Derry faces a fresh form of division over development
IT TAKES Martin McCrossan on average just an hour on foot to show first-time visitors to Derry’s city attractions, both the hidden and the historic.From its historic walls to the Bloody Sunday Memorial, McCrossan touches every corner and every chapter in the city’s history as he moves seamlessly from 1613 to the present day. His is a well-rehearsed guide – one that he has been practising for nearly 20 years.
Derry born and bred, McCrossan set up his company, City Tours, in the early 1990s against the backdrop of a faltering peace process. Back then, the handful of visitors who braved the headlines to visit the city heard a very different story.
Now it is a rather more optimistic one, as Derry prepares to become the first UK City of Culture next year. But what McCrossan is unlikely to tell tourists is that he believes his city is once again under attack from invaders – this time developers who are launching the first line of attack against the city centre.
There are currently nine major planning applications lodged with the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland to develop new retail space in the greater Derry area, chiefly outside the centre. All bar one relate to projects that involve new supermarkets. Many of the proposed sites have already secured significant financial support and prospective anchor tenants, including Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury.
Alex Attwood, the North’s Minister for the Environment, has said “complex” planning decisions regarding Derry’s future cannot be taken lightly but he has indicated that a decision on some may not be too far away.
“My aim as Environment Minister is to ensure that Derry city centre is protected, whilst growing jobs and the local economy,” Attwood has said.
But while the Minister’s stance may reassure some, there is increasing anxiety about what this level of proposed development might mean for the city and its existing businesses. It has caused tensions in Derry’s close-knit business community, with some of its largest retailers backing one development over another.
McCrossan, who is also chairman of Derry/Londonderry City Centre Traders Forum, believes more out-of-town retail development is the last thing the “struggling” city centre needs.
He believes the focus should be on locating new retail investment within the city centre not creating rival locations which will take trade, business and jobs from the heart of the city.
“The city centre is under threat from these proposed hypermarkets – even if two of these nine retail applications are passed it is two too many.
“There is no industry in Derry, there have been no new jobs created, so who or what is going to sustain these new supermarkets? This is just about displacing jobs. It is just moving packets of cornflakes around,” McCrossan says.
The forum highlights the example of how successful the Irish chain Primark has been since it opted to locate in the city centre rather than an out-of-town shopping centre.
Primark opened a 33,000sq ft store in the former Rialto Theatre which the group is more than happy with.
The forum argues that this is where the future of the city centre lies. It is urging the Minister to encourage developers to embrace opportunities in the city centre and to reject all the proposed out- of-town retail developments.
But Declan Hasson from Austins department store, a landmark retailer in Derry since 1830, believes all stakeholders in the city need to look at the bigger picture.
“Derry needs jobs. We are opposed to out-of-town shopping centres but we are not opposed to regeneration schemes that could bring new investment to the city and create an economic legacy.
“We have publicly come out to back one of the proposed developments – GSB Guernsey Trading/GML (NI) and Crescent Link – because we believe it is a well-balanced project that will deliver sustainable jobs; it is not all about food retail,” Hasson said.
His views are in direct conflict with the forum and whatever decision the Minister arrives at, it is a guarantee that some stakeholders will not be happy with it.