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13 August 2009 Edition

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Derry City's Strategy Board

A challenging vehicle for progress


ONE of my privileges as an MLA is to sit on the Strategy Board which is responsible for taking forward the regeneration of Derry.
I regard it as a huge honour to have been given the opportunity to play a role in this process and I am greatly encouraged by the recent progress which has been made.
Recently, some 300 people from all walks of life in this city came together at Magee University to move this process onto the next level. They have formed working groups tasked with delivering proposals which will inform the overarching regeneration plan for the city.
And no one who was at that event was left in any doubt about the extent of the task we all face.
A great deal of research has already taken place into the levels of the problems that confronts us. The data presented to those in attendance painted a shocking – and quite frankly scandalous – picture of Derry.
The working groups heard how people living in the Brandywell and Creggan Central areas of Derry are TWICE as likely to die prematurely as those who live in other more affluent areas of the city.
They heard how 20,000 people in this city have no academic qualifications whatsoever. They heard how 28,000 people are economically inactive. They heard how we have the worst unemployment rate in the North and how almost half of Derry’s population is living in deprived areas.
Those are only a few examples of the glaring inequalities which persist in this city but they demonstrate in no uncertain terms what we have to redress in this regeneration process. The benefits of economic regeneration must be felt in those disadvantaged communities. The measures we take must be targeted in such a way that they redress these inequalities.
We could build all the skyscrapers we like but unless we build a better future for ALL our children, we will have failed another generation.
It is for that reason that I have made regeneration one of my priorities during my tenure as an MLA and I will do everything possible within my power to progress that process.
And there are grounds for optimism. For the first time ever, all the various agencies and stakeholders have come together under one process to deliver a joined-up strategic approach to regeneration. In the Fort George and Ebrington sites, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We must get it right.
We must deliver a post-conflict regeneration process that is bigger and better than anything that has gone before.

Undoubtedly, in general terms, things have moved on since the onset of the Peace Process, which has encouraged developmental opportunities, including the gradual revival of the regional economy.  However, as the statistical evidence confirms, those living in the areas facing greatest deprivation have not actually benefited from this economic revival. 
While evidence of new prosperity can be seen in places like central Belfast and in some areas of Derry, in most areas there has been little evidence of an improved standard in the living conditions of the people. These areas were, and remain, the poorest parts of the North. 
In other words, the peace dividend has clearly not delivered socio-economic benefits for those who are most in need. If anything, they are worse off in socio-economic terms.
The rebuilding of lives and the regeneration of communities emerging from conflict is crucial if we are to prevent further serious social regression.  Conflict resolution must include post-conflict reconstruction and this requires serious and sustained investment rather than the drip-feed of community funding that we have become used to.

Successive Government strategies supposedly aimed at reducing poverty and regenerating our communities have promised much on paper but have delivered little in practice.
The current conventional wisdom is that the economic recession means there isn’t the money available for this kind of investment.  However, even during the so-called ‘economic good times’ we were told the same thing.  Indeed, Westminster had billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to spend when it came to bailing out failed banks who are now hoarding the new money generated at the expense of the taxpayers in their vaults rather than lending it to those manufacturers and SMEs who really need the money to keep production going and generate employment. But that is another story
Today, as always, there are colossal amounts of money to spend on wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Even now the British Government is preparing to spend £25 billion on its Trident nuclear missile system that they admit will probably never be used. Why, then, we must ask, is there always plenty of money for war but not enough to consolidate a hard-won peace?
We must pay careful attention to what is happening in other countries emerging from conflict.
In South Africa, for example, despite the ending of the apartheid regime, severe poverty and destitution have remained constant.  Research indicates an average rate of poverty for black people 7.5 times as high as that of whites. Many communities remain disempowered and alienated with large segments of the population seeing their new government as having failed them.
The failure by the government there to effectively address the atrocious levels of poverty is contributing to serious social discontent and dangerous crime levels.  Ongoing inequality has had a negative impact on South Africa’s ability to effectively deal with the past, therefore impeding progress towards the rebuilding of the nation as a whole.
While we must acknowledge that the situation in South Africa is not directly comparable with here, it contains certain parallels that should not be ignored. Poverty and deprivation generates discontent and alienation leading to an increase in anti-community activity, drug and alcohol abuse and a reduction in economic activity. In other words, addressing the causes of poverty and deprivation is a win-win situation for all of society. 
It is clear that the resolution of the deep-seated socio-economic problems afflicting disadvantaged urban areas in our own society requires a much more serious and focused level of state intervention, financial investment, planning and support than what is currently on offer.
It is also crucial that community participation is placed at the centre of the process.  Without this type of intervention the community sector is extremely limited in what it can achieve. The promise of the peace agreement was that the voices of those who had been excluded would now be heard and become part of decision-making processes that will affect their lives.

Speakers at the regeneration good practice seminar in November showed us lessons from other regeneration projects where beautiful buildings and many jobs were created but there was absolutely no change in access to employment or patterns of disadvantage in local communities – we have had enough of shiny documents, promises and buildings.
We need to get it right and learn the lessons from other regeneration projects where deadlines were used to define progress and push decisions through without due regard to outcome, benefiting only those already in the ‘Golden Circle’ rather than take the time and energy needed to ensure that they would beneficially change living conditions for the local population including the most excluded. That is the real lesson to be learned.
The effective resolution of our conflict and its legacies is inextricably linked with the creation of a prosperous and harmonious society based on principles of equality and social justice.  An essential element in this process must be the development of a coherent, sustainable approach to the reconstruction of communities that for decades were routinely punished and starved of resources by the state.
By investing in this type of reconstruction strategy now it should not be perceived as a cost incurred but rather as a democratic obligation and a sound investment for the future. This is the definition of progress that makes sense economically, socially and politically – we need to make sure that is the definition of progress and that we are sure it is going in the right direction.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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