Northern Ireland

Public realm schemes: Works in Northern Ireland cost almost £160m over six years

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionFigures show that almost �160 million has been on public realm schemes in Northern Ireland since the recession

The BBC can reveal that almost £160 million has been spent re-paving Northern Ireland's towns since the economic downturn began.

The figures came from the Department of Social Development and local councils.

The works, known as public realm schemes, often involve installing natural stone paving, new lighting, new benches, bins and trees.

The idea is to get people to spend more by making towns and cities more attractive places.

It is an attempt to change people's psychological impression of a town and the hope is that it has a real-world impact on the economy.

Image caption Highest and lowest figures spent by councils in Northern Ireland on public realm schemes

However, the works in a number of towns have caused a lot of frustration for shoppers and traders by over-running schedules and coming in over budget.

Most of the money has come from the Department of Social Development, but each council has also contributed its own funds.

Some areas have seen a lot more change than others.

The smallest amount was spent in the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council area with a total of £3.7m, followed by Mid Ulster at £7.5m.

At the other end of scale more than £38m has been spent in Belfast, £34m in Derry City and Strabane, and £18.6m in Newry, Mourne and Down.

Image caption Dungannon businessman Stephen McCollum said the town was not friendly to pedestrians

While Mid Ulster contributed the least council money at £191,500, North Down and Ards District Council put in the most at £10.5m.

In the Mid Ulster town of Dungannon, some traders are unhappy with the impact the public realm schemes have had so far.

"I'm very much in favour of public realm schemes but the key thing is planning and I think the planning in phase one in Dungannon has been very difficult," said Stephen McCammon, a businessman in the town.

"We've now got a town that is quite simply not friendly for pedestrians, it does not enable pedestrians to shop the town, particularly Market Square, easily."

Image caption Dungannon is one town centre that has been altered by a public realm scheme

Adrian McCreesh, from Mid Ulster District Council, said phase one of the works scheme had been "an interesting challenge".

He said the council was "taking a professional assessment of the traffic, the parking and all the issues that our traders have highlighted as part of phase one".

"If there's anything we can do to further develop and further enhance the success of phase one, we will do it.

"We will not be found wanting."

Overall, the public realm schemes over the last six years have generated substantial work for the construction trade, but it is not yet clear what the longer-term economic impact will be.

Academic work by the Centre for Cities suggest that public realm schemes are unlikely to have a direct positive economic impact.

Image caption Adrian McCreesh said Mid Ulster District Council will not be found wanting in a bid to enhance the public realm schemes

Prof Henry Overman, from the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, said that small scale projects "are unlikely to have any major effects on the local economy".

"A public realm intervention that is sufficient to cause major change... is likely to be on a large scale and associated with a programme of physical redevelopment: a new train station or residential development, for instance," he said.

David Shivers, who is in charge of public realm works for Ards and North Down Council, disagreed.

The council is just about to complete works in other towns including Donaghadee, Comber, Holywood, and Bangor.

He said their money has been well spent.

"With town centres the way they were, we had to do all we could to reinvigorate them and I think we've started well.

"Developers want to see an increase in spend on the infrastructure of a town before they'll invest so it's crucial," he said.

Whatever their reasons, every council in Northern Ireland is hoping the newly paved path ahead will help propel the economy forward faster.

Related Topics