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01/12/2017

No resting on laurels for planners in NI’s Best Place

Derry/Londonderry has been voted Northern Ireland's Best Place, but continued regeneration could be under threat from Brexit, says Roisin Willmott

In November, Derry/Londonderry was announced as the winner of the RTPI’s Best Places competition for Northern Ireland. Located in the north-west of the province, on the border with the Republic of Ireland, it’s a city with a chequered past: the 16th century plantation, the 1920s partition and the later Troubles have all shaped its physical and social form.

But its prospects changed with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Since then, planners have played their part in reunifying the city through sensitive regeneration that has preserved its historic core while creating new ties between disparate communities.

A new Peace Bridge across the River Foyle has led to regeneration of languishing parts of the city, linking the once run-down Ebrington area – once an army barracks, now a regenerated square – to the redeveloped waterfront and Guildhall area. It has also connected Unionist and Nationalist communities on either side of the Foyle. It’s a symbol of unification as well as an example of positive regeneration.

"The role of planners and planning is to deal with change"

The Best Places award expresses the public’s opinion that the city is successfully addressing its needs through good planning. But it needs to continue to find solutions for its future and adapt to change – especially as the North West is likely to be disproportionately affected by the UK leaving the European Union.

With 46,654 daily traffic movements between Derry/Londonderry and the Republic, it’s clear that there is a high degree of social, economic and political interconnectedness across the border. The city is rightly positioned as a driver for regional growth in the city council’s Preferred Options Paper for its Local Development Plan 2032. Moreover, Northern Ireland’s Regional Development Strategy 2035 and the Republic of Ireland’s emerging National Planning Framework both identify Derry-Letterkenny as the regional growth centre.

But until there is agreement on what form the border will take, planners face difficulties in developing strategies to address the North West’s challenges and opportunities. On both sides of the border, they’re having to make plans without a clear context; work carries on.

Many regeneration projects that helped Derry/Londonderry to win the Best Places competition were funded with EU support. A discussion not yet prominent in the debate over leaving the EU is how to support parts of the UK facing structural issues without European Structural Funds. 

Planners will be challenged to ensure that the city and the wider region continue to deliver for communities. But the role of planners and planning is to deal with change. Winning Northern Ireland’s Best Place will give a positive signal to the teams delivering in the city.

Roisin Willmott FRTPI is the RTPI’s director for Wales and Northern Ireland

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