Belfast Telegraph

People of the north west have plenty to whinge about

By Eamonn McCann

Derry people are never given credit for not whingeing - even though they have plenty to whinge about. In a report last week The Detail website's data project examined how each of the 11 new council areas is faring in relation to a number of social and economic issues. Derry City and Strabane is at the bottom of the heap on virtually every index of deprivation.

The disparities are wider than could be accounted for by random factors. Relative poverty of these dimensions is clearly structural and won't be eliminated by this or that ameliorative measure. Only radical change of a sort which Stormont has never contemplated will make a real difference.

The attitude of Belfast-centric authorities is that Derry and Strabane should just thole it, as they have been doing for decades.

The Detail journalist Cormac Campbell examined disparities in the 11 new council areas, factoring in employment levels, educational attainment, health outcomes and life expectancy.

One conclusion was that communities which have borne the brunt of inequality since the foundation of the State are still mired in the same position. It goes without saying that these are also the communities which bore the brunt of the Troubles.

This is hardly a new observation. What Campbell has done is produce the figures that allow us to assemble reliable rankings.

Every council area contains rich and poor, stylish housing and dreary estates, some residents glowing with good health, others always ailing. Average figures don't tell all. But they point towards relevant truths.

Lisburn and Castlereagh enjoys the lowest unemployment figures, the highest median earnings and the highest male life expectancy in the north. Derry and Strabane has the highest unemployment, the lowest wages, the deepest poverty and lowest male life expectancy.

There's no sign of any of this changing. Capital attracts capital. Different levels of investment will ensure that the gap remains wide.

Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy has faced a barrage of brickbats on the overrun from £20m to £40m and then to £46m for completion of Phase 2 of the upgrade of the Coleraine to Derry rail line.

But there has been a remarkably muted reaction to the fiasco at the Department of Education, which has seen the cost of schools built under private finance rocketing from £374m to £1.5bn. Enough of an overrun to renew the line entirely and expand the network through Tyrone and on to Dublin and still have enough change to hire a couple of hundred nurses.

The upgrade of the Derry line had been promised repeatedly for decades. Sure, somebody, or some aspect of the tendering system, was to blame for the overrun. But there is no evidence of misappropriation. The DRD could find the money from within its own budget, anyway, by switching a tiny sliver of roads' spending to rail. It's well overdue.

The past decade has seen improvements to the Westlink in Belfast and extensive upgrade of the A1 from Belfast to Newry. The dualling of the A2 to Larne has been completed. But there's still a series of death-traps between Derry and Strabane, while Dungiven chokes every day from the fumes of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Road-building is problematical, not least from an environmental point of view. Roads consultant Wesley Johnston told The Detail that: "We were following a road-building policy called 'predict and provide', which meant that you upgraded roads if you thought the traffic levels were going to justify it in the future." It is nowadays recognised everywhere that this strategy is self-fulfilling. New roads suck in more traffic, "proving" that the need was there.

Leaving the environmental issue aside, it is clear that, in this instance, too, the north west continues to be short-changed.

There are relatively low levels of educational attainment in the area, in spite of Derry youngsters being bright as buttons. Not by coincidence, Derry also has the lowest level of university places per head of population of any city in Ireland. Magee College has 4,000 students. Galway has 17,000, 2,000 from 92 other countries. You can sense the vibrancy as soon as you step into the town.

It is not whingeing to ask: why not Derry? The Detail report should be required reading for everyone involved in policy formation or implementation. It might need more than that to bring a bit of balance. But at least the elements behind the persistent poor economic performance of the Derry and Strabane area wouldn't be able to plead ignorance.

Belfast Telegraph

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