”.

    For all that Derry was coming into its own by the late 80s and it was mostly achieved at a local level. It is no coincidence that the “Peace Process” started in Derry, the troglodytes of Belfast and other die-hard hold-outs could see the future in Derry if they wanted to achieve it.

    Like I say I hope all this money that’s floating down from on high but which seems to be going into the pockets of a select few and their close friends brings about another Derry renaissance, I hope the few Derry businessmen to have survived the ravages of NAMA and new entrepreneurs can start pulling down the “For Sale” and “To Let” signs. I hope my posts above turn out to be unsubstantiated.

    We’ll see.

  • cynic2

    “What is UK City of Culture delivering for Londonderry and Derry for the rest of us? ”

    …. a large unfunded bill. Anyone want to open a book on the end of year deficit?

  • Gavbelfast[8.14]
    ‘….anyone that it[Derry-Londonderry’] does offend, clearly just doesn’t ‘get’ compromise….’
    I’d recommend you to read the Slugger “Derry Essays’ entry by Gregory Campbell for an example of not getting compromise. It’s littered with -Londons and Londonderrys and shows he’s so brittle he can’t even bend a litlle for fear he might lose votes. I’ve noticed here in the Central |Library there are stacks of brochures for the City of Cuture events left untouched which suggests the locals[I’ve only lived here since ’97] haven’t really got into the spirit of the UK Culture concept and see it as the hobbyhorse of the grweat and good, but are happy to see what it’s done to brighten up their home town.

  • GavBelfast

    You make my point for me ….

  • Starviking


    the Provos murdered a 61 year old Derry protestant and booby-trapped his body to kill two policemen, an outrage so vile that it wasn’t equalled till three years later when they booby-trapped a living man and blew him up and six soldiers

    I know of the Proxy Bombing campaign, but could you provide some more details on the Derry incident? My Google-fu fails me – Google just doesn’t seem to handle Troubles-related searches well.

  • Type in IRA proxy bombing and you will get all of the details.

  • Harry Flashman

    The first incident was in March or April (I haven’t got my copy of Lost Lives to hand) 1987 when a lecturer, Leslie Jarvis if I’m not mistaken, was shot dead in his car in the car park of Magee college, his briefcase was then booby trapped and killed two detectives who arrived on the scene.

    The human bomb incident was in October 1990 when Patsy Gillespie, a civilian caterer at Fort George was tied into his van, which had a bomb placed in it, and he was ordered to drive to Coshquin checkpoint while his wife and children were held at gunpoint in their home.

    The bomb was detonated when the van pulled into the checkpoint, six soldiers were killed in the explosion. It wasn’t until well into the next day that it was discovered that Mr Gillespie was killed too, the only shred of evidence remaining being a tassle of the curtain rope from his front room which had been used to tie him into his driver’s seat.

    Jesus I’m nauseous just writing about this sort of stuff, it brings it all back.

  • Harry,

    Totally agree that it’s nauseating.
    Isn’t it odd that there were no heroic suicide bombers?

  • Starviking

    Thanks for the information Harry, and apologies for any discomfort my request brought to you.

    The Jarvis case also highlights the lack of regard the Provos had for good samaritans. Medical professionals were often the first to respond to, or be called to shootings and bombings. Doubtless they would have been killed by the Jarvis booby-traps if they had had the misfortune to be in the area at the time.

    Those events, coupled with the murders of the Hanna family and the Gibsons, showed there was no depth of depravity the Provos would stoop to achieve their goals.