City's plans must bridge gap between dreams and reality
The new Derry-Londonderry regeneration plan has a proposed budget of £506m for capital projects and £288m for recurrent spending for the period to 2020.
In addition, another £1.3bn is expected to be spent by central government on regional support infrastructure on roads and hospital development. All the main interest groups in the city have signed up to support this extensive plan which is now the responsibility of a city-wide regeneration strategy board, jointly chaired by the mayor Maurice Devenney and Sir Roy McNulty, chair of Ilex.
The plan now goes to the Stormont Executive for endorsement and possible incorporation in the Programme for Government. The city plan is ambitious and offers methods of tackling urban regeneration in a way which has not yet been tried for Belfast.
The document has two co-incidental virtues. First, the plan is primarily a self-help approach relying on local efforts and expertise. Second, the plan explicitly identifies the estimated annual fiscal deficit of the city of £1.5bn pa. and anticipates that reliance on large fiscal transfers can be reduced. One of its strengths might risk being a weakness. If the ambition goes too far ahead of practical possibilities, then the consequence could be a cynical let-down.
The regeneration plan starts with realistic acknowledgement of the weaknesses in the inherited economic, social and environmental features of the city. The evidence confirms higher unemployment, higher economic inactivity rates, lower average household incomes, a workforce that is inadequately prepared for modern skills, too large a dependency on the public sector and a communications network that is below best modern standards. None of these are new discoveries - what is new is an attempt to apply leverage that will secure improvements.
The ambition is that by 2020, there should be nearly 13,000 more jobs in the city area and the improved economic performance will be reflected in £500m extra in gross value added. The possible changes in the industrial structure are forecast and the implications for skills and educational programmes are anticipated.
One aspect of this type of planning process is that, whilst the direction of change can be identified, the rate of change is less certain. Where private sector investment is needed, the preparation for change in terms of skills and infrastructure cannot guarantee a successful result within a set time frame. The plan is aimed at achievements by 2020, but the rate of change makes this an aspirational goal.
A further qualification is that, in the initial years, commitments to deliver the plan must accept there will be several years of preparation. Results in terms of jobs, living standards and investment will be the outcomes of a series of early and cumulative actions.
The plan is built around 11 catalyst programmes, six of which focus directly on economic development and related questions.
There will be little dispute about the ambitions, rather less certainty about their deliverability. Ambitions for a growing digital economy, a faster expansion of tourism and cultural activities, and increased numbers of social enterprises, all depend on diverse inputs. The scale of the capital sought for each is perhaps optimistic.
Further serious planning and negotiation will be needed on two critical issues. First, the £200m capital plan to expand the University of Ulster at Magee, together with an initial 1,000 extra students, has not yet been built into the government plans for the local universities. Second, the proposal for a skills escalation strategy, tackling the scale of current underachievement, is well merited if inadequately articulated and too modestly costed. The balance between these elements is critically important.
In total, the city now has a credible regeneration plan. Much work to deliver the results remains to be done. However, with the architecture in place, the 'builders' must be allowed to get on.