A tale of one city and two regeneration sites

Derry is a frustrated city. Too often promises of improvement either come to nothing, or happen too slowly.

Anyone who doubts this can consider the regeneration of two major development sites – Ebrington and Fort George. One is now partially occupied, the other largely vacant. This is two decades after the fanfare of their transfer from the Ministry of Defence for the benefit of the city.

The former Ebrington Barracks, also known at one time as HMS Sea Eagle, were gifted to the Northern Ireland Executive as part of the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative of May 2002. That is 21 years ago. The other sites handed over alongside Ebrington were Maze/Long Kesh, Crumlin Road Gaol and barracks in Magherafelt and Malone Road in Belfast.

Over the years, there has been a lot of criticism of slow progress at Ebrington. But things speeded up recently, with Ebrington Hotel opening in the summer of this year. There are also bars, cafes and offices that opened around the main square. Major new Grade A offices at the adjacent Ebrington Plaza look as if they are near completion.

However, there has been tension in the last month over the use of Ebrington’s main public space. It appears that no legally binding agreement had been put in place by The Executive Office that clarified arrangements for its use and the potential nuisance to local businesses. This led to The Executive Office making compensation payments of at least £280,000 to businesses. There have been strong criticisms of The Executive Office for its handling of matters.

There is sensitivity as a result of the fall-out, which may explain why neither the Ebrington Hotel nor Ebrington Holdings – which has a role in the future development of the area – responded to requests to discuss the situation for the latest Holywell Conversations podcast.

Heron Brothers, which are the lead developers of the adjacent new Grade A offices which tower over Ebrington, also did not respond to our question of when the offices will be complete and occupied. The Executive Office chose not to speak to us, or provide a comment.

As a result of the row over the use of Ebrington’s public space, a resolution was agreed a few days ago by Derry City and Strabane District Council. This “reaffirms commitment to the transfer of Ebrington from TEO to Council as soon as its practically possible”, with the council’s officials instructed meanwhile to engage with The Executive Office “so Council can provide the management and oversight function of sustainable and cost-effective events at the Square.”

This suggests there may not be a quick resolution to conflicts over future use of the public space, especially as The Executive Office does not appear to have guaranteed that the public space will be available for future events.

Despite these issues, Ebrington has become much more vibrant in recent months, since the opening of the hotel. A further development on the site will be the Derry North Atlantic Museum. This was to have been opened in 2016, but there have been delays in obtaining funding approval. Progress has recently accelerated, construction is to begin “as soon as possible”, says the council, and it is hoped it will open in 2025.

Our latest podcast interviews owners of two businesses located at Ebrington – James Huey of The Walled City Brewery and Paul Nelis of Challenge Curve – who are both very positive about the location.

While there is continued frustration at how slow the regeneration of Ebrington has been, the situation at Fort George is very much worse.

Fort George was transferred under a different arrangement to that of Ebrington. It was handed back by the Ministry of Defence to Londonderry Port and Harbour – now known as Foyle Port – and sold to the Department for Social Development, now known as the Department for Communities, in May 2004 for £12m. So that is 19 years ago.

Regeneration of Fort George was in part delayed by the need to remediate the site because of oil pollution dating from when it was part of a Naval dockyard and also because of the presence of the Japanese knotweed invasive species.

There is just one building so far constructed at Fort George, which is the Catalyst facility for new start and developing technology businesses. It is fully let and a second Catalyst unit is to be built – planning permission has been approved and finance is being arranged.

Back in December 2015, the Department for Communities obtained outline planning permission for mixed use development of Fort George. This led to a tender exercise in 2018, seeking expressions of interest for parts of the site. The Western Health Trust obtained approval for its bid.

The Department told us that Western Trust will use the site for an “integrated primary, community and acute” centre. It will generate 250 new permanent jobs, as well relocating 450 existing posts. The Western Trust added that it is “working to complete” the outline business case, which is needed to move ahead with procurement for construction.

It is unclear why the sale process has taken five years. We submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of correspondence in order to understand this, but our application was rejected on the grounds that it contained thousands of items and was therefore excused from disclosure because of the cost of administration.

Western Trust did disclose another important point. “The Department of Communities is working with other stakeholders to progress the development of the remainder of the Fort George site for development including the planning required for access, internal road and car parking infrastructure all of which will meet both the Western Trust and future stakeholder needs.”

DfC itself explained: “The Department is currently revising the Masterplan to incorporate the proposed Health and Care Centre on the site. In the longer term, the Department intends to market the remainder of the site.”

Western Trust is to occupy a mere 1.7 acres of the total 11 acres. This means that after nearly two decades there remains no clarity on how the majority of the site is to be used. Nor is the road infrastructure in place to support a major development.

The latest Holywell Conversations podcast considers the regeneration of the two sites. It is a complex story, but does help to explain the continuing grievance the residents of Derry have when it comes to decisions taken by government in Northern Ireland.

The podcast is available at the Holywell Trust website.

Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

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