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Our new city centre in Derry: We need to be radical and bold

Derry News business columnist, local entrepreneur John McGowan, says the coronavirus pandemic has created opportunities to reimagine the heart of the city

Our new city centre in Derry: We need to be radical and bold

Tourism is a key part of the future of Derry's city centre.

City centres across Ireland have been battling for survival for decades. The first threat came in the rise of out of town shopping centres.

I can remember the campaigns fought against them in Derry by local city centre retailers who argued it would 'suck the life' out of the city centre.

This battle to stop planning being granted for out of town centres was largely lost and we only have to look at Crescent Link to see the impact its had on retail footfall in the city centre.

Then we had the advent of online retail which began nibbling at retail sales about 20 years ago.

This nibble has now become a feast.

Prior to Covid-19, online retail was certainly taking a big chunk out of disposable income.

For anyone under 30 purchasing online from eBay/Amazon and using PayPal was as normal as 'going up the town'.

Buying clothes, electronics, games etc on your phone for younger people was the norm rather than the exception.

With Covid-19, however, online retail has reached into every age group.

With shops closed and fear of infection particularly amongst older people the rush online has been music to the ears of companies like Amazon. 

For Derry city, the problem is amplified.

Derry suffers from having an already difficult retail situation.

We have the highest level of welfare dependency in the North and still rank the highest in any UK deprivation statistics.

We also have the highest level of unemployment in the 11 council areas.

This in turn means less disposable income for the local population so retailers have to compete for a smaller amount of money available.

Our city centre is beautiful but it really needs huge investment made.

Carlisle Road (below) has a few vacant sites and a number of vacant shops and really could benefit from some redevelopment.

There is a plethora of charity and pound shops which provide valuable employment and services to the most vulnerable but they also tell a story about our city and its spending power.

And when you see a landmark building like the Austin’s Building boarded up and the old Poundstretchers site on Bishop Street still not developed, it really doesn't bode well.

And let's not even talk about the view from the Peace Bridge into Foyle Street which shows buildings with weeds growing out the windows.

I could go on, but the city centre has been on a slow decline for the last 20 years and the financial crisis of 2007 has really accelerated it.

If there is not urgent action taken now and led by Derry and Strabane District Council, we might not have a city centre in 2030.

So how do we reimagine our city centre?

Well one thing for sure is the recent announcement by DCSDC that a shortfall in their budget might have to be met with a 2-year double digits rates increase is not the answer.

Such a move, in my opinion, would completely kill business owners operating in the city centre.

And remember having a vibrant city centre is what drives tourism.

It also drives student numbers. Students and tourists will only come to Derry is it is vibrant and safe.

If we allow it to die then we kill tourism. We have to be very careful of what we do in the next 10 years.

So, what could a post Covid-19 Derry city centre look like?

For starters, I think we definitely need more outside space offered to shops and retailers.

The whole vibe seems to be 'al fresco' which is driven mainly by the belief that it's harder to catch the virus outside.

It also helps solve the capacity issue for many pubs/restaurants etc.

Of course, in continental Europe it rains a lot less but in Holland it rains 160 days a year and they have a lot more outside space use than us.

I've been to Liverpool (below) a few times and they have as much rain as us but definitely more outside space.

I just hope council don't charge rates for this space.

If we want people back to work and businesses generating profits to afford rates, we shouldn't overload their rates bills.

I would also seriously look at taking traffic out of the city centre and creating a huge pedestrian zone from the top of Bishop Street straight down to the River Foyle.

I would also pedestrianize from the bottom of Carlisle Road right up and including the whole of the Walled City.
I would allow a bike lane.

Post Covid-19, people will want physical distance and what better way to do it than take traffic out all together from the city centre.

Data from Living Streets suggests where the pedestrian experience has been improved, footfall has increased between 20 and 35%.

Bear in mind there has been a 22% decline in footfall on the high street across the UK between 2007 and 2017.

In Leicester for example, shop vacancy rates were five times higher on streets with higher levels of traffic and turnover in pedestrianised areas generally outperforms non pedestrian areas (Wiggins 1993). 

Bear in mind that a report done by Sustrans titled ‘Bike Life 2019’ found that 75% of residents living in 12 UK cities (including Belfast) were keen to see more space made available on their high streets for people socialising cycling and walking.

This was before Covid-19 and I would guess the 75% in now higher. 

Council/government really need to look at the whole business rates issue and attempt to rebalance it.

Some work is already being done on this and I know the Minister for Finance Connor Murphy is looking to launch something soon.

Derry, however, should look at a scheme to encourage new businesses to take up space which includes a 'rates free' period.

We need to encourage new businesses to locate into the city centre. 

Ebrington is another exciting addition to the solution.

We can expand the city centre across into Ebrington where there is plenty of outside space.

We should also utilise the Guildhall Square on a permanent basis and it's a perfect link to Ebrington.

We really need to imagine a new city centre with many uses.

We need to also develop more markets across the city.

Markets bring football and offer small producers a change to sell their products. 

Covid offers many opportunities as well as challenges.

During lockdown we saw a huge increase in the number of people working from home and living locally.

It's likely that there will be less commuting to larger towns and cities so people will be spending more time in their immediate local area.

It's up to us now to design a new city centre which meets the needs of people.

The new high street/city centre can't only be about retail.

To think this way would be to ignore the clear trends in consumer behaviour and online retail.

Sustans, an organisation which has researched this widely, said in a recent report: "Re-establishing the role of the high streets as a hub for social connection and reinforcing and celebrating its roots and unique character could go a long way to encourage people to stay local and spend their money where they live".

I would go further than that and suggest it could also attract the visitors and students Derry needs to become the vibrant city it aspires too.

We need to reimagine our city centre.

We have to repurpose large buildings for new uses and also consider housing provision as well.

Public spaces like the Guildhall Square (below) need remodelling to make more room for meeting, eating and retail.

All of this might mean changing rules in relation to the use of public space and licensing arrangements but we really have to change before our city centre dies.

In summary, the current city centre isn't thriving and hasn't for 30 years.

Consumer behaviour, out-of-town retail, online shopping and now Covid-19 have each had an impact.

It's now time to tear the rule book up and imagine the city centre we want for the next 30 years and the reality is that it will be less about retail and more about making them somewhere where people want to be.

It needs to be accessible fun and an exciting development.

Let's hope our council appoint the right experts and design team who can hopefully create and enhance our city centre for social and civic use.

If you have a story or want to send a photo or video to us please contact the Derry Now editorial team on 028 7129 6600 for Derry City stories Or 028 7774 3970 for County Derry stories. Or you can email editor@derrynews.net or editor@derrypost.com at any time.


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