Last week I chaired a key meeting of the Northern Ireland Built Heritage Stakeholders Forum. This is a group of powerful decision-makers who have a major influence on the development of our historic environment.
We investigated how our heritage can best contribute to a better society. We looked at the efforts in Londonderry to realise this goal.
It was clear there are many examples here of how a city can use its built heritage for the benefit of everyone. Londonderry is widely known to have a rich and varied heritage. From its city walls to its shirt factories, much of this heritage is reflected in its historic buildings. Less well-known, however, are the efforts to use this legacy to further economic and social development.
The walls, in particular, are an open stage and, with nearby buildings, will form an important backdrop to the planned events. Their use will also be an important draw.
Liverpool, as 2009 European Capital of Culture, used its historic architecture to great effect in a number of set-piece events and similar potential exists in the Walled City. Liverpool, famously, has a 'cathedral to spare'. Londonderry, with two cathedrals and - counting the historic star fort defences around Ebrington Barracks - two sets of walls, has similar potential and a real chance to win the City of Culture prize. Heritage, and the creative efforts to utilise it, form a vital component of the bid.
Last year, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) invited chief executives of the UK's four heritage agencies to the city to see its work and how the city can utilise its built heritage for the benefit of much wider aims. This work, summarised in a booklet now published on NIEA's website, includes:
Across Northern Ireland, similar approaches are being followed by many groups and these need to be further encouraged.
Tourism is one of our fastest-growing economic sectors and is one which holds out the hope of delivering sustainable, long-term jobs across many skills.
A historic and well-cared-for environment is also key to attracting inward investment. Conserved historic buildings are a source of pride and can help illustrate history and aid community harmony.
The City of Culture bid in Londonderry comes at a good time to build on work already carried out. I believe heritage and the creative efforts to use it form an important part of the city's bid. One of the lessons for me of our discussion of developments in the city is that efforts do not need to be confined to major initiatives to have an impact. Small efforts by community groups and private business have had a very important role to play.
Collectively, the more interesting and well-cared-for our historic buildings and monuments are, the better the payback will be for all in terms of tourism, quality environment and community pride. In Londonderry, there is a momentum behind the celebration of its culture. Its built heritage - fundamental to its character - is a key backdrop and resource. It is a major factor in highlighting this culture to the rest of the UK.
What better example could there be of the importance of our built heritage for our economic, cultural and social development?
I and my department are fully behind the efforts of Londonderry to become the UK Capital of Culture and its efforts to make the most of its built heritage for the benefit of present and future generations.