“Beware the Ides of March”

“Beware the Ides of March” Julius Caesar was told in 44BC, shortly before being (quite literally) stabbed in the back by scheming politicians.  It would seem despite the passing of 2063 years some things don’t change that much….

The point is that politics, whilst sometimes dull, does throw up occasional incidences of high drama and genuine news headlines.  The 24 hour media saturation coverage of Brexit is entirely understandable given its significance, but even Mrs May is now saying that the public have had enough of it.  The effect of such coverage is that it can become exhausting ‘white noise’ and effectively drown out everything else. When we are concentrating on one thing to the exclusion of almost everything else our view of events becomes very myopic, and we lose the ability to stand back and take a good look around at the bigger picture with a proper perspective.

The parallel I am trying to draw here is that we are all naturally drawn to the dramatic or the negative rather than the positive when it comes to news, be it at international, national or local level.  It’s entirely understandable and a natural response.  After all, headlines screaming ‘Everythings OK’ are not going to sell news (and that is certainly not a criticism of the media).

Many of you will be aware of the constant battles that take place to try and get things approved in terms of planning and development in Derby, hampered frequently by what would appear to be the City Council’s lack of clear policy (regardless of who is running the council that week) and a sometimes political resistance to change.  It’s a theme I’ve returned to time and again, and clearly it’s a sensitive one judging by the reaction it provokes, though getting the debate around this out from under the carpet and into the public domain can only be a good thing in my opinion.  The tone of the public conversation is however quite often a negative one, framed against a background of things not being done, rather than what is being accomplished.  Being honest, I would say the general opinion at the moment is one of frustration at the perceived lack of ambition for Derby, limited options for culture and entertainment in the evenings and the inordinate amount of time it takes for development to move forwards.  Sometimes it seems that continental drift moves more quickly.

As with the news I think it is time then to take a step back and get a bit of proper perspective on where Derby is at, look what is happening and see if it really is as bad as we sometimes think….

As mentioned above (and it is worth repeating), both development and redevelopment in Derby is hampered by a lack of clear vision provided by Derby City Council in the form of a Masterplan which gives any direction as to what we want our city to be, and how and when we hope to get there. As such any development is taking place in a ‘void’ rather than a framework, be that development in the public or private sector.  Things are further hampered by a seeming resistance to both acknowledge the problems we face as a city centre economy including challenges to retail (though these are not exclusive to Derby) or to do anything about them in terms of encouraging development.  This is not a critique of the current council per se, as it has been a longstanding issue throughout various administrations, though does I believe go to the heart of many of the difficulties we face in terms of how our city develops.

Against this difficult background, what then has been recently accomplished, and what do we have to look forward to?

Whilst it seems that at the moment we have ‘plateaued’ in terms of development, the reality is slightly different:

Derby’s cultural offering is often criticised, somewhat rightly.  The ongoing fiasco over the Assembly Rooms rebuild/refurbishment has attracted a lot of opinion.   As the Derby Labour Party has confirmed if elected they will not look to redevelop the venue from scratch it is at last looking like we have political consensus for it to re-open, and the fact that we will once again have a city centre performance venue in the heart of Derby is something to be welcomed.  It’s a compromise, but in reality most things are.  Likewise the multi-million pound investment in the Museum of Making at the nearby Silk Mill factory is to be applauded as a great promotion of our World Heritage status.  Both will attract many more people to the City Centre, and it is great they are both located in the Cathedral Quarter.  Nearby, ambitious plans have also been announced to redevelop the market hall to additionally offer food and drink venues as well as performance space.  It’s a neat idea and importantly will be complete after the Assembly Rooms has been refurbished (I believe) which hopefully will act as a feeder for it.  I wait with interest to see how it does, as certainly similar schemes have worked well on the continent in bringing life back to urban areas  for example the foodhallen in a suburb of Amsterdam. http://foodhallen.nl/

In terms of office space, the Cathedral Bridge office development quietly got the approval of planners recently, and as early as this summer work could start on this 34,000 square foot scheme of Grade A offices once more right in the city centre.  It is something that has been lacking for years and will provide a valuable contribution to the day time economy in the independent heart of the city along with the nearby office development of 40,000 sq ft at One Cathedral Green.

Of particular note is the impending start of residential development on two city centre sites: Derby Waterside (formerly Bio House) on Derwent Street which will provide 105 apartments over 13 storeys, and The Landmark on Phoenix Street which will provide 202 apartments over 17 storeys.  The latter is Derby’s first specific scheme in the ‘Build to Rent’ (BTR) sector, whereby high quality serviced apartments are available to rent only whilst being owned and operated by long term investment funds.  BTR is an emerging market, particularly outside of London and major cities.  Because it is new and of significant impact it is treated with suspicion if not hostile resistance by many.  However as of summer 2018 Savills reported there were some 174,000 BTR units in planning or already under construction in the UK.  Furthermore these schemes are now being developed for families not just the young, so indications are this is the start of a sustainable new ‘urban-living’ movement for all ages.

If we add to this the slow-burning plans to redevelop the DRI site (which edges ever closer and will provide an 800 home community), nearby Castleward , hopefully Duckworth Square and the Becketwell area, there is in truth quite a bit going on.

Admittedly, it’s not at the pace I and many others would like. It’s also against a background of what often appears to be resistance to change or lack of proactive approach by successive councils operating without a cohesive plan for the city’s future development across residential, commercial and cultural contexts.  However it is undeniable that we are seeing progress. Members of the Planning Committee recently had the vision to see the benefits BTR could bring to the city and had the resolve to vote against planning officer recommendations and approved The Landmark, and those that did so should be applauded.

What I am particularly encouraged by is approval for higher density schemes like The Landmark, Derby Waterside, Cathedral Green and Bold Lane.  These four buildings will dramatically change the Derby skyline.  Change occurs slowly but come back to Derby in a few short years when they are completed and there will be thousands more people working and living right in the city centre, benefitting from more entertainment venues and places to go, as well as providing a huge boost to the daytime and night time economy.  Whatever personal opinions you may have about the nature of development, it is surely now beyond all reasonable debate that the city centre needs more people in it to sustain its economy.

Around 15 years ago people criticised Derby in much the same way they do now, though back then for its poor retail offering.  With the opening of the Intu Centre and the establishment of the Cathedral Quarter things changed. Hopefully they are about to change again.